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What is protein and why do I need it?

You probably know about the macronutrient protein because of the strong debate over plant or animal based protein sources. Whether you’re getting your protein from meat or other animals products, or looking for a plant-based alternative, let’s dive into why it’s so important and where you can best find it.

Protein are the building blocks of our body! They make up about 18% of our body, and it uses protein to create organs, nerves, muscles, and flesh. In addition to forming our body’s tissues, there are also other important and specialized proteins in our body, such as:

  • Enzymes – act as catalysts for all our biochemical processes
  • Antibodies – fight infection and toxins in the body
  • Hemoglobin – (red blood cells) deliver oxygen around the body
  • Hormones – regulate almost every key function in the body

Protein is built from combinations of 22 different amino acids, ten which are essential (i.e. our body cannot produce them). Amino acids play a critical role in our body like in the production of neurotransmitters, muscles, and hormones, and they are also an important component of making sure our genes are functioning optimally.

Since protein is the building block for our muscles and tissues, you’ve probably heard it linked a lot to fitness. Adequate protein intake is especially important with an active lifestyle to ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to repair and grow stronger after exercise. Adequate protein (along with fat) in your meal will really add to the satiety factor, keeping you fuller, longer.

Where can I get protein from?

Most people think of animal sources when they think of protein. The quality is very important – if you are eating meat, the way the animals were raised and the food that they ate will impact the nutrient portfolio of the meat. So look for organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, free-range or wild sources as much as possible.

Good sources of protein are:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Poultry (i.e. chicken, duck, etc.)
  • Eggs
  • Raw or cultured dairy products (i.e. cheese, yogurt, etc.)
  • Seafood
  • Properly prepared nuts, legumes, and seeds
  • Protein powder*

Some people can find nuts, seeds, and legumes difficult to digest, so proper preparation includes soaking and/or sprouting them to make them much easier on our digestive system.

* Protein powders can be a great source of protein especially for those not eating animal products. However, just take care to always read the ingredient label as these powders are often hiding additives and extra sugar! While I supplement my diet occasionally with protein powder (organic, grass-fed whey protein), I still recommend trying to get your nutrients from unprocessed sources as much as possible.

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The plant vs. animal debate

Most animal sources of protein are considered complete proteins; this means that they have sufficient quantities of all the amino acids needed to support life. They are also the most efficient way in terms of calories to achieve your protein needs.

Plant-based sources of protein do not contain all the needed amino acids and are therefore considered incomplete proteins. However, if you take care in your combination of food, it is possible to get the proper balance. In fact, a lot of ancestral diets have aspects of food combining to create complete proteins, like having peanuts with coconut or grains, or combining beans with corn or rice. Quinoa, a grain-like seed, does contain all essential amino acids. 

If you want a more in-depth explanation on plant vs. animal sources of protein, I would highly recommend giving this article on Sustainable Dish a read.

How much do I need?

Protein should be around 30% of your daily calories (another 30% for fat and 40% from carbohydrates). So if you are consuming around 1800 calories a day, then you would need to aim for 135g of protein (each gram is 4 calories). But of course, like with anything, you need to test things out and see what works best for you!

To give you an idea on how this could breakdown, here are some examples of the amount of protein per serving in a few items:

  • Chicken breast (100g / 3.5oz) – 29.2g of protein
  • Ground beef (113g / 4oz) – 18-24g of protein (depending how lean it is)
  • Egg (1 large) – 6.3g of protein
  • Quinoa (60mL / ¼ cup dry) – 6g of protein
  • Lentils (60mL / ¼ cup dry) – 10g of protein (varies depending on type)
  • Chia seeds (28g / 1 oz) – 4.4g of protein


Still have some lingering protein questions? Just drop me a comment!

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Healthfully Heather

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