Protein 101

For starters, lets take it back to high school biology class ūüôā

(note: if you don’t like reading the details, scroll down to the “summary” at the very bottom! ūüôā )

Humans are heterotrophs (hetero= different; troph= referring to nutrients)

This means that we cannot manipulate the chemicals inside of us into the nutrients we need for growth and functioning.

i.e. we need to EAT….and we need to eat many DIFFERENT (hetero) nutrients.


On the opposite side of the spectrum there are autotrophs, such as plants (auto= self; troph=nutrients).

They can manipulate chemicals they take in to create most of the nutrients they need. They do not need to “eat” in the sense that we know.


As I was saying….humans are heterotrophs and need to eat to get all the necessary nutrients we need.

But first we need to nail down the definition of a nutrient.

So what is a nutrient? A necessary chemical (that must be consumed for heterotrophs) that an organism needs for health, nourishment, and survival.

There are some different categories of nutrients:

1. macronutrients-macro= large (referring to the chemical structure); nutrient= see above

ex. proteins, lipids, carbohydrates

2. micronutrients- micro=small (referring to the chemical structure); nutrient= see above

ex. vitamins, minerals

3.  phytonutrient- phyto= found primarily in plants; nutrient= see above

ex. lycopene, anthocyanins, flavanoids

This post [obviously] will focus on one of the three macronutrients….protein.

The other two amigos (as mentioned above) are carbohydrates and lipids (fats).  More to come on these in posts to come!

So here we go!

A lot of people think that protein is only essential if you want to have huge muscles. That is not true. A lot of people also think protein is only found in meat. This is also not true.

What IS true is that a lot of people don’t meet their daily protein requirements, which is essential for NUMEROUS reasons.

To first understand protein, we need to understand the basics (I’ll try to make it as basic as possible!).

Protein is made out of building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids contain they key elements of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and most importantly, nitrogen.

There are approximately 22 known amino acids.

These amino acids arrange themselves in many different ways to create millions of different types of proteins.  So, the particular way amino acids are arranged will determine the protein, and ultimately the function within our body.

Our bodies can make about half of these amino acids on our own. These amino acids are known as “non-essential” amino acids. (I personally think the naming is poor, as it implies they are “less important”… this is definitely not the case). To see a list of the non-essential amino acids click here¬†(We can also consume these amino acids in foods).

The other amino acids must be obtained from the foods we eat. These are known as “essential” amino acids…as it is ESSENTIAL for our body to obtain them from an outside source. ¬†To see a list of the essential amino acids, click here.

So how do we get the amino acids that our body cannot make? We eat them!

There are some foods that contain the correct amount of the essential amino acids that our body needs. These foods are called complete proteins. ¬†Examples of complete proteins are most animal products….meat, eggs, fish, shellfish, dairy, and poultry.

There are also foods that are lacking in one, or a few, particular amino acids that are necessary for the body. These foods are called incomplete proteins. Examples of incomplete proteins are non-animal based items such as grains, seeds, beans, veggies, etc.

Fortunately, especially for vegetarians and vegans, you can combine incomplete proteins (non-animal based foods) to create complementary proteins. Complementary proteins contain adequate amounts of the necessary amino acids.

Examples of complementary proteins are:

grains with legumes (ex. pita and hummus)

dairy with seeds (ex. cheese and almonds)

nuts with legumes (ex. walnuts and lentils)

grains with dairy (ex. yogurt and ground flax seed)

legumes with seeds (ex. black beans and ground chia seed)

I am sure you are probably asking (like I did!) “What in the world is the difference between seeds, nuts, legumes, and grains?”

A legume is a plant that grows seed pods (such as lentils, soybeans, peanuts, beans, and peas).

A bean is a seed produced by a particular group of legumes- very broad.

A lentil is a seed produced by a very specific genus and species- the Lens culinaris.  

Grains are the seeds of grasses. Oat and wheat are specific species of grains. Wheat is traditionally milled, and oats are traditionally rolled.

So what is the difference between a legume and a nut?

Not much! Botanically speaking, a legume usually has more than one “seed” in its shell. A nut usually just has one, two max.

So now that the basics of proteins are nailed down, why should you get your recommended daily value?

1. Proteins are the major component of hair, nails, and outer skin layer. This protein is called keratin which is resistant to digestive enzymes (hence cats throwing up hairballs). Proteins help strengthen all of the mentioned components of our body.

2. Your muscles, tissues, bones, and organs are all made up of numerous types of proteins.

3. Proteins are vital for the creation of enzymes (imagine specialized workers in your body that do various, important jobs).

4. Proteins aid in almost every process in the body (to name a few….nervous and immune system, digestion, metabolism, nutrient and oxygen transportation).

5. Proteins play a huge role in the creation of every new cell.

Is too much protein harmful?

Yes. too much of anything is harmful, right? Protein has high levels of nitrogen which can ¬†be harmful to the body. The liver and kidneys (that work hard to filter out waste) work hard to remove excess and could lead to kidney disorders or damage the body’s natural filtration process.

Research has also shown that too much protein could lead to osteoporosis and calcium will be leached out of the bones through urine.

What if I don’t get enough protein?

Unlike fat and carbs, our bodies aren’t very good at storing protein. So if we don’t get enough, our body starts breaking down other things in your body to get the necessary amino acids. ¬†It can also cause skin problems and can make you appear tired and unhealthy. Also, in order for the body to do all of the important functions above, protein is a necessity. Children who are lacking protein have also been shown to have stunted growth.

So how much protein should you be getting each day? 

This depends on your age, size, activity level, and goals. Right now, nutritionists are saying the average person should multiply their weight (in pounds) by ~0.37. So a 150 lb person should be eating¬†approximately¬†55g of protein per day. If you are trying to build muscle, people say you should multiple your weight (in pounds) ~0.5- 1.0, and even 2.0 in extreme cases. ¬†I recommend you take ten minutes out of your day to conduct your own research depending on your age, size, activity level, and goals to find out the right amount for you. There is an interesting blog post¬†here¬†that discusses a person’s journey through muscle building and specific protein amounts.

How much protein is in the foods I eat?

It is pretty easy to find the amount of protein in foods these days with the convenience of the internet. Here is a good starter list.

Click here for a very comprehensive chart from the USDA chart of the EXACT amounts of proteins in pretty much ANY food on this planet.

Here is a shortened version…

and a strictly vegetable chart….

Vegetable (100 grams) Protein (g)
Asparagus 3
Aubergine 1
Beetroot 2
Broccoli 3
Brussel Sprouts 3
Cabbage 1
Carrot 0.5
Cauliflower 3
Celery 0.5
Cucumber 0.5
Fennel 1
Leek 1.6
Lettuce 0.7
Mushrooms 2
Okra 2.4
Onion 0.7
Spring Onion 2
Parsnip 1.5
Peppers 1
Pumpkin 0.5
Radish 0.7
Spinach 2
Swede 0.5
Sweet Corn 2.5
Tomatoes 2
Turnip 0.8
Yam 2

In summary….

1. Protein is ESSENTIAL for your health!!

2. Make sure you are meeting your daily protein requirements.

3. If you are not eating meat, make sure you are creating complementary proteins to get all of the necessary amino acids.

I hope this post helped cleared up some questions for you- I also hope you make an effort to get your daily protein intake!

Cheers and happy evolving!

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