Are You Getting Enough Protein?

All the answers to what protein is, how much protein women need, if the type of protein matters, and how to sustain eating protein daily as a healthy habit. 

Protein isn’t just for men, athletes, or bodybuilders. It is equally important for women, if not more important for women as our bodies have the unique capability of bearing a child too.

As a health educator, I can’t just tell you to eat protein daily without making sure you understand the basics: what protein is, why it’s so important, and how much/what kind you need. Finally, I will provide you with 3 steps to make eating enough protein less complicated. Motherhood is complicated enough. 

What is Protein?

Simply, protein is a macronutrient, meaning we need to eat a large amount every single day.

Protein is in every cell of our bodies, and it does a lot of the work too. It’s required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. Does that sound important yet?

A major function of protein, that you hopefully were taught in health class, is building and repairing tissue in the body. One of those tissues is muscle, and muscle:

  • determines our strength, 
  • is a key factor in reducing chronic illness, 
  • helps regulate our metabolism & blood sugar, 
  • reduces inflammation and improves longevity. 

More on the importance of muscle building for women here. 

Why is protein so important?

Most known function: 

  • builds and repairs tissue 

Least known functions, but still very important:

  • breaks down food
  • makes hormones and brain chemicals
  • provides an energy source
  • maintains healthy skin, hair and nails
  • boosts immune system
  • sustains a normal digestive system

What is protein made of? 

Let’s get a little sciencey for a minute.

Protein is made of long chains of amino acids (molecules). When we eat protein, the amino acids in that food then make more protein in the body that do all of the functions listed earlier. 

It was once explained to me like this: think of amino acids as letters in the alphabet. When you take those letters and arrange them differently, you get various words. Those words represent proteins. Each word has a different meaning, and each unique protein has its own function in our bodies!

There are 20 different amino acids that our body needs to function correctly.

Our body can thankfully make 11 of those amino acids with its own material (in most cases), but 9 amino acids are needed through our diet. So, we categorize them as non-essential (11) and essential (9).  

Non-Essential Amino Acids

Again, 11 out of the 20 needed amino acids are made by our body and are therefore called, non-essential. While the name makes them seem unimportant, they are very important in our bodies. It’s just that our body can usually make them with its own material. Stress, pregnancy, and illness are examples of times, some of these are needed in the diet. 

Names of Non-Essential Amino Acids: (for reference if ever listed on a food label)

Alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

Essential Amino Acids

Then 9 out of the 20 needed amino acids are needed in our daily diet because our body cannot make them, and are therefore called essential.

Names of Essential Amino Acids & Functions:

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 

  • Histidine: Histidine helps make a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called histamine. Histamine plays an important role in your body’s immune function, digestion, sleep and sexual function.
  • Isoleucine: Isoleucine is involved with your body’s muscle metabolism and immune function. It also helps your body make hemoglobin and regulate energy.
  • Leucine: Leucine helps your body make protein and growth hormones. It also helps grow and repair muscle tissue, heal wounds and regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Lysine: Lysine is involved in the production of hormones and energy. It’s also important for calcium and immune function.
  • Methionine: Methionine helps with your body’s tissue growth, metabolism and detoxification. Methionine also helps with the absorption of essential minerals, including zinc and selenium.
  • Phenylalanine: Phenylalanine is needed for the production of your brain’s chemical messengers, including dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. It’s also important for the production of other amino acids.
  • Threonine: Threonine plays an important role in collagen and elastin. These proteins provide structure to your skin and connective tissue. They also help with forming blood clots, which help prevent bleeding. Threonine plays an important role in fat metabolism and your immune function, too.
  • Tryptophan: Tryptophan helps maintain your body’s correct nitrogen balance. It also helps make a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called serotonin. Serotonin regulates your mood, appetite and sleep.
  • Valine: Valine is involved in muscle growth, tissue regeneration and making energy.

Take a deep breath. The big science part is over.

Are You Getting Enough Protein?

If you’ve ever done a quick Google search or asked various health experts, the answers you received have most likely varied greatly. 

First, there is no one size fits all amount, but I’ve learned through research, personal experience, and consulting with health experts that women may not be getting enough protein. 

If you follow the government’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein intake, you may fall short. On the contrary, there are symptoms for too much protein too.

A general guideline I personally follow is 1.2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of my body weight. The RDA suggests that 0.8 grams per kilogram. When I discovered I wasn’t consuming enough protein, I experienced brain fog, blood sugar regulation difficulties, hormone imbalance, and I struggled to lose weight and keep it off.

(One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds, so for a woman who weighs 150 pounds, that is about 68.18 kilograms.) If you multiply 68 x 1.2 or 68 x 2.2, it means eating between 80 and 150 grams of protein per day.

Your current state of health, wellness goals, activity level, and age can further help determine the amount of protein to consume. 

*Always consult with a health professional you trust when altering your daily diet. (See GM Disclaimer at the end of this post)

Does the type of protein we eat matter?

Short answer, yes. It’s important that you get high quality protein in your body every day.

Complete Proteins

When a food item has all 9 essential amino acids it is known as a complete protein. (Remember, our body can make the other 11 amino acids from its own material. Phew!) 

When we focus on eating complete protein, we know that our body is getting the building blocks (amino acids) that it needs.  

Complete proteins tend to come from animal products such as beef, poultry, eggs, dairy, pork, and fish. However, whole soy sources (edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso), quinoa, chia seeds, and buckwheat have also been found to have all 9 essential amino acids. 

Incomplete Proteins

Not to be forgotten, are foods that contain some of the essential amino acids, just not all 9 of them in one food item. We call these incomplete proteins

These include most: nuts, seeds, legumes/beans, some vegetables, and even some fruit. These give our bodies some carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals it needs as well. 

You shouldn’t assume that incomplete proteins aren’t as important. However, I have found that animal sources of protein are easier for the body to digest.

Eating Protein Daily- Your New Healthy Habit

I know. It can sound like a lot. Not only should you need to exercise, practice self-care, take care of others, do the laundry, and eat your vegetables–now you need to make sure you’re getting in enough of the right protein. 

As a busy woman and Mom, I want to help make wellness simple. Try these simple steps to make it less complicated…

3 steps to make eating protein simple

STEP #1. Track the amount of protein you eat (without making changes) everyday for 1 week. This will give you an idea of how much you normally eat, and if you are getting in enough or too much protein.

How do you feel? Experiencing brain fog, fatigue, GI Issues, headache, or blood sugar sensitivity?

Are you meeting your wellness goals? It’s common to up protein (as mentioned above) when trying to lose weight.

It may be time to adjust that baseline.

STEP #2. Eat protein at every meal, even snack time. 

Not only will this help you get enough in your diet, but it helps regulate blood sugar levels when you eat a protein with a carbohydrate.

I have read that your body can only process so much protein at one time. Even more reason to spread it out throughout the day.

It’s important to eat protein after a workout. If you’re eating it at every meal or snack time you don’t have to think about it. 

STEP #3. Up the quality of your protein.

Support local and pasture raised farms. Complete proteins should be high in vitamins and minerals too. Animals that eat grass from a sunny pasture, and not grain-feed in containment, have a much higher quality of nutrients.

Buy Organic. Animals that eat grass free from pesticides and produce that are not sprayed with harmful chemicals, can help prevent carcinogens in your body and hormone production.  

Avoid Nitrates. Nitrates on their own are not broken down by stomach acid. Instead, your gut biome can break down nitrate into nitrite, which can cause health complications such as an increased risk of cancer. Nitrate is an inorganic, water-soluble chemical.

Go full fat. When you go with reduced fat foods, you tend to reduce other nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals that were naturally in that food. If you’re worried about consuming too much saturated fats, increase your strength training and lower your serving size. 

GM Disclaimer 

Not medical advice. The information on this website has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease. Always consult a health professional you trust before making changes to your healthy habits. By accessing or using this website, you agree to abide by the Terms and Conditions, Privacy Policy, and Copyright Policy.

Sources

Cleveland Clinic. “Amino Acids.” December 22, 2021. Accessed on September 26, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22243-amino-acids 

Cleveland Clinic. “Do I Need to Worry About Getting in Enough Complete Proteins?” March 12, 2019. Accessed on September 28, 2022. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/do-i-need-to-worry-about-eating-complete-proteins/?_ga=2.160206200.418861652.1664306704-1945829561.1663883626&_gl=1*t1sxal*_ga*MTk0NTgyOTU2MS4xNjYzODgzNjI2*_ga_HWJ092SPKP*MTY2NDMzNDkyMS40LjAuMTY2NDMzNDkyMS4wLjAuMA.. 

Harvard School of Public Health. “Protein.” Accessed on September 27, 2022. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/ 

Hyman, Mark; M.D. “How muscle promotes energy, regulates our metabolism, & prevents disease.” The Doctor’s Farmacy Podcast. 

Lopez MJ, Mohiuddin SS. Biochemistry, Essential Amino Acids. [Updated 2022 Mar 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557845/ 

MedlinePlus. “What are proteins and what do they do?” March 26, 2021. Accessed on September 28, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/howgeneswork/protein/ 

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