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Five Things to Know About Protein

  • Proteins are essential nutrients along with fats and carbohydrates.
  • Every living cell of our body is made of protein.
  • Protein helps maintain healthy skin, hair and nails.
  • About 10,000 different proteins are present in the structure of your body.
  • Protein provides four calories per gram.

What Is Protein?

Protein is one of the three important nutrients (the other two are fats and carbohydrates). A protein molecule is made up of smaller units called amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of any cell in your body.

Types of Protein

There are two types of amino acids: non-essential and essential. Non-essential amino acids can be synthesized by our body from other foods. Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized and so the only way to get them is through food.

Depending on this, dietary protein can be:

  • Complete (or of high biological value). Foods with complete protein provide all of the essential amino acids necessary for the body. Proteins of animal origin tend to be complete.
  • Incomplete (or of low biological value). Foods with incomplete protein provide only a part of all the essential amino acids. Plant derived proteins are incomplete proteins. These incomplete proteins can be combined in the diet to provide all of the essential amino acids. Peanut butter eaten with bread is an example of such a combination.

Why Do I Need Protein?

Your body uses the amino acids contained in the protein you eat to make its own proteins. These proteins perform a variety of important physiological functions while any excess dietary protein is burned as energy or converted to fat.

Our body needs protein for:

  • building organs and tissues such as skin, nails, hair, muscles, ligaments and tendons;
  • transmission of oxygen;
  • making hormones, enzymes, and antibodies (cells that fight infection and disease);
  • regulating the distribution of water and the movement of nutrients in and out of cells;
  • getting energy in case there is not enough carbohydrates and fat;
  • maintaining blood clotting and acid-base balance.

Sources of Protein

Animal sources:

  • meat;
  • poultry;
  • fish;
  • shellfish;
  • dairy products;
  • eggs.

Plant sources:

  • beans and lentils;
  • nuts;
  • grains (breads and cereals).

Plant proteins can be combined to include all of the essential amino acids and form a complete protein. An example of combined plant proteins is milk and wheat cereal.

How to Eat Enough Protein?

  • Eat a mixture of proteins. A nutritionally balanced diet will give you enough protein each day. Eat a variety of foods to get all of the amino acids you need.
  • Read the label. You rarely eat pure protein. It often comes with lots of unhealthy fat. Check the nutritional information on the package to learn what you eat.
  • Cut out fat. If you eat meat, choose the leanest cuts and poultry without skin. These are the protein choices that are the lowest in fat. If you like dairy products, skimmed or low-fat versions are healthier choices. Beans, soy, nuts and whole grains offer protein without much saturated fat and with plenty of healthy fiber.
  • Keep to the norm. The body does not necessarily make more protein of its own when dietary protein is increased. Any surplus protein is burned for energy or turned into fat. A healthy adult requires only about 0.8 g per kilogram of body weight of dietary protein each day. Growing children do need a lot more.


Too much protein may result in:

  • Higher fat and cholesterol intake. Since complete protein comes from mostly animal products, diets high in protein tend to be high in fat and cholesterol. Remember, excess protein can be converted to fat in your body.
  • Osteoporosis. Digesting protein releases acids that the body usually neutralizes with calcium. Eating lots of protein requires lots of calcium which may be diverted away from your bones. Following a high protein diet for a long time could weaken bones and result in osteoporosis.
  • Kidney problems. Kidneys filter the by-products that result from the breakdown of excess protein. These by-products can be toxic. Eating a very high protein diet puts stress on the kidneys because they have to work harder to remove the resulting toxins. Individuals with kidney disease must monitor their protein intake carefully.
  • Allergies. Proteins are often responsible for allergic reactions to certain foods. Many people are allergic to casein, the protein in milk. Others are allergic to gluten, the protein in wheat and other grains. The proteins found in shellfish or other seafoods can also cause allergies.

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