Your Guide to Different Types of Protein

If it feels like every health and fitness blog, magazine, podcast, and social feed is talking about protein – you’re right! Protein is all the rage and thank goodness for this.

Thanks to research we know that protein is something you, me, your neighbors, my colleagues, and well, everyone needs. Protein used to be the domain of weightlifters, bodybuilders, and elite athletes. 

But not anymore. Ongoing research into whole-body health is putting protein front-and-center as a key nutrient that each of us needs to prioritize. 1*

In fact, most of us overestimate the amount of protein we’re getting and come in far below the recommended values. If you’re an active person, a woman in perimenopause or menopause, or over the age of 65, protein is your key ally in helping you maintain and build muscle while providing critical support to your joints, ligaments, and tendons. 2,3,4,5*

Keep reading to learn what protein is, what it does for you on a daily basis, and the different types of protein. Our goal is to give you everything you need to make an informed decision about protein and your whole-body health. 

What is Protein? 

Protein is an essential macronutrient that your body requires to function. Along with carbohydrates and fat, protein is vital to your everyday health. 1*

The 10,000 plus proteins active in your body are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Your body relies on these amino acids to power critical chemical processes and functions including building and repairing muscles, supporting tendons and ligaments, making hormones, transporting oxygen in your blood, repairing cells, and more. 1, 6*

The body needs 20 types of amino acids to work together to create protein. The body can produce 11 of these amino acids, with the exception of nine essential amino acids. These essential amino acids need to come from the protein you consume. 7*

What Does Protein Do for The Body? 

Perhaps the better way to phrase this is what doesn’t protein do for the body? Yes, protein is that important. 

Protein is essential for almost every aspect of your whole body health. We want to highlight 8 critical functions of protein in your body: 1,8,9,10,11*

  1. Specific proteins known as transport proteins move vitamins, minerals, cholesterol, oxygen, and blood sugar through your bloodstream into, within, and out of cells.
  2. Protein is active in supporting, building, and repairing muscles. Your muscles are made of mostly protein and whenever you exercise, lift a bag of groceries, or walk to the mailbox you break down your muscle fibers – protein helps repair these fibers and if you consume enough protein, can help you gain and maintain muscle mass. Something that is important for all of us – regardless of our age and activ ity level.
  3. The tissues in your body are constantly breaking down, repairing, and growing – and protein is essential to this complex process. Particularly when you’re ill, recovering or preparing for surgery, pregnant, or breastfeeding – tissue turnover increases, elevating your protein requirements.
  4. Specialized proteins function as enzymes, supporting digestion, blood clotting, energy production, and muscle function.
  5. Hormones are chemical messengers, enabling communication between tissues, cells, and organs. Protein and peptide hormones are made from amino acids and have key roles in regulating blood sugar, managing glucose in your liver, triggering tissue and bone growth, metabolism regulation, and kidney function.
  6. Fibrous proteins include elastin, collagen, and keratin. These proteins help give your body structure, flexibility, rigidity, and framework. These proteins are active in your hair, nails, skin, tendons, ligaments, lungs, arteries, bones, and lungs.
  7. The albumin and globulin proteins help regulate fluid balance, ensuring you absorb and retain the correct amounts of water. If your diet is low in protein, your albumin and globulin levels can become too low, eventually triggering swelling or edema.
  8. As part of your adaptive immune system, proteins help the body create the antibodies required to defend against infections, bacteria, and viruses. For example, your surgeon may recommend you increase your protein intake before and after surgery, to help support your immune system, aid in wound healing, and prevent muscle loss.

And this is just scratching the surface of what protein does in your body! As you can see, protein is about more than big biceps and strong legs – it is a critical macronutrient that you need to survive and live a full and healthy life. 

The Different Types of Protein Sources

Not only are there different types of protein in your body, but there are also many different types of protein sources. 

We want to help you understand your protein source options, so you can choose the best types of protein for your lifestyle and nutritional needs. 

Dietary protein is available in meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, grain, nuts, seeds, fruits, dairy, and as a protein powder supplement. And there are two types of protein found in food and supplements complete protein and incomplete protein. 6,12,13,14,15*

  • Complete protein contains all nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine). These are the amino acids the body cannot make and must come from dietary sources. 
    Protein from animal sources such as fish, eggs, poultry, beef, pork, dairy, and whole soy are complete proteins as are some grains including quinoa, buckwheat, hemp, chia seeds, spirulina, and amaranth and some protein powders.
  • Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Now, this does not mean these are sub-par sources of protein – it just means you need to ensur you’re getting your protein from a broad spectrum of food sources. 

Plant-based protein sources such as vegetables, fruit, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are considered incomplete.

Protein is available in whole food format and in supplement format. It can be challenging to get enough protein when you’re on-the-go or have unique nutritional requirements. This is where pro tein powder supplements may help. 

For vegetarians, vegans, and people who are whey or dairy-intolerant, plant-based protein powders that include a variety of protein sources are a beneficial option. 

For example, a plant-based protein powder that includes pea, rice, hemp seed, pumpkin seed, quinoa, and pomegranate protein sources along with a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals can provide a complete protein source. 

There is no right or wrong type of protein. What matters most is choosing the protein types that fit easily into your daily routine. And this may change depending on your activity level, your daily routine, and how much time you have to sit down for a meal. 

How Much Protein Do You Need? 

The amount of protein you need depends on your age, activity level, and life stage. 

Women who are breastfeeding, pregnant, perimenopausal, or menopausal have higher protein requirements. Seniors also have higher protein needs than the general population. 3,4,5*

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults for protein is 0.8 – 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight . 16*

Recent research recommends higher protein intakes for the following people: 17,18,19,20,21*

  • Breastfeeding and pregnant women: 1.7 – 1.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
  • Athletes who want to gain or maintain weight: 1.3 – 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
  • Athletes who want to gain or maintain muscle mass: 1.6 – 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
  • Senior adults: 1.2 – 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
  • Perimenopausal and menopausal women: 2.2 – 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight

Now, we don’t want you to stress about your protein intake. The rule of thumb is to make sure you’re getting protein wi th every meal. 

If you work out, try to have a snack that includes both carbohydrates and protein, such as a protein shake within 1 – 2 hours of exercising. 22*

And if you know you’ll be on the go rushing from school drop-off to work, to school pick-up, to evening activities and groceries, pack some portable protein-forward snacks and meals. Not only will this help prevent a case of the “hangries”, but you’re also giving your body what it needs to power you through the day.

Remember, protein is in because your body needs it. The more variety you have in your diet, the easier it is to meet your protein requirements. Think protein at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and after workouts.*

Consult your healthcare team before making changes to your nutrition, exercise, or supplements. Discuss all supplements, including the vitamins and minerals you take or plan to take, as these may interact differently with underlying health conditions and medication. Always follow the suggested use instructions and read the warnings on the supplement product label before consumption.

References

  1. 10 Science-Backed Reasons to Eat More Protein: Healthline.com (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-reasons-to-eat-more-protein
  2. Are You Getting Enough Protein? Here's What Happens If You Don’t (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.uclahealth.org/news/are-you-getting-enough-protein-heres-what-happens-if-you-dont
  3. Chernoff R. Protein and older adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Dec;23(6 Suppl):627S-630S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2004.10719434. PMID: 15640517. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15640517/
  4. Gregorio L, Brindisi J, Kleppinger A, Sullivan R, Mangano KM, Bihuniak JD, Kenny AM, Kerstetter JE, Insogna KL. Adequate dietary protein is associated with better physical performance among post-menopausal women 60-90 years. J Nutr Health Aging. 2014;18(2):155-60. doi: 10.1007/s12603-013-0391-2. PMID: 24522467; PMCID: PMC4433492. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4433492/
  5. How Much Protein Do Athletes Really Need?: Science For Sport (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.scienceforsport.com/how-much-protein-do-athletes-really-need/
  6. Protein: The Nutrition Source Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/
  7. Amino Acids: Cleveland Clinic (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22243-amino-acids
  8. 9 Important Functions of Protein in Your Body: Healthline.com (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/functions-of-protein
  9. How To Build Muscle With Exercise: MedicalNewsToday (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319151
  10. The Innate and Adaptive Immune Systems: National Library of Medicine (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/
  11. Hirsch KR, Wolfe RR, Ferrando AA. Pre- and Post-Surgical Nutrition for Preservation of Muscle Mass, Strength, and Functionality Following Orthopedic Surgery. Nutrients. 2021 May 15;13(5):1675. doi: 10.3390/nu13051675. PMID: 34063333; PMCID: PMC8156786. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8156786/
  12. Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein - Which is Best? J Sports Sci Med. 2004 Sep 1;3(3):118-30. PMID: 24482589; PMCID: PMC3905294. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
  13. Protein and Amino Acids: National Library of Medicine (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922/
  14. What Are Complete Proteins?: Cleveland Clinic (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://health.clevelandclinic.org/do-i-need-to-worry-about-eating-complete-proteins/
  15. Are ‘Incomplete’ Proteins a Myth?: Healthline.com (Accessed uly 10, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/incomplete-protein
  16. Chernoff R. Protein and older adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Dec;23(6 Suppl):627S-630S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2004.10719434. PMID: 15640517. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15640517/
  17. Rasmussen B, Ennis M, Pencharz P, Ball R, Courtney-martin G, Elango R. Protein Requirements of Healthy Lactating Women Are Higher Than the Current Recommendations. Curr Dev Nutr. 2020 May 29;4(Suppl 2):653. doi: 10.1093/cdn/nzaa049_046. PMCID: PMC7257931. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7257931/
  18. Burke, L. M., Castell, L. M., Casa, D. J., Close, G. L., Costa, R. J. S., Desbrow, B., Halson, S. L., Lis, D. M., Melin, A. K., Peeling, P., Saunders, P. U., Slater, G. J., Sygo, J., Witard, O. C., Bermon, S., & Stellingwerff, T. (2019). International Association of Athletics Federations Consensus Statement 2019: Nutrition for Athletics, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism29(2), 73-84. Retrieved Jul 10, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2019-0065 (Accessed July 10, 2023)
  19. Nutrition Needs for Older Adults: Protein: The National Resource Center on Nutrition & Aging (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/nutrition/Nutrition-Needs_Protein_FINAL-2.18.20_508.pdf
  20. Baum JI, Kim IY, Wolfe RR. Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake? Nutrients. 2016 Jun 8;8(6):359. doi: 10.3390/nu8060359. PMID: 27338461; PMCID: PMC4924200. (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4924200/
  21. Why Women Need to Prioritize Protein: Dr. Stacy Sims (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.drstacysims.com/blog/Why-Women-Need-to-Prioritize-Protein
  22. Post-Workout Nutrition: What to Eat After a Workout: Healthline.com (Accessed July 10, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eat-after-workout

Jenny Perez is an herbal educator, researcher, and writer who has been immersed in the field of nutrition and botanical medicine for more than 20 years. Jenny has created curriculum, content, and educational materials for Quantum Nutrition Labs, Premier Research Labs, the American Botanical Council, and Bastyr University’s Botanical Medicine Department where she was Adjunct Faculty, Herb Garden Manager, and Director of the Holistic Landscape Design certificate program.