When talking about macronutrients, it’s very common to hear good and bad stuff about carbs and fats. Each of the three macronutrients is equally essential to your body, so how come protein gets the spotlight? Well, that’s because of everything it does for you! But if you hear “protein” and instantly think of muscle building and muscle building only, then we have news for you. While carbs and fat get stored in your body, protein is completely used up, being in charge of many of the vital functions and reactions that are constantly happening in your body at all times, such as metabolism, hormone regulation, and tissue building and repair. The latter is the reason why protein is so popular among active people, particularly in the form of supplements, in order to build muscle and maintain your gains. But we’re here to tell you about all of the different things that protein is great for and give you a few clever ways to increase your daily protein intake, so let’s get started!
Why eating enough protein is important (not only for building muscle)
Protein, which is composed of amino acids, is essentially the building block of muscle and tissue. When it gets broken down, it helps maintain and build your lean body mass, which in turn enhances and speeds up your metabolism, making it a favorite among active people whose goal is muscle growth. But they’re much more than that! Protein is one of the three big macronutrients for a reason: it performs a lot of important tasks in your body in order for you to stay in tip-top shape. These are a few other things that protein does for you:
- Helps your immune system stay strong
The antibodies that are found in your blood that help fight bacteria and viruses are actually protein! They stop them from multiplying, clearing out any infections on the way, and actually learn how to protect you over time from recurring bacteria and viruses in order to respond much quicker every time, helping you develop a certain level of immunity.
- Transports nutrients through your body
Protein is in charge of moving a lot of vital stuff in your body through its different forms, such as hemoglobin, which is the protein that takes the oxygen from your lungs and takes it to your body tissues, and glucose transporters, which carry glucose (sugar) to your cells. They also act as storage for certain substances such as iron and casein.
- Provides structure to your body
The three main proteins that provide rigidness and structure to your body are keratin, elastin, and collagen. You’ve probably heard those names before being mentioned in many skin and hair products because they are the ones in charge of keeping your body well-structured! Collagen is the biggest protein found in your skin, making up about 75-80% of it, and it’s also what gives structure to your tendons, ligaments, and bones. Keratin is also found in your skin as well as your hair and nails, while elastin is found almost everywhere and it’s what gives you elasticity, helping your body tissues return to their original shape after stretching or contracting.
- Helps perform vital biochemical reactions
Many of the processes that are constantly happening in your body are thanks to enzymes, which are proteins in charge of combining with other molecules in order to catalyze certain essential biochemical reactions such as digestion, muscle contraction, and energy production in order for your body to perform optimally.
- Supports weight loss and appetite control
Out of all the macronutrients, protein is the most filling one. This means that, when you eat protein-rich foods, you’re left satisfied for longer, reducing your hunger levels throughout the day. This helps you reduce your portion sizes, and you’re able to wait longer between meals, reducing your sudden cravings in the middle of the day, which is particularly helpful if your goal is losing some body weight!
Protein also helps balance your pH levels as well as your fluids, supports chemical messaging through hormones, and can even act as a source of energy, although carbs and fats are usually much better at that. As you can see, without a decent protein intake, your body wouldn’t be able to perform any of these functions efficiently. And while very active people like bodybuilders need to keep a sharp eye on their protein intake because of its muscle boosting and repairing benefits, other active and not-so-active people also need to pay attention to how much protein they consume if they want to stay healthy, maintain their muscle mass, and stay in overall good shape!
Clever ways to increase your protein intake
Now that you know how important protein is to your body, the next step is getting more of it through your meals! As we previously mentioned, protein is composed of amino acids, but almost half of those amino acids must come from food sources since your body cannot make them on its own - these are known as the nine essential amino acids. So, in order to get these essential amino acids into your system, you need to eat a well-balanced diet that includes high-protein foods. These are a few clever ways to make that happen:
Bake your favorite desserts with protein
If you love your sweets too much to give them up entirely, consider changing up your recipes! Bake your favorite desserts, like cookies, or even pancakes, with an appropriate protein powder. Luckily, many supplement companies have unflavored protein powders which make a great addition for baking! Another way to up the protein in your baking is by using a high-protein flour, like oat flour and almond flour, instead of white flour.
Add more legumes and nuts to your meals
Getting your protein mostly from plant sources is the way to go, and it’s good news for those who don’t eat meat since there are a lot of protein-rich options to choose from! Legumes such as beans and peas are very rich in protein, and there are many types and flavors to choose from, such as lentils, black beans, chickpeas, green peas, soybeans - your choice. Another way to up your protein in meals is by adding nuts, nut butter, or seeds! These are high in protein and can spruce up your meal to make it even more delicious. You can add pecans, slivered almonds, or walnuts to your salads, make a nut butter banana sandwich with whole-grain bread, add chia seeds or flax seeds to your smoothies or use as a topping for Greek yogurt (which is also high in protein)!
Go for Ezekiel bread instead
If you love having avocado toast for breakfast or having a midday toast topped with nut butter and a banana, then consider swapping your usual bread for Ezekiel bread! This is a sprouted bread made from whole grains and legumes, which gives it a whopping 4 grams of protein per slice! There are other breads that are meant to be high protein, but Ezekiel has the advantage of being richer in healthy nutrients and fiber.
Add a baked potato to your dinner
Potatoes are sometimes seen as an enemy because of their high carb content. Although they are, they have other important nutrients, including protein. A regular ol’ russet potato has 8 grams of protein per spud! Bake it, and add it as a protein and carb-rich side to your dinner. Just avoid topping it with too many unhealthy toppings, keep it simple. Instead of adding cheese and sour cream, consider adding nutritional yeast - also rich in protein!
Choose varieties with higher protein content
We all have our favorite foods, and sometimes letting go of them to make room for more nutritious alternatives can be very difficult, especially if you eat that food almost every day. So a great compromise is choosing protein-rich varieties of those foods! A great example of this is pasta. Although regular pasta does contain protein, it’s also loaded with carbs, and there are many varieties that you can choose from that are way better options for your protein diet. There’s lentil pasta which contains double the amount of protein as regular pasta, and just as delicious! There’s also chickpea pasta and other varieties with a higher protein content.
Pick protein-rich veggies
Vegetables are an essential part of a healthy and nutritious diet, but some of them contain more protein than others, so try prioritizing them in your meals! Some of the most popular vegetables are carrots, onions, and peppers, and even though they’re perfectly healthy for you and provide you with essential nutrients, they’re very low in protein. You don’t have to exclude these veggies from your diet, but try to make space for more protein-rich veggies such as edamame, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower! You can make a delicious sautéed or steamed dish with all of these delicious veggies for lunch or dinner and enjoy their protein benefits. And while vegetables are not a complete protein on their own, mixing them up will help you “complete” your proteins in order to get the most out of your meals!
Stock up on eggs
Eggs are basically a powerhouse of nutrition since they are a complete protein, meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids that your body needs to stay healthy, and they’re high in electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. On top of that, they also contain choline, which is a nutrient in charge of supporting metabolism and fat transport, helping you metabolize fat more efficiently. This is why you always see them recommended as one of the healthiest foods to eat! If you’re looking to increase your protein intake, make sure to stock up on eggs to add to your breakfasts, whether it’s scrambled, sunny-side up, or in an omelet. Hard-boiled eggs are also a very popular snack! You can top it with some seeds, mashed avocado, hummus, spices, your choice! And while we’re on the topic of delicious snacks...
Choose protein-rich snacks
One of the best ways of sneaking protein into your diet is in the form of snacks! We all enjoy a good snack because it feels like a break from our regular foods and we get to tackle our cravings, but a snack can be as nutritious as your breakfast or lunch - so try to make sure that your next snack is loaded with protein! Before you grab a protein bar, consider other more nutrient-dense options. Like yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt, which can contain up to 20 grams of protein per serving, along with calcium and probiotics that are great for your gut and bone health. Yogurt can also help preserve lean muscle mass, which keeps your metabolism high and effective. You can mix it up with some berries or bananas to give it an extra boost of protein! But try to stay away from artificially flavored yogurts, since they often contain tons of additives and added sugars that you definitely don’t want in your body. Need more ideas? Check out more of our favorite high-protein snacks!
Consider no-cook options
Getting enough protein in could be a little bit demanding when it comes to cooking, but it doesn’t have to be like that all the time. Buying food that’s ready to eat from the start will save you a lot of time, and it will push you to add them to your meals since you only need to open them and put them on your plate. Some great options for this are store-bought hummus, cottage cheese, beef jerky, and other dry meats! But be careful with anything that’s canned since it may contain added sugars and salt to enhance the flavor, so make sure to check the ingredients!
Try adding some protein powder
Did you think that protein powders are only for your workouts? Try again! Even though protein shakes are popular for pre and post-workout, these supplements are great for your day-to-day life, and you can add them to your smoothies or your oatmeal - you can even bake with it as we mentioned earlier! Whey protein is the most popular protein powder because it effectively supports muscle growth and helps you get your proteins for the day when you’re not sure you can meet your daily goal. Keep in mind that there are many protein powders out there, so you need to be careful when choosing the right one for you. Ideally, it should contain at least 75% of protein, which would be around 20 g per scoop - any less than that means that you’re getting a lot of fillers. So always read the nutrition and ingredients label!
These are only a few clever ways to help you squeeze enough protein in without drastically changing your diet. If you want to go even further, do more research, track your favorite foods to see how much protein they have, discover new foods that you never thought of trying… Eating becomes much more enjoyable and satisfying when you know you’re getting enough of the right stuff! And in order to really keep track of your protein intake and make sure that you’re consuming the right amounts for you, we suggest tracking your macros! It's the best way to make sure that you’re getting enough of the King Macronutrient!