Nutrition

Why You Need Protein

6 min read
Wondering if it's even worth using a protein powder or protein supplement? Let's dig into why you need protein in the first place, no matter your activity level.
Wondering if it's even worth using a protein powder or protein supplement? Let's dig into why you need protein in the first place, no matter your activity level.

Article Content

Whether you identify as a health nut or not, the notion that protein is an important part of a healthy diet might seem pretty obvious. The “why” of that, however? Maybe not so much.

It doesn’t help that there are a lot of misconceptions about protein intake—like the idea that only really athletic people need to be cognizant of how much they’re consuming, or that calculating your appropriate protein intake comes down to a simple body weight equation. The reality? We all have important protein needs just to support our body’s daily functions, and the kind of protein we consume plays an important role in how our body uses it.

Still with us? Let’s go deeper.

Our bodies need protein to function.

Let’s start with a quick refresher course. We all need a balance of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals to function. As the names imply, we need macronutrients in larger amounts, and micronutrients in much smaller amounts. But both macronutrients and micronutrients are integral to the way our bodies function on a daily basis.

Now let’s get specific about protein. Every cell in the body contains protein, and protein is a key player in many body functions—from bone support to muscle building. To break it down even further, protein is composed of building blocks called amino acids, which help carry out these vital processes. (1)

You don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from protein support.

Why is protein so closely associated with bodybuilders and two-a-days at the gym? Probably because dietary protein plays such an important role in muscle protein synthesis, which is the process that helps facilitate muscle building. Basically, there are a lot of different things that can contribute to muscle breakdown, from inactivity to overexertion to age. (More on that in a minute.) But when the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceeds the rate of muscle breakdown, muscle growth occurs. And the kind of protein we’re consuming can play an important role in that equation. (2)

But we can’t overstate that this is true for all kinds of daily movement, from marathoning to walking; HIIT workouts to yoga. Let’s be real: We all have different ways we like to move. And that’s why we think it’s a good idea for everyone to pay attention to their daily protein intake—not just those who identify as mega-athletes. In fact, this was a big reason why we were inspired to reimagine the protein powder category altogether—which is how Essential Protein was born.

The amount of protein you’re consuming isn’t everything—quality also plays an important role.

There’s a rule of thumb that your ideal protein intake is roughly 0.8 per kg of body weight. This equation is helpful, but it also only tells one part of the story. In truth, the kind of protein we consume is also a pretty big factor. Remember how we mentioned that proteins are composed of amino acids? Well, while there are 20 amino acids used by the human body, there are specifically nine amino acids that are considered “essential”—the body can’t make these essential amino acids itself, so we have to consume them from our diets. The thing is, only certain foods contain all nine of these essential amino acids in adequate amounts. These are known as “complete protein” foods, and when we refer to a “quality” protein, we likely mean that it contains all or most of the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. (3)

To ensure that we’re regularly consuming “quality” protein, it can be helpful to know which foods are either complete or almost complete—and to also consider diversifying our protein sources, in order to target a broader spectrum of those amino acids. Which leads us to our next point…

Different factors can lead to dietary gaps in protein.

There are a lot of reasons why someone could be falling short on their protein needs, but a good place to start is diet. Someone who is largely plant-based, for example, could be more likely to experience gaps in their protein intake. That’s because while many animal sources of protein are considered complete proteins (eggs, fish, and meat, for example), complete plant-based proteins are harder to come by. (Soy is actually the only plant-based protein that has a truly complete amino acid profile.)

It’s not all bad news, though: There are many other high-quality, plant-based protein sources that only fall slightly short of being considered “complete.” Pea protein is a good example: While it technically contains all of the nine essential amino acids, it falls a little short on the amino acid methionine (which is why we added methionine into our Essential Protein line-up). Rice, on the other hand, contains sufficient amounts of methionine, so this is a great “complete” protein pairing (and a delicious meal to boot). Quinoa is another one: It’s a little lacking in the amino acid lysine but has all of the other essential amino acids in adequate amounts. (Psst: Legumes like lentils and chickpeas tend to have lysine in sufficient amounts.) (4)

(Life stage can play a role, too.)

Dietary preference isn’t the only thing that can play a role in protein gaps, however. Age is actually a big one: Muscle breakdown naturally increases as we get older, due to something called anabolic resistance, which basically means that it’s harder to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. In fact, normal age-related muscle loss can result in up to 2% muscle loss per year after the age of 50. (5)

The good news? Healthy habits can have an impact—and that includes both movement and diet. Resistance training is a great way to stimulate muscle protein synthesis at any age, but might be even more integral to staying fit after age 50. And consuming quality protein in sufficient amounts definitely is also really key. If you want to get really specific, growing evidence links β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB), a key metabolite of leucine, to supporting the maintenance of lean muscle mass.* (6)

In other words, protein is hardly one-size-fits-all—which is why we thought it was so crucial to create three distinct, life stage-specific formulas of Essential Protein. Essential Protein 18+ is formulated for the nutrient needs of men and women 18+; Essential Protein Pregnancy & Postpartum is formulated with additional choline to support nutrient needs during pregnancy and lactation, and Essential Protein 50+ contains calcium HMB to support healthy, active aging.

The bottom line? We all need protein to function, regardless of our activity level or age—and it’s not just a simple equation of grams-to-bodyweight. Like so many aspects of our diets, there’s a lot of nuance to the way we consume protein—and the best place to begin is translating awareness into daily habits.

References:

  1. Carbone, J. W., & Pasiakos, S. M. (2019). Dietary Protein... Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit. Nutrients, 11(5), 1136.
  2. Atherton, P. J., & Smith, K. (2012). Muscle protein synthesis... The Journal of physiology, 590(5), 1049–1057.
  3. Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use...? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10 (2018).
  4. Hertzler, S. R., Lieblein-Boff, J. C., Weiler, M., & Allgeier, C. (2020). Plant proteins: Assessing their nutritional quality. Nutrients, 12(12), 3704. doi:10.3390/nu12123704
  5. Keller, K., & Engelhardt, M. (2014). Strength and muscle mass... Muscles, ligaments and tendons journal, 3(4), 346–350.
  6. Rossi AP, D'Introno A, Rubele S, Caliari C, Gattazzo S, Zoico E, Mazzali G, Fantin F, Zamboni M. The Potential of β-Hydroxy-β-Methylbutyrate... Drugs Aging. 2017 Nov;34(11):833-840. doi: 10.1007/s40266-017-0496-0. PMID: 29086232.

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Meet Our Experts

This article was reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Nima

Dr. Nima Alamdari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer

Dr. Nima Alamdari is Chief Scientific Officer at Ritual. He was previously faculty at Harvard University where he researched muscle metabolism in health and disease. He received a PhD in Muscle Physiology and a First Degree in Biochemistry from The University of Nottingham in the UK. He has authored many original articles in top international peer-reviewed journals and presented at world-leading international conferences.

Science Thumb — Nima

Dr. Nima Alamdari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer

Dr. Nima Alamdari is Chief Scientific Officer at Ritual. He was previously faculty at Harvard University where he researched muscle metabolism in health and disease. He received a PhD in Muscle Physiology and a First Degree in Biochemistry from The University of Nottingham in the UK. He has authored many original articles in top international peer-reviewed journals and presented at world-leading international conferences.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

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