Written by: Rachel Harmon
Fact-Checked By: Dr. Noor Ali, MD, MPH, CPH
Are you eating enough protein? Maybe you’re already keeping an eye on your sugar and salt intake, but meeting your daily protein requirement is key to feeling your best.
While most women eat enough protein to prevent deficiency, some of us could stand to benefit from checking in on our protein intake. Whether you’re currently bulking or new to the world of macros, here’s what you need to know about protein to give your body the love it deserves.
What Is Protein?
Proteins are complex biomolecules that make up the framework of our cells. They’re one of the major three macronutrients, with the other two being fat and carbohydrates. As a macronutrient, you need to consume relatively large amounts of protein to stay on top of your health.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are smaller molecules containing carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur atoms. A protein is essentially a chain made up of amino acids.
While the human body naturally produces amino acids, we also get them from the food we eat. Our bodies make roughly half of the amino acids we need, so we have to rely on protein-rich foods for the rest.
Why Our Bodies Need Protein To Function
Proteins play an integral role in our overall health. “They carry out a variety of functions from doing some metabolic conversions to holding your cells together to causing your muscles to work,” according to Nathan Ahlgren, assistant professor of biology at Clark University.
Most people associate protein with building muscles—but protein does so much more than keep us toned. It also increases bone strength, forming the structures that hold the body together. Collagen helps us build and regulate our skin, bones, and teeth, while our hair and nails are made of a protein called keratin.We all want to look and feel our best, and our protein intake plays a major role in our health and well-being!
Protein is also essential for our immune health. Amino acids boost our immune system, giving our bodies the strength they need to fight off infections. Studies show that high-protein diets can also help lower the risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure, and fight off disease.
There’s no denying how important protein is for our bodies—but what happens when you don’t get enough? Protein deficiency can contribute to health issues by changing the body’s composition, leading to conditions like malnutrition, edema, and stunted growth. When you eat the right amount of protein, you’ll take one step closer to becoming the best version of yourself.
Should You Eat More Protein?
In rare cases of protein deficiency, your immune system can stall, but eating too much protein can also slow down your immune system.
In the United States, adults are more likely to eat too much protein. Most people, including vegans and vegetarians, eat up to twice the amount of protein needed. Consuming more protein than you need won’t “boost” your immune system, and eating the right amount of protein is essential to keep your immune system healthy.
So, how much protein do you really need? The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is .36 grams per pound of body weight, or 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, women need more protein for tissue development and growth. Experts recommend consuming .55–0.69 grams of protein per pound of body weight to promote the healthy development for the mother and baby. (For scale, one chicken breast has 21g of protein).
With that said, the amount of protein you need from your diet will vary depending on your weight, gender, age, lifestyle, and health. If you hit the gym regularly, your protein count should increase as your gym sessions do. Working out literally tears your muscle fibers, and proteins help build them back up again.
How To Add Protein To Your Diet
The best way to add protein to your diet is to consume protein-rich foods throughout the day. If you’re looking to boost your protein intake, some simple swaps include:
- Choosing quinoa over rice or pasta
- Keeping nuts on hand for an on-the-go snack
- Dipping veggies in hummus
- Topping crackers with nut butter or cheese
- Choosing eggs over cereal
Protein powders and shakes might seem appealing: Post-gym, you can get a quick hit of protein on the go without prepping a whole meal. The problem is, while protein supplements are full of protein, they’re also full of added sugars. Even though natural protein supplements can give you a quick boost, it’s best to stick with protein-rich foods.
Pro tip: The human body can’t store protein and will excrete any excess, so it’s best to consume small amounts at each meal.
The Bottom Line
Protein is essential to keep your immune system at 100%. It strengthens your body, helps you function at your full potential, and keeps you full longer. And if you’re worried that eating too much protein will leave you looking like the Incredible Hulk, don’t be.
If you’re not sure how much protein you should be eating, check in with your healthcare provider to see what's right for your body type. Taking care of your health is essential—and eating the right diet can make all the difference in the way you feel.