Updated: Mar 2
Lifters and athletes have been preaching the gospel of protein for decades, and the rest of the world has been catching up in the last few years. Today, it’s common to see protein products being sold pretty much everywhere and to hear everyone from your grandma to your teenage nephew talking about trying to get more of it in their diet.
Here’s everything you’ve been asking us, and everyone else on the internet, about the mightiest of macronutrients. If you’re a serious lifter or athlete, are chasing gains or weight loss, or are just trying to eat healthier, this is where the conversation starts!
What Is Protein?
It isn’t just part of what’s on your plate or in your shaker bottle. It’s a major part of who you are, and the same goes for every other living thing.
Proteins have existed on earth for billions of years and are the primary building blocks of most forms of life, from the simplest bacteria to the most sophisticated life forms.
In fact, it isn’t really a thing, as much as it is a category of things. There are millions of different types of protein molecules, all containing different combinations of 20 standard amino acids. But proteins are also by far the most complicated molecules in the human body, and can contain anywhere from 50-2,000 amino acids including the essential 20. To date, about 10,000 different proteins have been identified in the human genome. There are thought to be nearly one trillion different variations on earth.
The body of a 154-pound man contains about 24 pounds of protein. Almost half is in the form of skeletal muscle, with another 3-4 pounds in the form of skin and blood. Bone and organs make up the rest.
In nutritional terms, protein is one of the three primary macronutrients our bodies need to survive. It is a “macro” nutrient because, like carbohydrates and fats, we consume a significant amount of it and use it for fuel. We need a comparatively small amount of vitamins and minerals every day, so they are referred to as “micronutrients.”
Protein is contained in various combinations and quantities in every food we eat—even vegetables. Unlike all these other macro and micronutrients, your body can’t store it, so you have to get it consistently through the foods you eat, and/or the supplements you take.
What Do Our Bodies Use Protein For?
It plays a role in virtually everything that goes on in your body. In your blood, it transports oxygen throughout your body. It builds and repairs tissue (including muscle tissue) and makes enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. It is also a fundamental building block of bones, cartilage, organs, skin, blood, hair, and nails.
The antibodies our bodies use to ward off disease and infection are made of protein, as are the enzymes that read the genetic information in our DNA to make new molecules. Messenger protein molecules transmit signals between cells, tissue, and organs, and transport protein molecules carry atoms and small molecules throughout the body.
What Are The Benefits Of Dietary Protein?
You probably associate high-protein eating with people trying to gain mass. And that’s because it works! Diets that are rich in high-protein foods, in combination with resistance training, have been shown repeatedly to help athletes add or retain lean mass.