Macronutrients, or macros, are a hot nutrition topic in today’s health-conscious society. But macros are much more than a diet trend. A well-balanced nutrition plan accounts for the quality and amount of complete proteins, carbohydrates and fats you consume. This article is part one of a three-part series that deep dives all three macros.
While protein is often regarded for its ability to help bodybuilders, workout warriors and competitive athletes build muscle, it’s much more than that. Your body’s enzymes, cell transporters, hair, fingernails, muscles, organs and even your hormones are primarily made up of proteins. In fact, without adequate ingestion of ideal proteins, your body runs the risk of severe malnourishment.
But simply searching “what’s the best type of protein?” won’t give you the information you need to understand protein and optimize your intake. So, to help guide you, here is an expert-guided breakdown of everything you need to know about this all-important macronutrient:
What is Protein?
Protein is known as the body’s building blocks. It’s comprised of long chains of amino acids made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. The human body is made up of around 20% protein, and there are thousands of different proteins in the body. During digestion, the body breaks down protein into amino acids and sends them to circulate in the blood.
Amino acids are like beads on a necklace. They link together, then fold in complex shapes to build proteins. There are 20 total types of amino acids that fall into two categories: essential and nonessential. Your body can make 11 of the nonessential amino acids. However, nine essential amino acids can only come from food consumption.
Why Do I Need Protein?
Protein is necessary for nearly every biological process in the body. But unlike fat and carbohydrates, your body doesn’t store extra protein. So, if you aren’t ingesting enough daily protein, your body pulls it from internal structures, like your muscles and organs.
Protein is well-known for its ability to support muscle growth. However, it’s much more diverse than that. In fact, protein plays a vital role in every cell in your body. For example, you use protein to make enzymes and hormones. Protein is also the basis of keratin, collagen and elastin, which form to build your skin, bones, tendons, ligaments and organ tissue.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Protein is a “macronutrient,” meaning your body needs large daily amounts to function at a high level. The optimal amount of protein depends on quite a few factors, such as your age, lifestyle, muscle mass, activity level and overall health.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound for a generally healthy adult. However, that number represents the minimum amount of protein you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. So, it isn’t necessarily the optimal amount for you.
Since muscle is primarily made up of protein, athletes typically need to consume higher daily amounts to help repair microscopic damage to their muscle tissues from physical activity. As such, athletes should aim to consume approximately 0.5 to 0.8 daily grams of protein per pound of body mass.
Active adults need more protein than sedentary adults. If you have a physically demanding job or stay generally active, your body may need up to 0.45 to 0.6 grams per pound of body mass.
According to a study done in 2016, older adults need more protein to prevent age-related muscle loss because the body uses amino acids less efficiently as you age. As such, older adults may need 0.45 to 0.6 grams per pound of body mass. 
What’s the Difference Between Incomplete & Complete Proteins?
Increasing your protein intake requires more than chowing down a massive steak every day. After all, not all proteins are created equal. There are two categories of protein-based on its amino acid composition: complete and incomplete. Knowing the difference between these two types of protein can help you correctly adjust your diet.
Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids, including histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Conversely, incomplete proteins lack one or more of the amino acids you need to build protein cells.
So, where can you find complete proteins? As a general rule of thumb animal proteins, such as beef, poultry, fish and dairy, are typically comprised of complete proteins. Animal proteins provide all essential amino acids in the right ratio for your body. On the other hand, most plant-based foods like nuts, seeds, rice and beans are incomplete proteins, with a handful of exceptions. Soy, quinoa, seitan and buckwheat are excellent complete plant-based protein sources.
Is it Possible to Eat Too Much Protein?
If you’ve heard that a high-protein diet harms your kidneys, you can rest easy as research has not definitively linked high protein intake to kidney damage in healthy individuals. While adding more protein to your diet may increase the kidney workload a bit, your kidneys work hard every day. If you have healthy kidneys, a high protein diet (at least 1.2 daily grams per pound of body weight) doesn’t appear to impair the status or overall function of your kidneys.
While the kidneys can handle the workload, other health risks may be associated with excessive protein. First, excess of any nutrient, including protein, can be converted into fat in the body and contribute to weight gain. You may also experience GI (gastrointestinal) discomfort, such as constipation or diarrhea. However, studies show that GI discomfort with a high-protein diet is often due to the low fiber intake if carbohydrates are simultaneously restricted.
Overall, it’s essential that you eat a healthy, balanced diet. Align your nutrition plan with your goals to support your overall health. Before making any significant changes to your diet or protein intake, speak with your doctor, especially if you have any health conditions. A dietitian can then help you determine the best amount of protein needed based on your individual needs, goals and lifestyle.