Most of us know that it’s important to get some protein with each meal. However, few of us are aware of how much protein we get on a regular basis, or why it’s important to get enough. Recent studies have demonstrated the vital role protein plays in the body’s functions, making it more important that we’re aware of the protein in our diets.

Protein is the “building block” of the body.

Protein is present in every cell in the body, and the body needs it to produce new cells. Maintaining and repairing cells both require protein, too. Children, teens, and pregnant women need it to support healthy growth. Because of the vital role it plays in the body, the recommended daily allowance of protein is around 50 to 65 grams.

A protein is made up of a chain of amino acids. When protein is digested, it’s broken down into these amino acids, which are then used by the body. Some sources, called complete proteins, contain all the amino acids that the body needs. The majority of complete proteins are animal sources, such as meats, dairy, fish, or eggs. Most plant-based proteins, such as legumes, nuts, and some grains, are incomplete. This means that to get all the essential amino acids from plant-based proteins, it’s necessary to eat a wide variety of plant proteins.

Several recent studies have suggested that increased daily intake of protein is highly beneficial to overall health.

Heart disease, which includes strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular diseases, is the number one cause of death in the United States. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s often a comorbidity of heart disease. Following your physician’s orders is extremely important to prevent and treat heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, reducing the amount of fats, cholesterol, sugars, and sodium in the diet is very beneficial.

Recent studies have suggested that adequate protein intake might also play a big role in these diseases. One study found that for every 20 g of protein consumed per day, participants’ risk of stroke was lowered by 26%. Another study saw significant risk reduction for high blood pressure, the leading cause of heart disease, when the amount of protein eaten was increased. The reduced risk for high blood pressure was evident in both obese and normal weight individuals. Yet another study found that women who ate a high-protein breakfast had much lower spikes in blood sugar and insulin after meals, so eating more protein at breakfast might help prevent diabetes patients.

Additional research shows that increasing protein intake can have benefits for people with or at risk for chronic pain.

Diabetes can lead to the chronic pain condition of diabetic peripheral neuropathy, so lessening the risk of diabetes with increased protein can by extension reduce the risk of this type of chronic pain. In addition to this, increasing protein in your diet might help you prevent some types of musculoskeletal-related chronic pain. For example, research from the American Physiological Society has found that in older adults, doubling the recommended daily allowance of protein improves the body’s ability to build muscle. Increased muscle mass can improve mobility, reduce the risk of falls, and help support joints, reducing the risk of conditions like osteoarthritis.

In fact, another study found that senior citizens who consumed more protein were at a significantly lower risk for hip fractures. The lead study author, Marian T. Hannan, D.Sc., M.P.H., co-director of the Musculoskeletal Research Program at the Institute for Aging Research, noted that previous studies have suggested that increased protein intake is linked to higher bone mineral density, but it’s also possible that the lower hip fracture risk is related to better muscle mass from the increased protein.

Protein is available from a variety of sources, but there are a few sources that stand out from the rest.

Many of the studies surrounding the increased intake of protein don’t make a differentiation between the sources. Some, however, pay attention to sources and note that some are more beneficial.

For example, the study that examined the lowered stroke risk with increased protein intake found that while any sort yielded benefits, animal protein had stronger benefits. However, the study considering lower blood pressure resulting from increased protein noted that it was most effective when participants’ diets were also high in fiber, which might suggest that plant-based proteins would be most beneficial.

A study published in the American Chemistry Society’s Journal of Proteome Research found that whey protein, which is derived from dairy – an animal protein – benefited obese individuals who did not yet have diabetes. The whey protein slowed digestion, allowing for a slower release of sugars. Additionally, those who ate whey protein had lower levels of fatty acids and increased levels of insulin-boosting amino acids in their blood. This suggests that whey protein might beneficially affect diabetes and the risk factors for heart disease.

All this evidence together indicates that increasing protein in general can be highly beneficial for everyone, including those with chronic pain. As for what type of protein should be eaten, the healthiest proteins include:

  • Fish
  • Poultry (especially white meat)
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Soy products, such as tofu or tempeh
  • Lean pork tenderloin or beef

How will you increase the protein in your diet?

Image by Mike McCune via Flickr

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