Why do we need protein?

As mentioned in my carbohydrate blog, I believe in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet, focusing on whole foods and limiting processed foods when possible. All types of food can be part of a healthy diet and yes, I sometimes eat fast food/sugar/alcohol. In this post, I will discuss protein, including covering what it is, what protein does, where you can find protein and how it is an important part of healthy, balanced diet.

Protein is more commonly recognized lately as being important, but there are still many misconceptions out there. Common misconceptions include views that protein is only important for large body builders, that a person cannot have too much protein or, one I’ve recently heard, that the body does not need any protein at all. In fact, protein is vital for us all to be healthy. A simple Google search for “how much protein do I need” reveals a wide variety of opinions and recommendations. It is important to remember that just because a specific type and amount of protein worked for someone else does not mean it will work for you, even if that other person has the exact same medical history as you. 

As mentioned in previous blogs, one thing I learned while working as a dietitian in clinical nutrition for over 10 years is that everyone is different. Figuring out what works for you is often a matter of trial and error, which can be very confusing and frustrating. Your family doctor and a Registered Dietitian can help you find out what may be best for you. Please see my blog post “Why do we even need Dietitians?” for more on this topic.

Let’s talk about protein.

What is a Protein?

Starting with the basics… At a chemical level, protein is “complex nitrogenous compounds made up of amino acids (AA) in peptide linkages”.  Amino acids contain nitrogen as well as carbon. The key take away from this definition is that protein is made up of various combinations of AAs which are broken down and used by the body when consumed. There are 2 types of amino acids:

  • essential amino acids (EAA) – the body cannot make these AAs, so they must be obtained from our food
  • non-essential amino acids– the body can change existing AAs into the AAs it needs by changing the basic structure of the AA (moving around the carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen components).

What does protein do?

Protein and amino acids have many jobs in the body including:

  • the basic building blocks for our cells and body such as muscle, bone, nerves, as well as many other tissues
  • moving nutrients into and around our bodies
  • a key part our immune system
  • they help maintain water balance in the body

What are the different types of protein?

There are various categories of protein based on their function which is determined by the type of AAs the specific protein contains. Is it important to know all of these categories? No. What is important is to make sure to get enough of the right type protein. To do that, you need to have a better understanding of essential amino acids (EAAs), complete proteins and incomplete proteins.

Individuals that limit the type or amount of protein consumed must make sure they are eating enough of certain types of protein.  This can include vegetarians or those on a low protein diet due to a health condition. If these individuals do not eat the right type of protein in sufficient quantities, they may not have enough of each EAAs and may become malnourished. Unless you are a Registered Dietitian, it is not realistic to expect that you would know the amounts and types of EAAs in every type of food. Instead, it is easier to view protein as “complete” versus “incomplete” proteins.

A complete protein contains the right amount of each EAA to provide the body what it needs. Examples are animal products like meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs as well as vegetarian options like soybeans, hempseed and quinoa. 

An incomplete protein contains some but not all of the EAAs. Examples are most plant-based foods.

Eating a diet with a variety of nutritious foods is key to ensuring you are receiving enough EAAs. If animal protein intake is limited, eating a variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and whole grains is critical.

*Side note – Strict vegetarians (those who do not eat any animal products, including dairy) may require B12 supplementation. B12 is a vitamin found mostly in animal products. A family doctor and/or Registered Dietitian can recommend the type and amount of B12 supplement that may be needed.

Can you get too much protein?

When healthy, the body is very good at balancing levels of protein, using excess for energy or storing excess protein as fat. However, too much protein can potentially cause harm. The recommended amount of protein needed in a day has changed over the years. That amount of protein needed can vary with certain medical conditions, physical status and level of physical activity. A Registered Dietitian can help you figure out exactly how much protein you need. 

Health Canada has recently released its updated Food Guide (https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/) which recommends to eat a variety of protein foods (from both animal and non-animal sources). The guide does not provide a specific percentage of protein that should make up your diet.  Instead the new Guide suggests that one-quarter of your plate should consist of protein, one-quarter whole grains and one-half veggies and fruit. Although some protein can be found in vegetables, fruit and grains, new research suggests your body makes the best use of protein if a good source of protein makes up one-quarter of your meal.

Bottom line

Protein is vital for life and keeping your body healthy. Minimizing highly-processed protein such as processed meatsis recommended as part of a healthy diet. Excess protein stored as fat can increase health risks. On the other hand, too little protein can cause the body to become malnourished. With too little protein, the body will turn to other sources of energy, including breaking down various tissues, such as muscle, to get the nutrients needed. Very few of us are trying to lose muscle! Caution is key when either restricting or taking excess protein. When in doubt, ask a Registered Dietitian what is right for you.

If you enjoyed this blog and/or found it useful please let me know. Keep an eye out for the next post in this series “How to get more protein?” coming soon, where I will provide more specifics about what are the best protein foods.

Disclaimer:  The above information is intended for general public education and is not intended to be dietetic advice in any respect or to any person. Use of this information does not make any person a direct client of Tanya Brown, RD for any purpose and no such relationship will exist unless a formal client relationship has been entered into. Please consult your Doctor or a Registered Dietitian for individual recommendations prior to making any dietary or lifestyle changes.


Canada’s Food Guide (https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/)

Mahan and Escott-stump. 2004. Krause’s Food, Nutrition and Diet Therapy, 11th Edition. W.B. Sanders Co.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s