What You Need to Know About Protein

Learn the best way to get this basic building block for your body’s cells

Protein fortified foods seem to be popping up more and more on grocery store shelves these days. For example, nutrition bars, cereals, crackers, bread, powders, drinks, shakes and even water! Protein from meat, fish, dairy and soy are just as good if not better. Let’s take a look at why.

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Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our body’s cells. Protein is a necessary part of the diet, especially for athletes and highly active people because exercise puts our body in a state of stress during which cells are constantly being broken down and repaired.

Amino acids are divided into essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be created by the body, therefore they must be obtained from dietary sources, while nonessential amino acids can be created by the body and obtained from food.

Dietary sources of essential amino acids are referred to as “complete” protein because they contain all nine essential amino acids. Complete protein sources include all foods that come from an animal, such as beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, milk and yogurt.

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Plant-based sources of complete protein include soy beans (edamame) and foods made from soy beans, such as tofu, miso, tempeh and soy milk. Another plant-based source of complete protein is the grain quinoa. Incomplete protein sources include grains, vegetables, beans, lentils and nuts. It’s a good idea to choose a combination of both complete and incomplete protein sources at most meals, especially after exercising.

On average, non-athletic and athletic adults exceed their daily protein needs since protein is found naturally in many foods. So why are so many foods being touted for being fortified with protein? One reason may be that protein takes longer to digest and tends to keep us feeling full which can help with weight management. Another reason is the common misconception that you need to eat a lot more protein to build muscle.

The truth of the matter is you need both protein and carbohydrates to build muscle. Since the average diet exceeds normal protein needs, athletes may not need to dramatically increase protein intake. Remember, excessive protein intake may result in weight gain, and in extreme cases can lead to dehydration and even renal failure.

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The bottom line is whether you are a carnivore, vegetarian or vegan, you can meet your daily protein needs through whole food sources, rather than spending extra money on those fortified shakes, bars and powders.

Katherine Mone, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics for Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. Her specialty interests include endurance athletes and preventive cardiology. To schedule an appointment, please call 877.440.TEAM.


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