You've probably heard that it's important to get enough protein in your diet. But do you actually know why? Protein is a nutrient powerhouse and one of the three macronutrients that you eat most (carbohydrates and fats are the others). You'll find it in a wide range of sources from plant and animal foods (including eggs, fish, chicken and tofu), protein bars (we suggest our Vital Performance™ Protein Bar) and supplements, such as protein powder (like our Vital Performance™ Protein).
But when it comes to truly understanding what protein does for the body, some may feel like they skipped science class. Most of us know the obvious — it helps build muscle mass and satiates your appetite — but not much else. Here, we tapped nutrition experts to help us delve deeper.
Vital Note: This article has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Your licensed healthcare professional can best provide you with the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition and assist you as well in deciding whether a dietary supplement will be a helpful addition to your regimen.
Why is it important to eat protein?
But the answers to "why is it important to eat protein?" go far beyond the weight room. That's because every cell in our body is made up of proteins.
"These cells make up our DNA, our organs (i.e., liver, muscles, heart), and other structures in our body, such as gut lining, neurotransmitters, mitochondria," explains Filipa Bellette, Ph.D., clinical nutritionist & functional medicine practitioner.
Our bodies require proteins to carry out important work, such as helping cells and body systems repair and regenerate. "Without protein, these structures will begin to suffer," says Bellette.
What happens when you start eating more protein?
Beyond being thanked by your body for the fuel, Kimberly Marsh, MS, RD, says that your body will use protein to complete many necessary functions. "If it needs protein for building muscle or other parts of the body, it will use it for that," she tells Lively. "If it needs it for hormones or enzymes, it will use it for that."
You may also see changes in your appetite. If you go from not getting enough protein to getting an adequate amount, this means you may go longer between that egg scramble you had for breakfast and being hungry for another meal.
"Protein is a very satisfying macronutrient leading to lower calories consumed and less snacking between mealtimes," explains Richards. This will aid in any weight loss goals you have, as well as assist in glucose control.
A lesser-known fact about amino acids is that they may provide mood-boosting benefits. According to Heather Hanks, MS, a nutritionist with Instapot Life, this surprising form of zen comes from amino acids’ connection to neurotransmitters in the brain. “Amino acids are required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters that influence mood and brain health, such as GABA.” You may have seen this word on supplements that promote calmness** (try Vital Proteins® Feeling Zen™). Hanks says that "If you want to help stabilize your cognitive abilities and make it easier to concentrate,** protein can help," Hanks says.
Does protein give you energy?
The short answer is yes, protein does give you energy, but it's not the body's main source of energy. That would be glucose, according to Annamaria Louloudis, MS, RDN, and Founder of Louloudi Nutrition. You'll find this in fats and carbohydrates. Instead, think of protein as an alternative source of fuel for the body.
"Protein does play a role in energy production, as it is the building block for our muscles and tissues, and also the mitochondria — the organelles that reside in our muscle tissue, and that produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy," says Bellette.
As a result, protein helps keep our energy systems strong and helps our bodies derive energy from the foods we're eating. There is also a muscle-energy connection that revs up your energy, according to Marsh. "As you build muscle, you may feel like you have more energy as you will not get tired as quickly during exercise or other physical activity," Marsh says.
Do protein shakes make you gain weight?
It's a common myth that protein shakes make you gain weight, says Erin Kenney, a Registered Dietitian and CEO of Nutrition Rewired, but that's not necessarily the case.
"In order to gain weight, you need to be consuming excess calories, not just protein alone," Kenney tells Lively. "In fact, higher protein diets are often more successful in helping individuals lose weight."
So as long as you're staying within your caloric range for weight maintenance, she says that you're unlikely to gain weight. If you're worried about weight gain, you'll want to check the label to see if there are any sneaky calorie-dense ingredients.
"Artificial food additives, even 'sugar-free' artificial sweeteners, can do damage to our metabolic system, which over time can affect our ability to burn fat," Bellette says. Bellette recommends a good-quality protein powder, such as Vital Performance™ Protein ($30, shop now on vitalproteins.com).
"Protein is more predominantly used to rebuild muscle tissue and cells, rather than being stored as fat (or burned up as energy)," Bellette says. "A good quality protein shake can also help you with satiety for longer."
What is the best protein for energy?
The best protein is a complete protein, according to the experts. You'll find this in animal products, such as meat, eggs and dairy, says Marsh. Vegetarians, don't fret – there are ways for you to get complete protein, too. Vegetarian protein sources, such as beans, tofu, rice and bread products also contain proteins. You just need to eat a variety of them to make a 'complete' protein, explains Marsh.
What food gives you the most energy?
Tired of feeling sluggish? Start with eating simple carbohydrates, says Marsh. This includes yogurt, crackers and chocolate milk. These foods contain protein to help keep you full longer.
"Cheese and crackers or toast with a banana and peanut butter are other examples," Marsh says.
Additional foods that give you the most energy include:
- Protein powders with all 20 amino acids (such as Vital Performance™ Protein)
- Fatty fish
If you're looking for a balanced approach to energy, Louloudis calls for eating all three macronutrients — proteins, fats and carbohydrates — at each meal. This will help prevent energy crashes. It's also always a good idea to focus on cleaning up your diet and removing inflammatory foods, adds Hanks. These are foods that contain processed and refined sugars and grains.
"These foods induce inflammation in the body and zap your energy levels, among many other negative side effects," Hanks tells Lively. "Eating an anti-inflammatory diet that includes clean sources of meat and whole plant-based foods will give you the most energy."