The Power of Proteins


At every talk I do about nutrition, I bring up our major nutrients in some way to educate or reinforce their purpose. After I have people name the major nutrients (and have to tell them vitamins are NOT one of them), I ask which one is our most important when it comes to energy. The entire audience always seems to yell “PROTEIN” when I ask this. And are shocked when I tell them it’s carbs. Thanks to the media, personal trainers, athletes, and diets like Atkins and Paleo, way too much emphasis has been put on protein as THE single nutrient you need in life. The truth is, while proteins serves a purpose, it’s not the end all be all when it comes to the type of food we should be eating. As part of my National Nutrition Month series about our key nutrients, today I’ll be dishing about the power of protein and what it REALLY does for us.


Protein’s biggest role is STRUCTURE. When tiny building blocks called amino acids team up together and connect like Lego, they form protein molecules. Protein molecules arefound throughout the body in muscle, bone, and virtually every other body tissue, as it is a major part of cell structure.Enzymes that cause chemical reactions throughout the bodyare made of protein which helps with various body processes and metabolism. Oxygen travels in your blood through a transport protein called hemoglobin. It is alsoused for growth and repair throughout the body.

RELATED: The Big FAT Truth

As you can see, protein serves a lot of functions for us. Which means energy source is one of the LAST functions protein serves. Think of a CEO who has a ton of responsibility. They may only tend to answer their own phone in extreme circumstances if their assistant is unavailable for a period of time. Similarly, protein only tends to provide energy if it’s needed or there are any amino acids remaining after doing all the other work (in other words, when or if it gets around to it). Even in extreme cases of starvation, the body uses protein for energy only for a small amount of time before switching to fat for energy.  When this is happening, that hard-earned muscle is being broken down, causing your muscle mass to decline. Protein is meant to build up structures in the body, and should not be broken down for energy. This is why protein is not an ideal source of energy for our bodies.

It should be noted that avocados, kale and spinach are NOT protein sources. Often I have clients tell me that’s their main protein sources. I have to break the news that they are not getting any or enough protein from those foods.

RELATED: Carbs Are Friends AND Food


When most people think of protein foods, first thing that comes to mind are animal products such as eggs, yogurt, chicken, steak, and fish. However, there are many other sources of protein that come from plants. You can obtain protein from all different types of beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and many more! Check out how leaning out the meat and swapping in-based proteins can help decrease waste, reduce food costs, and improve your health.


It is important to incorporate protein into ALL meals and snacks. Not onlydoes protein provide essential nutrients, but it also helps you feel full after eating (less snacking and mindless eating!) and helps slow carb absorption from food, so you will have more energy over a longer period of time (no crash and burn here!).

You can incorporate protein into meals and snacks in a variety of ways:

  • Breakfast: Eggs, yogurt, protein pancakes
  • Lunch: Salad topped with beans or chickpeas (plant-protein), or chicken/other meat (animal protein)
  • Dinner: Fish tacos, or baked chicken, stuffed peppers with black beans and quinoa
  • Snack: almonds, or apple/celery with nut butter, hard-boiled egg, yogurt

Keep in mind that one serving of protein is approximately the size of the palm of your hand, or take up no more than a quarter of your plate at meals. Half of the plate should be filled with veggies and/or fruit, the other ¼ is a complex carb.


Although protein is a very important nutrient, there are several false ideas out there about protein

1. Protein DOES NOT cause muscle to develop

Protein provides the building blocks to create muscle. But without doing the work, you can’t build muscle in the body. That means doing strength training activity that causes stress on the muscle. This includes weight lifting, body weight exercises, and resistance exercises. Consuming protein alone will not make your muscles grow. Check out my FITNESS page for some strength training inspiration.


2. Protein DOES NOT have less calories than carbs

Gram for gram, protein contains the same amount of calories as carbohydrates: 1gram of protein or carbprovides 4 calories of energy. And just like carbs, anything extra left in the body has a potential to be stored as fat. At the end of the day, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie – it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Too much of anything eventually can become stored energy.


3. Protein DOES NOT have to be eaten in mass quantities

People have become hung up on the idea that consuming a lot of protein is necessary to grow muscle or lose weight. Not true! Take your weight in pounds and multiply by 0.36, that is the number of grams you need per day. This means a 175 pound individual needs 63 grams of protein for the whole entire day – not per meal. Extra protein can’t be stored in the body. And too much extra protein can cause your kidneys to become overworked and ultimate not function properly. Which is why you need to make sure to drink adequate water throughout the day to keep those kidneys working properly.


As you can see, protein has a lot of power for our bodies. But energy isn’t one of them. So don’t replace those super important carb foods with all protein items. Create a balance at meals by getting representation of carbs, fats, and proteins happening on your plate.

This post was co-authored by Kristen Matthews, a senior dietetics student at Montclair State University. Kristen is a Student Liaison for the the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is student representative for the NJ Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and is on the Executive Board of Montclair State Dietetics Organization.






Leave a Comment