Protein-rich foods are important for everyone, not just bodybuilders. Protein serves as the building blocks for our bodies, from the tiniest structures inside our cells, to the largest parts of our anatomy. Unlike carbs or fat, excess protein isn’t readily stored by the body, so it’s essential to eat enough of this macronutrient every day. Of course, just because your body doesn’t store the protein doesn’t mean you have free rein to eat as much as you’d like without gaining weight. The body can convert excess protein into glucose, or store it as fat. [What is Protein?]
When you eat protein, the large protein molecules are broken down into their basic components, which are known as amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that are important in the body, and some can be converted from one type of amino acid to another as needed. However, there are also several amino acids that cannot be produced in the body by converting other amino acids, meaning you must get these amino acids from your diet. These are known as essential amino acids.
Both animal-based proteins (such as those found in meat, fish, dairy and eggs) and plant-based proteins (found in soy, legumes, nuts and some grains) contain essential amino acids. However, whereas all animal-based proteins contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs, plant-based proteins generally contain a smaller set of amino acids. That means that if you eat a vegan diet, you need to eat a variety of plant types to get all of your essential amino acids.
As with carbohydrates, 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories.