Protein and Heart Health: How Much Do You Need?

by Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Professional

Fat, protein, and carbohydrates are all essential to your overall health. When you are working to promote heart health and lose weight it's important that you do not cut any one nutrient too low. Today let's look at your protein intake.

Types of Protein

Protein is made up of 20 building blocks called amino acids. Eleven of these amino acids are nonessential and nine are essential. This means the body is unable to create nine of these amino acids on its own and must receive them from food sources. Dietary protein is divided into two categories - complete and incomplete. A complete protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids. An incomplete protein lacks one or more of the essential amino acids. This is more of a concern if you are vegetarian and consume limited animal food sources. If this is your situation I recommend working one-on-one with a dietitian to ensure you are using complementary proteins to meet your nutritional needs.

Function of Protein

Carbohydrates and fat are the body's primary energy sources, but protein fills many other crucial roles in the body. Here are a few:

  • Forms structural components of the body - muscle contractile tissue, connective tissue, cell membranes, and bone matrix.

  • Maintains fluid balance.

  • Regular acid-base (pH) balance of blood.

  • Formation of hormones and enzymes.

  • Immune function (antibodies are proteins).

The role of protein is directly related to weight maintenance is several ways. The hormones and enzymes produced regulate sleep, digestion, and ovulation. Protein slows digestion promoting steady blood sugar levels. Steady blood sugar levels prevent insulin spikes that can lead to increased fat storage. Poorly regulated blood sugar can also lead to elevated triglyceride levels. Improper fluid balance can lead to water retention and corresponding weight gain.

How Much Protein Do You Need

Standard recommendations for protein each day is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight (0.8 g/kg). To calculate your protein needs multiply your weight in pounds x 0.37.

Here's an example of how to do the calculations for someone weighing 140 pounds.

140 pounds x 0.37 = 51.8 or ~52 grams of protein/day

Even individuals who work out regularly due not have significantly increased protein needs. There are a few situations where protein needs are slightly higher, such as illness, endurance athletes, and professional body builders.

If you consume too little protein, your body turns to muscle. This is very important to keep in mind, especially if you are following a low calorie diet with limited protein intake. If you do not eat enough protein your body breaks down muscle to meet protein needs. Also, a low protein intake over time can cause feeling of lethargy and a lack of energy. Restricted protein intake increases your risk of becoming ill and makes building muscle to boost your metabolism and promote weight loss difficult.

Good protein sources include fish, poultry, lean beef, nuts, soy, and legumes/beans. One serving equals 3 ounces of meat,
½ cup beans, 2 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 egg, and 1 ounce nuts.

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Nelson, RD, LN

Lisa Nelson RD, a registered dietitian since 1999, provides step-by-step guidance to lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, so you can live life and enjoy your family for years to come. Lisa's passion for health comes from her own family history of heart disease, so she doesn't dispense trendy treatments; Lisa practices what she teaches in her own daily life. Because her own health is the foundation of her expertise, you can trust that Lisa will make it truly possible for you to see dramatic changes in your health, without unrealistic fads or impossibly difficult techniques.