Putting It All Together
Protein is more than just a simple nutrient; it is a vastly complex conglomerate of smaller amino acids which act like words, sentences, and even paragraphs of information! The largest protein in our body, titin, is almost 27,000 amino acids long! This is like a 27,000 letter long word. By contrast, this article contains only about 24,500 letters. Protein serves many specialized functions in our body beyond our muscles–different proteins help digest food, carry oxygen to our tissue, and fight off pathogens.
Eating the right amount of protein is important to maintain all of these systems, and without adequate protein intake all of them will begin to suffer. Thankfully, eating enough protein is not hard to do. As long as your diet is healthy and diverse, and not loaded with processed foods, more than likely you are already getting enough protein to maintain health.
Even if you are an athlete, protein requirements as a percentage of daily calories do not change. For most healthy adults, including athletes, 12-15% of total calories should come from protein. As your caloric intake increases, so does your protein as well. No special effort is required to achieve maximal effect from protein as an athlete.
Just as important as getting enough protein is getting the right amount of all the amino acids. Nine of them are essential–our body cannot produce them itself. Another six are conditionally essential because our body may not be able to produce enough of them under certain conditions, such as illness. The most limiting amino acid in any vegetarian or vegan diet is almost certainly going to be lysine. Getting enough lysine is not hard for anyone who incorporates animal products into their diet, as they are very rich in lysine. If you do not incorporate any animal products into your diet, make sure you consume enough beans and other high-lysine foods.