What Actually Happens When You Eat Enough Protein

Source: solod_sha | Pexels
Source: solod_sha | Pexels

While I’ll be the first in line to try the latest fitness trend—4-2-1 Method, soft workouts, hot girl walks—I don’t subscribe as much to what’s “in” regarding nutrition. That is until the golden age of protein came along. From the 30/30/30 method to high-protein snacks taking over TikTok, the obsession with the macronutrient can’t be missed. Some experts say you should consume 30 grams of protein at every meal, while others say “enough” protein means 1 gram per pound of body weight a day (IDK if you did the math, but that’s well over what most of us are getting). But is protein really worth all the hype? Do you really need that much protein, and if so, why? What actually are the benefits of protein? And lastly, how much protein is “enough?” I asked experts to weigh in.

What happens to your body when you eat enough protein?

Before the protein you consume “feeds” your cells, tissues, muscles, and bones, it has to get broken down into amino acids in the stomach and small intestine. Thousands of amino acids (AKA the building blocks of protein) link up to form long chains, and the sequence of that chain determines its unique function in your body. Read on for the benefits of protein and how the buzzy nutrient plays a role in the body’s various functions.

You gain and maintain muscle mass

When you combine consistent weight training with adequate protein intake in regular intervals throughout the day, you optimize muscle protein synthesis, which helps build and maintain muscle mass. If you’re not in the gym lifting weights every week, you can still reap benefits from consuming ample protein. “Even for those who don’t exercise consistently, eating enough protein can help prevent the body from breaking down muscle for energy that results in muscle loss,” explained Destini Moody, RD, CSSD, LD, a registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching. On the other hand, if you don’t get enough dietary protein, your body won’t be able to rebuild properly, and you may start to lose muscle mass (whether you’re weight training or not).

You boost your metabolism

Your metabolism helps support weight management, energy levels, nutrient utilization, and blood sugar control. Moody explained that the more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism. Boosting your metabolism means increasing the rate at which your body burns calories or expends energy, Jordan Hill, MCD, RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching told Eat This, Not That. Because protein has a higher thermic effect of food (TEF) compared to carbohydrates and fats, your body burns more calories in the process of digesting, absorbing, and utilizing protein. Over time, a lack of sufficient dietary protein can make you lose muscle mass, which in turn slows your metabolism. Eating enough protein ensures your metabolism is functioning efficiently so the body can burn the calories you need to stay healthy.

You support your gut health

A 2022 study suggested that dietary protein strongly impacts your gut microbiome and digestive function. In fact, the macronutrient is essential for gut function, namely for digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function. Proteins are broken down into amino acids that synthesize enzymes involved in digestion. “Proper digestion is crucial for gut health, as it ensures the efficient absorption of nutrients and the elimination of waste products,” conveyed Alayna Hutchinson MS, LDN, RDN, a registered dietitian at microbiome biotech company Pendulum. Because many digestive functions depend on protein to break down into amino acids and absorb nutrients, if you don’t consume enough protein, you may experience digestive issues like gassiness and difficulty going to the bathroom.

You enhance your immune system

The antibodies our bodies use to fight off disease are made up of proteins. According to Moody, that is why people who don’t eat enough protein often find themselves getting sick more often, even if they’re eating an otherwise healthy diet. Immune cells in the gut rely on proteins to carry out their functions, such as identifying and eliminating pathogens. “The cells lining the intestinal wall rely on proteins for structural support, helping to prevent the passage of pathogenic organisms and other toxins from the gut into the bloodstream,” Hutchinson said. Without the antibodies, bacteria and viruses would roam freely and infect your body with diseases. Translation: If you don’t eat enough protein, you may find yourself getting sick more often. Eating enough protein helps strengthen the immune system.

You improve your skin and hair health

Protein is the best-kept beauty secret. Moody pointed out that the structure of skin, hair, and nails is largely made up of proteins, mainly keratin and collagen. As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen is responsible for the structure, elasticity, and rejuvenation of skin, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. When you get enough protein in your diet, you provide the necessary amino acids for collagen production, wound healing, and skin structure. However, when you have a protein deficiency, you’ll likely experience hair loss, weak nails, and dull skin.

Source: Kailee Collier | Dupe

How much protein do you really need?

Daily protein intake requirements aren’t one-size-fits-all. Protein needs can vary based on age, sex, body composition, activity level, and overall health. According to the Recommended Dietary Allowance, a sedentary adult should consume 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. However, Moody advised that the standard recommendation is less than the body needs for most fitness and wellness goals. “This number is designed to help the average person prevent protein deficiency, but isn’t necessarily the amount that we need,” she said. “In fact, it’s the bare minimum.” If you’re recovering from surgery, injury, or illness or you work out regularly, you likely have higher protein needs than the RDA’s average.

Dr. Shivani Amin, MD, a functional medicine physician, agreed, adding that those doing resistance training or endurance sports require more protein to support muscle repair and growth. She also noted that pregnancy, lactation, and some chronic illnesses may increase protein needs as well. If you fit in any of those categories, just how much more protein should you consume? Experts say 20-25 percent more than the recommended intake or 1.2–2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. For more specific guidelines, consult a registered dietitian or your doctor.

What type of protein do you need?

It’s not just the quantity of protein you eat that matters—the quality is just as important, and not all dietary proteins are created equal. Dr. Amin explained that the quality of protein, measured by its amino acid profile and digestibility, also affects how much protein is needed in your diet. When a protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids (or the amino acids that the body can’t produce itself, so we must get them from food), it’s considered a complete protein. High-quality protein sources, like organic meats, wild-caught fish, and eggs, are complete proteins, providing all the essential amino acids in the appropriate proportions.

If the protein is missing any of the nine essential amino acids, it’s called an incomplete protein (AKA most plant foods). While beans and rice are both incomplete proteins, if you pair them together, you get all the amino acids that you would when you eat a complete protein, like chicken. Or, take collagen powder. On its own, it’s an incomplete protein, but if you blend it with a nut butter in a smoothie, you can check off all the amino acids you need. The quality of the protein you eat can affect how well your body uses it, so eating a small serving of high-quality protein can go a longer way in reaching your protein intake goals and reaping the benefits of the macronutrient than a large serving of lower-quality protein.

Experts Consulted

Destini Moody, RD, CSSD, LD, Registered Dietitian at Top Nutrition Consulting

Destini is a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition and a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. She has six years of experience working with collegiate and professional athletes, specializing in enhancing athletic performance through nutrition-timing strategies.

Jordan Hill, MCD, RD, CSSD, Registered Dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching

As a registered dietitian and certified sports dietetics specialist, Jordan has a successful track record working with pregnant/postpartum moms, athletes, and clients with chronic diseases and GI disorders. No matter what her client’s needs are, she works with each person to develop an individualized plan based on their specific needs.

Alayna Hutchinson MS, LDN, RDN, Registered Dietitian at Pendulum

Alayna has a background in clinical nutrition with a focus on community health. More recently, she has transitioned into functional medicine with a specialty in longevity and microbiome research. Alayna currently works with Pendulum Therapeutics, a biotech company pioneering ways for people to transform their health and wellness by unlocking the power of the gut microbiome.

Dr. Shivani Amin, MD, Functional Medicine Physician

After witnessing the power of holistic and herbal medicine to create lasting well-being, Dr. Amin began specializing in functional medicine as a means to help her patients live more efficient lives without the side effects of pharmaceutical medications. Focused on helping patients get to the root cause of their medical condition, she strives to help patients achieve a unified mind-body-spirit connection as the pathway to optimal health and well-being.