This simple macronutrient can save the day in myriad ways.
By Christa Sgobba
Talk to anyone about healthy eating and we guarantee the word “protein” will come up at least once within the first 30 seconds. For such a simple macronutrient, you might wonder: Just what makes protein so important anyway?
Well, how much time do you have?
The truth is protein plays a crucial role throughout your entire body. Everything from your muscles to your heart can benefit from the macronutrient, big time. In fact, here are seven surprising ways protein works hard for you.
Protein Superpower #1: It Sparks Muscle Growth
You’ve just crushed your Pilates class. While you put in plenty of work during your workout, the real muscle-building magic happens well after you wrangle out of your sweaty gym clothes.
That’s because if your goal is to build muscle, you have to give the process some time—and fuel.
Here’s what happens: When you exercise, you cause tiny micro-tears in your muscles, says Daniel Yohe, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
“Your body doesn’t know it’s breaking down those muscles in the coordinated effort of exercise,” Yohe explains. “It just knows that those muscles broke down, and your body is like, ‘I want to be able to fix this and make it stronger so it doesn’t happen again.’”
That’s where protein comes in. The macronutrient acts like building blocks, which are necessary in repairing the damaged muscle tears.
The repair process takes about 24 to 48 hours after your workout, but the sweet spot is in the hour immediately following a sweat session. That’s when you want to take in about 20 grams of protein. You won’t just boost your muscle recovery, but you’ll also achieve a positive protein balance, meaning the extra protein can then be used to build muscle rather than repair it, says Yohe.
Just make sure to pair your post-workout protein with simple carbohydrates. That way your body will have the energy it needs to use those protein building blocks effectively.
Protein Superpower #2: It Fills You Up
As anyone who ever chowed down on a bagel for breakfast can tell you, carbs don’t keep you full for long. But protein does.
In fact, when women in a University of Missouri study ate a snack with 24 grams of protein, they felt more full and were able to wait longer until their next meal than those who snacked on low-protein foods. That’s because protein decreases a hunger hormone in your body called ghrelin, and this leads to greater satiety, says Yohe.
“If you eat only carbs, you’re going to get hungrier more often and will be taking in more energy overall,” he says. “That’s one reason protein is key for weight loss and weight maintenance.”
Protein Superpower #3: You Burn Calories Digesting It
Your body is going to expend some effort digesting any food you eat. This is a process called diet-induced thermogenesis, but its effects are way more pronounced with protein compared to any other macronutrient.
When you take in protein, you burn about 25 percent of the calories just from your body trying to break it down, Yohe says. Meanwhile, you only burn about 5 to 10 percent of calories from carbs during digestion, finds a study in Nutrition & Metabolism. The percentage is even lower for fats.
One possible reason? Your body needs carbs, quick. And glucose is a fast and easy energy source, Yohe explains.
But protein is used as a structural component, aiding in repair of damaged muscle cells, for instance. So it takes more for your body to break it down, which ends up creating a more favorable calorie balance.
Protein Superpower #4: It Can Lower Your Blood Pressure
A high-protein diet might be good for your heart. That’s according to researchers at Boston University, who say the macronutrient may lower your blood pressure.
The scientists asked more than 3,000 people to fill out diet diaries. After 11 years, they discovered that subjects who took in the most protein—about 100 grams a day—were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure over the course of the study than those who consumed the least, or about 58 grams.
When the study participants’ diets were also high in fiber—common in plant-based diets—eating more protein contributed to a 60 percent reduction in hypertension risk. Credit an amino acid called arginine, which may work as a vasodilator, meaning it helps relax and open your blood vessels, the researchers say.
Protein Superpower #5: It Kills Cravings
In a 2014 study published in the Nutrition Journal, researchers recruited 20 young women who normally skipped breakfast. The women then tried three separate scenarios for 6 days each: Eat a 13-gram protein breakfast, a 35-gram protein breakfast, or no breakfast at all.
Here’s what they found: Eating both breakfasts reduced the participants’ post-meal cravings for sweet and savory foods, but the high-protein breakfast thwarted their savory cravings to a greater extent.
The extra protein also led to greater increases in something called plasma homovanillic acid, which is a marker of the brain chemical dopamine, or the reward hormone. As a result, the researchers believe protein can trigger the production of pleasurable dopamine, which may help reduce food cravings.
Protein Superpower #6: It Could Keep Your Blood Sugar In Check
Eating enough protein may help keep diabetes at bay. In fact, people who take in a higher percentage of their total calories from plant-based protein are significantly less likely to develop diabetes than those who consume less, finds a 2016 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Here’s why: The macronutrient may help regulate insulin, a hormone your pancreas produces that allows your body to use sugar for energy. “It helps take glucose into your cells and out of your bloodstream,” Yohe explains.
And when you eat more protein than carbs, your body has to expend more energy breaking it down. That helps you avoid the blood sugar spike that can occur right after eating a carb-heavy meal, says Yohe.
Protein Superpower #7: It Can Help You Heal
Protein can help repair your muscles after a tough workout. But it can also aid your body in recovering from other injuries. “Let’s say you have a major cut that requires 30 stitches or you break a bone,” Yohe says. “Protein is paramount in recovery.”
Yes, you also need other nutrients like carbs and fats, but protein plays a special role in the wound-healing process. That’s because it’s the substance that underlies a bunch of your specialized cells; whether they’re muscle or bone cells, protein makes up a good part of them, Yohe says. So you need to take in enough of those building blocks if you want to build them back up.
In fact, if you don’t consume enough protein, you could hinder the formation of tiny blood vessels called capillaries and the production of collagen—both of which are necessary for proper wound healing, say researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago.