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What's the Difference Between Proteins & Amino Acids?

By Stephanie Brookshier ; Updated July 18, 2017

Protein can be found in most foods, including meat, dairy, beans, nuts and grain products. Protein is essential for building bone, muscle, skin and blood, according to the USDA. It also plays a vital role in enzyme, hormone and immune functions. But not all proteins are equally healthy. Choosing lean proteins in the correct amounts will help you meet your nutritional needs.

Essential and Nonessential Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks that make up protein. Essential amino acids cannot be produced in the human body, and must be obtained from the diet. Humans can produce the remaining nonessential amino acids. Unlike fat and carbohydrates, protein is not readily stored in the body and needs to be consumed daily. But the quality of protein is as important as the quantity. Choosing the right protein sources can assure that you receive all of the essential amino acids.

Protein Quality

Protein sources that include all of the essential amino acids are considered complete proteins. Complete protein sources include fish, meat, and dairy products. Full fat meat and dairy products are often high in saturated fat, the fat that increases the bad cholesterol and your risk of heart disease. The best complete protein sources are low-fat dairy, lean cuts of meat, and seafood. Seafood including fish should be eaten about three times weekly. The USDA recommends seafood rich in healthy omega-3 fats and low in the contaminant mercury. Try salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, and trout for healthy seafood options.

Protein for Vegetarians

Vegetarians can still meet their protein needs without consuming meat. Nonmeat and nondairy sources of protein like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy are all good sources of protein, and are low in saturated fat. The American Dietetic Association recommends high quality well digested proteins like eggs, low-fat yogurt or milk, and soy like milk or tofu for vegetarians.

Protein Needs

Most Americans meet their protein needs easily. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that adults should get 10 to 35 percent of their total daily calories from protein. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this would equal 200 to 700 calories, or 50 to 175 grams of protein. Most athletes only need 6 to 7 oz of protein, in addition to dairy food and grain products, according to the American Dietetic Association. Endurance athletes and bodybuilders may have higher protein needs.

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