Some people seem to be running on a secret reserve of energy that keeps them motivated, focused, and energized from dawn to dusk. It could be genetics, the unmerited favor of the gods, or the fact that they’ve learned to optimize their health by sticking to a healthy diet.
The last option is the most likely, and that’s good because it means there’s a chance for the rest of us to hone in on our nutrition and tap into energy reserves we didn’t know we had. While all food is important for energy, we’ll specifically look at protein and how it relates to our energy levels.
We’ll tell you everything you need to know about what protein is, how it affects your energy, and how to use it to stoke your metabolic fire.
What Is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient, alongside fat and carbohydrates. Together, these are the foundations of all our diets, and all three of these macronutrients are crucial for satiety, overall health, and immune system function.
Our bodies use protein for more than just building muscle. Over 10,000 different proteins make up our bodily tissues, support processes like respiration, create new cells, and provide energy.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and these tiny acids form chains that create proteins. Your body has to have amino acids to make protein, and nine amino acids are considered essential — which means your body has to have them but can’t readily make them on its own. Those amino acids must come from your diet.
Does Protein Give You Energy?
Whether protein will give you energy is best answered with an understanding of how our bodies create energy and how it is used. The process of energy creation happens inside your cells.
How Energy Is Created
When you eat food, your body breaks the food down into simple packets of usable fuel. When we eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose. When we eat fat, the body breaks it down into fatty acids. Protein is broken down into amino acids.
Your body relies on glucose for the majority of its energy production. Glucose is moved from the bloodstream to the cells by insulin. Any excess glucose that can’t be used is stored in the liver, muscles, or adipose tissue until needed.
What Happens When We Eat Protein?
Although your body will naturally resource carbohydrates for energy first, it will also use fat followed by protein when the carbohydrates have been depleted. This is what makes the ketogenic diet popular. The theory behind it is that by eliminating carbs, your body will burn off fat for fuel.
Protein is not the body’s first choice for the creation of energy. As such, only a small portion of your protein gives you energy. That said, protein is an important part of your total energy production system.
How Protein Gives You Energy
It’s true that some protein may be broken down into amino acids and then into glycogen which can be converted into fuel, but this isn’t the main source of your body’s energy, and this conversion usually doesn’t happen unless we’re too low on calories or doing endurance-style exercise.
Protein plays a role in energy production but in unexpected ways.
- Hormone balance. Proteins are used to create hormones, which run the show in your body. Like the first in a chain of dominoes, they start and stop processes that regulate your sleep, tired and awake cycles, appetite, and mood.
- Cell refueling. A protein called hemoglobin carries oxygen and nutrients to the cells to keep them powered up and functioning properly.
- Muscle maintenance. Protein is required for muscle growth. The more lean muscle tissue we have, the higher our metabolism is. Muscle mass increases our basal metabolic rate, so our bodies can burn more calories at rest.
Another important way protein helps with our energy levels is by helping to regulate our blood sugar. That’s done by consuming the right amount of protein with carbohydrates and fats to protect against dramatic blood sugar spikes and crashes.
How Can You Balance Protein and Carbs for Energy?
Carbohydrates are fast-digestion compounds. That means you eat them, your body breaks them down quickly, and your blood sugar spikes. That spike may energize you for about 10 minutes, but we’re all familiar with the ensuing crash that has us craving another cup of coffee or an energy drink.
To avoid this, your body needs protein and fiber. These two slow-digesting ingredients help prevent blood sugar levels from spiking, helping you maintain a clean, consistent energy level long after you’ve consumed a meal.
Working with a dietitian or nutritionist can help you determine the best amount of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates you should eat daily. A good rule of thumb is the 40-30-30 method. Using this method, you’ll fill 40% of your plate with vegetables, 30% with complex carbohydrates (like whole grains), and 30% with lean protein.
What Foods Are High in Protein?
Your protein choices matter, and there’s more available than just steak and chicken. Unexpected sources can help you get in more grams of protein per day, which can help support a high-protein diet and stabilize your energy levels.
Dairy products are a source of protein and calcium, which can help support strong bones and encourage a balanced diet. Look for lean dairy sources, like Greek yogurt and low-fat milk, to supplement your protein intake.
Dairy products contain all nine essential amino acids, giving dairy products a complete protein profile. If you avoid dairy products, you can choose plant-based alternatives derived from tofu, almonds, cashews, and coconut. These products also contain protein.
They’re not just for bodybuilders. Using a supplement powder can help you reach your protein intake goals if you have a hard time getting enough throughout your day. Whey protein is the most popular type of protein powder and is derived from dairy products.
Other options include plant-based protein powders like barley, pea, and soy. You can get about 25-30 grams of protein per protein shake you drink, and most protein powders are also fortified with other vitamins and nutrients to support a healthy diet.
An obvious source of protein, meat will give your body plenty of protein and help keep you full. Stick with options like salmon, lean chicken and pork, and shrimp. Limiting your intake of red meat can help reduce your risk of colon cancer.
The way your meat is prepared is also important. Fried foods, for instance, can cause sluggish digestion, making you tired. Not to mention, they don’t support healthy body weight.
These plant-based protein foods are vegan-friendly, support digestive health, and are densely packed with nutrients to satisfy you. Examples of legumes include chickpeas, broad beans, soybeans, lentils, and peanuts.
How Can You Know if You’re Getting Enough Protein?
The easiest way to determine if you’re getting enough protein is to keep track of your protein intake. It might seem like a challenge, but plenty of apps make light work of the job by allowing you to scan the barcodes on your food or look them up in a database.
Your doctor or healthcare provider can give you the best recommendations on how much protein you need, but not getting enough protein does have some recognizable symptoms:
- Muscle weakness
- Feeling tired and lethargic
- Having trouble with concentration
- Getting sick frequently
- Constantly feeling hungry
You might have some or all of these symptoms if you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet. Increasing your protein intake can help you determine if these symptoms are from your diet or something else.
The Bottom Line
Protein isn’t the main source of energy your body uses, but it plays an important role in keeping you energized. Protein supports numerous bodily functions, and not getting enough is like playing seven notes of an eight-note scale.
If you aren’t getting enough protein, you might notice changes in your energy levels. The best way to make sure you are is to track your protein intake and make necessary adjustments. Staying healthy and supporting your overall wellness is a journey, and managing your protein intake is a step along the way.
Your friends who have all the energy? It’s not just good luck. They’ve made a decision to focus on their health and wellness, and you can do the same. You deserve the benefits a healthy body offers, and making small changes like eating more protein can help you on your wellness journey.
Protein | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Protein and Amino Acids - Recommended Dietary Allowances | NCBI Bookshelf
Amino acid and protein metabolism during exercise and recovery | PubMed.gov
Blood and the cells it contains - Blood Groups and Red Cell Antigens | NCBI Bookshelf
Increasing muscle mass to improve metabolism | PMC