Not only is it the key structural component of your cells, it also forms your hormones and enzymes and allows cells throughout your body to communicate with each other. It comprises your hair, your blood, and your fingernails and toenails. These cells break down and rebuild themselves all day, every day. Your body, interestingly, can recycle that broken-down protein, a survival mechanism that would have helped our ancestors through an unlucky stretch of hunting and gathering. You’ll die with no protein at all, but you can live for a long time with minimal amounts.
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So clearly it's important to get enough of it regularly. Adult women need about 46 grams a day of protein, but not just any old kind. That's right: Protein quality matters at least as much as quantity. Different foods have different combinations of 20 amino acids -- the building blocks of protein -- and some combinations are more potent than others. Nine of the 20 are considered “essential,” meaning your body can’t make them; they have to come from your diet. Of those nine, three are categorized as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine is the most powerful BCAA, and the single most important nutrient for building muscle.
While whey protein is hands-down the best for building or preserving muscle (26 percent BCAA, 14 percent leucine) it's also a supplement. Whereas most of your daily calories should come from whole foods, it's important to focus on other sources: dairy, eggs, and meats including poultry and fish. If you happen to be a vegetarian, you’ll rely more on soy and wheat sources, along with legumes like beans and lentils.
Looking for some inspiration to amp up the protein in your daily diet? Check out these loaded recipe suggestions. (Our mouths are already watering thinking of grilled swordfish with fruit salsa!)
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