By: Kelsey Kunik RDN / registered dietitian, nutrition consultant, health and wellness writer, and food blogger.
Protein is quite literally the building block of life, so it’s no surprise that protein gives you energy in more ways than one. But, the energy you get from protein won’t give you an instant boost, as you might imagine.
Instead, protein works in the body, building and repairing cells, hormones, and enzymes and regulating how your body digests and metabolizes other nutrients.
Protein’s role in our health is so important that we’re constantly trying to get enough of it in our meals and snacks. From protein bars to powders and shakes, there’s no limit to ways to eat more protein. Here’s more about protein’s role in the body and how it gives you long-lasting energy to power through your day.
How Does the Body Use Protein?
When you eat protein, it’s digested and broken down into 20 different amino acids, all used for various functions within the body. Once broken down, the amino acids can build new proteins and get to work by:
Building and repairing muscles and cells - Your body's muscles, bones, and tissues are constantly being broken down and built back up. Protein is needed to rebuild and repair these tissues to keep you strong and healthy.
Assembling and regulating hormones and enzymes - Several types of hormones (chemical messengers) and all enzymes (proteins needed for chemical reactions like digestion, metabolism, and more) are made of protein.
Providing structure - Collagen, elastin, and keratin are all proteins found in hair, skin, and nails, keeping the right things hard, rigid, smooth, or elastic.
Balancing fluids and transporting nutrients - Protein can be found in the blood, helping to maintain fluid balance and keeping body fluids where they need to be to avoid swelling. Hemoglobin, a protein found in the blood that helps transport oxygen to cells, also helps regulate the acidity and alkalinity of the blood, keeping it in balance at 7.4.
Providing energy - As a last resort, your body can use protein for energy. But, it will only rely on protein for energy when you’re in a fasted state, performing exhaustive exercise, or experiencing malnutrition.
How Much Energy is in Protein?
Protein will give you 4 kcal of energy per gram. But, since protein is essential for so many important functions in the body, its lowest priority is that of an energy source.
The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but remember that this is the lowest amount a healthy adult may need. Researchers have found that 2 grams per kilogram of body weight is safe for healthy adults, so somewhere in between is likely optimal, not just the bare minimum. This means that 150-pound healthy adult needs at least 55 grams of protein per day, but eating up to 136 grams per day could help for optimal growth, structure, and body functions.
Do You Use Protein For Energy?
Protein does help you feel more energized, but your body doesn’t prefer to use protein as an energy source directly. In fact, of the three macronutrients – carbohydrates, fat, and protein – protein is your body’s last resort for energy.
When your body needs energy, it reaches for carbohydrates first. Carbohydrates you’ve recently eaten are broken down into glucose and shuttled through the blood to cells for energy first. After this is depleted, carbohydrates stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen are converted back into glucose and used for energy.
The next preferred energy source is fat. Stored fat breaks down into fatty acids that are used as energy, giving us 9 kcal of energy per gram. The body has to work a lot harder to access fat for energy than carbs, but this is still a common energy source.
When carbohydrates and fat are all used up, your body will then work to get energy from protein. Since protein is stored primarily in muscles, muscle breakdown has to occur to make protein available for energy.
How Protein Supports Energy
While using protein directly for energy only happens in extreme circumstances, protein plays a powerful supporting role in helping you feel energized.
While your body uses carbohydrates as its primary energy source, eating protein with carbohydrates helps slow digestion down, prolonging the release of sugar into the blood and the cells. Eating protein will help you experience lasting and sustained energy from your meals and snacks instead of quick bursts followed by feeling tired and hungry shortly after.
Since protein is the key to repairing and building muscle mass, it also helps to maintain and improve your metabolism. Metabolism is how quickly your body transforms what you eat into usable energy. People with more muscle mass tend to have higher metabolisms than those with less muscle mass.
Different Sources and Types of Protein for Optimal Health
When considering where protein comes from, meat is often the first to come to mind. After all, protein is stored in muscles, so eating meat is a direct way to include protein in your diet. Foods like chicken, beef, pork, and wild game are high in protein, with 20 to 30 grams per 3-ounce serving.
While animal products are high in protein, plants can also be great sources, especially if you include a variety of them in your diet. Soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are protein-rich. And despite the myth that plant proteins are not complete proteins (meaning that they don’t provide all 9 essential amino acids), you can get all the amino acids you need by eating a variety of plant foods.
ALOHA Protein Bars are vegan, packing 14 grams of plant protein into each bar with a protein blend of brown rice protein, pumpkin seed protein, and other nuts and seeds, depending on the flavor.
The Bottom Line: Does Protein Give You Energy?
While protein is not your body’s preferred energy source, it can be used as a last resort to provide your cells with the energy they need. Protein works indirectly to give you sustained energy by slowing down the digestion of carbohydrates while repairing and building muscle to increase metabolism. Eating meals and snacks, like ALOHA Peanut Butter Cup Protein Bars, is a convenient and delicious way to include 14 grams of plant protein in a quick, packable snack.
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