Protein, Protein, Protein… What Does It Mean?

Around many dinner tables… all across America… parents are desperately trying to get their children to eat a balanced meal—consisting of fruits and vegetables, grains and proteins. Sometimes a little embellishment is thrown in to encourage more healthy choices: like the “magic beans,” the “bunny rabbit carrots” and “broccoli trees” from the local farmers market. But protein is also an important part of the balanced equation when it comes to nutrition.

What Is Protein?

Let’s take a trip back to high school chemistry. Have no fear, we are not going to go through the periodic table or test you on covalent bonding. 

Merriam-Webster defines protein as

1 : any of various naturally occurring extremely complex substances that consist of amino-acid residues joined by peptide bonds, contain the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, usually sulfur, and occasionally other elements (such as phosphorus or iron), and include many essential biological compounds (such as enzymes, hormones, or antibodies) 

That’s simple enough, right? 

The important thing about proteins is that they are all made up of 20 different amino acids. It takes at least 50 amino acids to create a protein… But some proteins can have chains as long as 3000 amino acids! Try cataloging that. 

Our human bodies consist of these 20 amino acids, which are needed to make structures within our bodies, including tissues, bones, cartilage, muscles, hair, organs and nails. 

The order of the amino acids in the chain is critical to create perfect proteins, and even one mistake can lead to harmful results. For instance, sickle cell anemia is a disease that is caused by a single amino acid being replaced from the end of the protein chain in a hemoglobin molecule, which promotes oxygen carrying in red blood cells.

Where Do Proteins Come From?

Of the 20 amino acids we have in our bodies, we can naturally produce only 11 of them. So, that leaves nine amino acids that we need to consume (eat) in order to obtain them. These nine amino acids are called “the essential amino acids.” 

What’s All This Protein For? 

As stated above, proteins are essential to our bodies in building muscles, bones and organs. Pretty important stuff. Proteins also help repair and strengthen our organs. Another essential function of proteins is to help make our hormones, enzymes and antibodies. If we don’t get enough protein, we can lose muscle mass and have problems with our heart, respiratory and immune systems. For growing infants and toddlers, protein is essential to help proper growth.

Why Is Protein Important?

Protein is considered a “macronutrient,” which means that our bodies need an ample amount of it. Carbohydrates and fats are also considered macronutrients. In contrast, vitamins and minerals are considered micronutrients, because we don’t need large amounts of them. One important distinction between proteins and carbohydrates and fats is that our bodies do not store proteins. So, once it’s used up, we need more of it. Our bodies are comprised of 20% proteins. 

Animal Vs. Plant Protein

Consuming any animal protein will provide our bodies with all of the essential amino acids. That’s right, a T-bone steak, chicken thigh, fish fillet, pork chop, lobster tail, shrimp gumbo and even a bowl of chocolate covered grasshoppers will provide your body with all of the essential amino acids. Eggs and dairy products (yes, animal proteins) also contain all the essential amino acids. Remember the ovo-lacto vegetarian diet? 

Plant proteins are a little different because each plant has a different amino acid combination. None of them contain the entire list of the 20 amino acids. For example, cereal has a low amount of lysine, so a diet of only grains will leave you lysine deficient. However, lentils and peas contain a lot of lysine… But they have minimal amounts of methionine and tryptophan. Therefore, eating some grains and legumes can provide you with a complete amino acid profile. 

Complementary Proteins

There are plant proteins that when combined provide you with all the essential amino acids. For example, legumes plus nuts* or seeds. But, little did we know, there are certain yummy combinations served in many cultures and dinner tables that provide all the amino acid proteins we need:

Black beans and rice is so nice

Macaroni and cheese, please!

*Remember Oak Village Academy has a no nut policy, but sunflower seeds are just fine.

How Much Protein Do Children Need?

Please always consult your physician or pediatrician about any dietary and nutritional concerns for your child.

That said… According to the FDA, a six-month to one-year-old requires approximately 11 grams of protein a day. (There is sufficient protein in both breast milk and baby formula.) Toddlers need about 13 grams a day. Growing children need more protein than infants and toddlers… From ages 4-18 it’s recommended to consume about 20-35 grams of protein per day, depending on size and other factors. 

Protein In Everyday Foods

  • Milk and yogurt: 8 grams per cup
  • Cooked chicken: 8 grams per ounce
  • Egg: 7 grams
  • Beans: 3 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Pasta: 7 grams per cup

Other Sources Of Protein

  • Green peas
  • Quinoa 
  • Edamame 
  • Tofu
  • Beans
  • Leafy greens (i.e. spinach)
  • Sunflower and chia seeds
  • Chocolate (yes, chocolate)
  • Nuts/nut butter (remember Oak Village Academy is a nut-free campus)

Explore The Oak Village Academy™ Difference

At Oak Village Academy™ preschool in Cary, NC we learn the natural way by encouraging indoor and outdoor learning environments with low child to teacher ratios. Contact us to learn more: or (919) 377-1802