When we talk about protein, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Whey Protein powder isn’t? Do you know that you can easily get all your protein from the food you eat. The problem is we are not eating the right foods to meet the body’s daily requirement. The importance of protein cannot be stressed enough.
Let’s understand what’s the fuss all about.
Importance of Protein
What is protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient. It regulates the structure and function of our body. It forms the basis of all life and plays a crucial role in almost all biological process.
In our body, protein performs the following important functions:
- Protein is the building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, hair and skin. It continuously repairs any damaged tissues and replaces them with new ones.
- It is also essential for production of hormones and enzymes in our body.
- Our immune system get a boost through protein as well.
- Protein is there even in our blood. Protein hemoglobin transports oxygen to all the cells in our body.
In fact, it governs how you look and your overall health.
What is protein made up of?
Amino acid are the “building blocks” of protein.
There are 20 different amino acids – nine of which are “essential” and the rest 11 of them are “non-essential.”
Non-essential doesn’t mean that our body doesn’t need them. It simply means that our body doesn’t need to get it from food directly. Our body can make these amino acids from other amino acids.
Essential Amino Acids
Non-Essential Amino Acids
Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine are together called BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids. They are very popular among fitness enthusiast. Leucine is even considered as the holy grail for muscle protein synthesis.
How much protein do you need per day?
Protein needs vary from one individual to another. As per FAO, new born has more requirement for protein. Children need adequate amount of protein for optimal growth and health. People who workout regularly may need twice the amount of protein than their sedentary counterparts.
- Infants (3 to 12 months) – 1.8 to 1.5 g per kg of body weight
- Children between 1 to 5 years – 1.2g to 1.1g per kg of body weight
- Children between 5 to 12 years – 1 g per kg of body weight
- Teenagers between 12 to 18 years – 0.8g per Kg of body weight
- Sedentary Individuals (18-60 years) – upto 1g per Kg of body weight
- Active Individuals (18-60 years) – upto 2g per kg of body weight
Protein requirement increase as we age. The older you get, your body becomes less efficient in utilizing protein. The more muscular an individual is , more is the protein required to maintain the muscles.
What happens when you don’t eat adequate amounts of protein?
Protein deficiency is a type of malnutrition which can result in:
- Lack of growth in children
- Loss of muscle mass across all age groups (men and women)
- Immunological disorders
- Respiratory problems
More less serious issues:
- Poor wound healing
- Increased risk of infections
How much protein do we really get from food?
Though we may be eating the same food since our childhood, the protein content in our diet has dropped significantly over the last few decades.
Due to the agriculture boom and over cultivation, the nutrients in the soil has depleted and so has the protein content in our food. Not only the protein content in veg sources have declined, animal protein quality has gone down too.Over the last few years, we have been eating out more often. We no longer get the benefits of eating nutritious food at home.
In India, shift has been more towards carbohydrates (grains and cereals).According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), rural households were consuming 56.5g of Protein in 2011-12 (down from 60.2g in 1993-94). Urban households were consuming 55.7g (down from 57.2g) in 1993-94.
In contrast, the national daily intake of protein in Japan was 69.1g in 2015. The figures are even higher for US and UK.
Do Women need less protein than men?
Men and women are 98.5% identical in their DNA. Their nutritional needs are more similar than different. Yet, women generally have less caloric need compared to men. As such their protein requirement is slightly less than men. 46 grams per day compared to 56 grams per day for men (sedentary individuals).
Things quickly change if you are active and workout frequently. Recommendations are 1.8 to 2g per kg of body weight for both men and women who hit the gym frequently.
If you are moderate to active (workout 1 -3 times per week), you can stick to the below protein range based on your height and current weight.
Protein is needed to reach any fitness goal and the fact is that even active women do not eat enough protein. Men who are into fitness, eat or drink protein all day. Whereas, if you ask a woman she will have no clue about how much protein she is eating.
This has more to do with the common thinking that protein is often related to being more muscular and big. What we don’t realize is that women need muscles as much as men. From physiological standpoint though, it is impossible for women to put on ton of muscles.
Protein helps to build lean muscle which in turn results in better metabolism and higher caloric demand by the body. It simply means adding muscles will not only make you look better but also help you to get a thinner waist line.
Is there an upper limit to protein absorption?
When it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis, 20 grams of protein is considered optimal. But, it doesn’t mean that body can only absorb 20 grams of protein in one meal.
Among all macronutrients, protein is the most difficult to process by the body. It takes the most resources and time to get digested and enter the blood stream as amino acids.
Our small intestine has limited number of transporter cells, which are needed for amino acids to be infused into the blood. This limits protein absorption in a specific time span (measured in hour). This is in essence refers to as protein absorption.
The speed of protein absorption varies by type of protein that is ingested.
- Whey – 8 to 10 grams per hour
- Casein – about 6 grams per hour
- Soy – about 4 grams per hour
- Egg – about 3 grams per hour
This means certain protein are absorbed more quickly than others. The presence of protein in the stomach results in the production of Neurotensin and PYY. These hormones delay the emptying of the food from the stomach.
This gives enough time for protein to move through the intestines and get absorbed slowly. The net result is protein doesn’t get wasted. Once body’s protein needs are fulfilled, if there are still any unused amino acids they simply get converted to glucose for energy.
What about intermittent fasting?
If you fast regularly, you can have your daily protein requirement in one or two meals. Your body will still be able to process all the protein. Chances are there will still be some amino acids sitting in your bloodstream until your next meal. But many don’t consider this optimal for competitive bodybuilding.
If you are not going to be on stage anytime soon, you can consider this approach to reap the benefits of fasting and adding muscle at the same time. At the end of the day, total daily calories and protein intake is what matters.
Can excessive protein be bad for health?
There is a strong belief in some sections of medical community that high protein intake can reduce calcium in bones and damage kidneys. But, there is no evidence to support this argument in healthy individuals. As long as you have a healthy liver and kidney, you don’t need to worry about eating too much protein. On the contrary, it may improve bone density and lower the risk of fractures.
Some athletes and professional bodybuilders eat as much as 4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. While excessive protein may not be bad for you, it may still be unnecessary. It can cap your daily intake of carbohydrates and fat. A well balanced diet, should include right proportion of all macronutrirents to ensure we benefit from each of them.
Do I need protein to lose weight?
If you are trying to lose weight, protein will be your best friend.
To lose weight, you have to eat less calories than what required to maintain your current weight. The biggest challenge everyone faces when cutting calories, is to overcome hunger. This is where protein proves beneficial.
Protein has proven effects to reduce hunger by suppressing the hunger hormone – ghrelin. It also increases satiety and makes you feel full by increasing the production of hormones – PYY and GLP-1. The affects are same for both men and women.
Protein is the most inefficient fuel for you body and is metabolically taxing for the body to process. As a result, it can boost your metabolism significantly. In several studies it was found that protein increases metabolic rate by 20-30% through a process called thermogenesis of food.Muscles are important for both men and women
Higher protein intake helps you to preserve muscle mass. They will help you walk upright and perform daily task with ease even in your old age. The more lean muscles you have, higher is the maintenance cost.
What this means for you, is that when you are eating less than your maintenance calories, the body will pull energy from stored fat to fuel the muscles. So it’s important not to lose your muscles, when losing weight.
If you workout intensively, the chances are you will be able to add more muscles while losing fat at the same time on calorie deficit.
How to increase protein in your diet?
Protein from animal sources like eggs, meats, diary, fish and poultry are considered the best sources of protein. They have all essential amino acids in the right proportion. Hence, they are often referred to as complete protein. If you include at least one of them in every meal, you can easily meet your daily need.
Where does this leave Vegans and vegetarian with?
Though there is no complete veg protein, you can combine different veg sources like rice and beans to get all the benefits of animal protein. Legumes, grains, nuts, soy and seeds are some other sources of plant protein.
Still can’t manage to hit your protein goal?
If you have a busy schedule and you are unable to cook all your meals, you can supplement with a protein powder. These protein powders are processed from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas.
Below are few most popular protein supplements.
- Whey Protein: Source of Whey Protein is milk. The liquid that separates from curd during cheese making is called whey. The protein extracted from this liquid is called Whey Protein. Most popular form is Whey Protein Concentrate (contains lactose) and Whey Protein Isolate (almost lactose free). Concentrated form has about 60-80% protein and Isolate has up to 95% of protein. BCAAs are found abundantly in both forms.
- Casein Protein: Casein is another milk protein. Casein is digested and absorbed slowly compared to whey protein. It has higher amounts of lactose compared to whey. It is also more expensive compared to whey.
- Egg Protein: Whole egg is one of the few foods that have complete nutrition with high bio availability of protein. Egg Protein powder though are just concentrated form of egg whites only. They are excellent source of all essential and non-essential amino acids. Leucine content in egg is second to whey. They are not that popular though compared to Whey and Casein.
- Pea Protein: Pea is the only plant source which contains all essential amino acids (except methionine). Pea protein is becoming quite popular among vegans and vegetarians. It is also a good alternative for people with sensitivity to milk and egg.
- Mixed Plant Protein: They are basically blend of two or more plant sources of protein. Plant protein blend typically includes brown rice, pea, quinoa or hemp.
Though it is convenient to hit your daily protein goals by just supplementing them, we should always make attempt to get most of it from whole foods. After all human body was designed to eat actual food and not processed powders.