Okay I know there is TONS of information out there about protein. I know you’ve heard people tell you to eat more protein, to eat less protein, to eat lean protein, blah blah blah. It’s enough to make anyone want to bury their head in the sand and avoid all the confusion!
Seriously – eating shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t have us asking so many questions. It shouldn’t make you to feel judged by all those people who claim they know what’s best because they follow all the blogs, or they did a fitness competition. The last thing we need is to feel more discouraged about ourselves and our choices.
So what am I telling you? Facts. I’m going to share with you simple, quantifiable facts about food that will allow you to make your own informed decision about what to eat, and how much.
Put simply, protein is an organic macronutrient (meaning it contains carbon and our bodies require it in large amounts (grams vs milligrams). So proteins are comprised of chains of amino acids (stick with me chemistry-haters, this won’t last long), which are all comprised of Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen and Nitrogen. Depending on the number and types of amino acids, and how they are folded and bound, the protein will take a certain structure and function. I’m not going to bore you with all the details about amino acids and protein types, but you do need to know why protein is so important for your body (and it’s not just about muscle-building either).
When our body has a constant supply of the right amino acids (found by breaking down protein), it uses those amino acids to perform certain functions in the body. Actually, protein provides the largest range of functions than any other bodily component.
Here are 5 major functions of protein in the body:
- Growth & Repair: Proteins are made and consumed by the body to build and repair tissues. If we are growing (or pregnant or nursing), we need to intake more protein to account for the extra growth (usually at least 25g/day extra). Cells have a lifecycle, so even as adults, we need a constant (daily) supply of protein to sustain the regeneration of cells. Red Blood cells need to be replaced almost monthly, and hemoglobin is an important protein that the body synthesizes out of amino acids. White blood cells are regenerated twice weekly. If you exercise, the muscle tissue breaks down and requires repair. If the body the does not have an adequate supply of the essential amino acids (ones it cannot produce on its own), then it will break down muscle tissue to obtain these amino acids for more important functions.
- Energy: That’s right. The body is constantly using carbohydrates, fat and a little bit of protein for energy. It isn’t perfect, so there will always be a percentage of each being utilized. It is easiest for the body to use carbohydrates, so as long as they are available, and fats are available (and the means to convert them), then muscle tissue is spared. However, when in starvation mode, the body will break down muscle to use protein as energy if it requires.
- Building Important Components: Proteins (amino acids from proteins, actually) are used by the body to create things like enzymes (used to metabolize nutrients), neurotransmitters (for nerve and brain communication), hemoglobin (for oxygen transport in the blood), hormones such as insulin and thyroid hormone – for metabolism, and of course – antibodies!). Isn’t that amazing? Proteins are used to support the immune system, and when foreign substances enter the body (usually proteins), proteins are formed to bind to them and render them inactive. Our immune system requires that our body has the constant ability to make proteins, thus all the required amino acids must be readily available.
- Fluid Balance: Some proteins reside inside cells and help maintain a fluid balance by attracting H2O. Most proteins cannot move in and out of cells, but H2O can. Proteins also help maintain the balance of Sodium outside the cells, and Potassium inside the cells.
- pH Balance: Proteins are also critical in helping keep the body’s acid-alkaline balance in check. The essentially act as a buffer. When there is too much acidity in the body, the protein will pick up excess Hydrogen ions (H+), keeping the pH of the body around the ideal 7.4.
Quality of Proteins
I’m MOST concerned about whether or not your body is getting a good balance of the required amino acids. We can eat all the “protein” we want, but what is the source, and is our body actually absorbing it? Is it pre-packaged, GMO-containing, pumped-fulla-hormones processed meat? Is it natural, local (as much as possible), organic animal meat, eggs, fish or dairy? What about vegetarians or vegans? I’m a promoter of people eating what they believe in, and while I enjoy a good steak, I don’t force people to forget their beliefs.
Vegetarians and Vegans can definitely get adequate amounts of protein – but they need to be more knowledgeable and ensure they are constantly eating a broad range of foods that contain the essential amino acids for their bodies to build proteins, since they are mainly consuming incomplete proteins (meaning they do not contain all the required amino acids the body needs). There are a lot of interesting reads on food combining – but you should be aware that you do need to intake a variety (grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables) to ensure you are getting everything you need.
How Much Protein???
How much protein people should intake is the subject of a lot of debate. The US Government recommends that adults intake 0.8*Bodyweight (in kg) of protein, and the World Health Organization puts it at half. My personal belief is that is too low (especially if you are exercising), however I also believe it depends on a person’s goals (bodybuilding), genetics, digestion, quality of food, age and gender, health, and exercise habits. Obviously if you are an athlete, you need a heck of a lot more than a elderly person who is half your weight and walks lightly 30 min/day. Sports nutrition research suggests that active people intake a minimum of 0.8*bodyweight (kg), and up to 1.7*bodyweight (kg). The top of the range is suggested for high intensity strength and power athletes, and likely doesn’t apply to most of the general population. If you are looking to build muscle (gain weight), then you may need more, but you need to remember that any unabsorbed or unused protein WILL not be used for good, and will contribute to excess calories causing weight gain (and not necessarily muscle). So if you are increasing your protein intake, you should be balancing those calories or exercising more to demand that your body use the protein.
If you are super confused, then definitely ask a nutritionist! We are here to help, and can only help each person individually, since there are so many beautiful differences between each and every person 🙂
Until next time,