Protein – Why it’s Important, How Much Should We Eat & Why You Should Avoid Excessive Protein Intake
Few nutrients are as important as protein, as it plays a very powerful role in our bodies.
Protein is a component of every cell in your body. Without protein, life as we know it would not be possible. Did you know that our brain cells, muscle, skin, hair and nails are just some of the body parts that are protein-based? Estimates suggest that about half of the human body’s dry weight is made up of protein.
Protein is important for building, maintaining and repairing body tissues, so it’s a fundamental building block for our bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood.
Protein is also critical to making important hormones. Cortisol, estrogen, adrenaline and testosterone are just a few of the hormones that flow through your body every day, working as chemical messengers to regulate sleep, growth, metabolism and the reproductive process. Protein creates the structural framework for hormones to develop and carry messages between organs and cells (Observer, 2017).
Adequate protein intake is important in our diet, as it not only supports weight loss and maintains lean muscle mass but is important to keep our bodies functioning properly as we age.
What actually is protein?
Proteins are made out of smaller molecules called amino acids, which are linked together like beads on a string.
These linked amino acids form long protein chains, which are then folded into complex shapes.
Some of these amino acids can be produced by your body, while you must get others through your diet. The latter are called essential amino acids (Healthline, 2019).
There are 20 different types of amino acids, where 11 are produced by our bodies naturally, and 9 that must be obtained solely from our food (called essential amino acids).
The body does not store amino acids like it does carbohydrates and fats, so there needs to be a daily supply of amino acids to make new proteins.
The proteins in our bodies are constantly being broken down and replaced by the amino acids in our food that we eat.
What are the different types of protein in our diet?
There are different types of protein in our foods – complete and incomplete proteins.
A complete protein is one that contains all the 9 essential amino acids. Complete, high quality protein sources are eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, quinoa, hemp and foods made from soy such as tofu and tempeh (Ensure Strength & Energy).
An incomplete protein source is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Most plant proteins such as legumes and nuts are incomplete proteins and need to be combined to make a complete protein. For example; beans and rice, hummus (containing chickpeas and tahina), dahl and rice.
About 75% of the protein we eat should be complete or high-quality protein and should be no less than 25 percent of our daily calories.
Quality sources of protein
- Grass fed beef, organic chicken, and wild caught fish
- Free range Eggs
- Dairy products
- Soy products, Hemp, Quinoa
Examples of protein in various foods
- 1 cup milk contains about 8 grams of protein
- 1 cup of dry beans contains about 16 grams of protein
- 1 egg contains around 6 grams of protein
- 85 g piece of meat contains around 21 grams of high quality protein
Eating conventional animal protein can cause inflammation in the body which damages the gut, affects our blood sugar and causes our hormones to get out of whack. Choose grass fed, free range or organic sources.
So how much protein do we really need?
Research is continuously showing us that receiving an adequate amount of protein intake with each meal is important for not only building our body’s tissues, but also repairing them.
Protein requirements change as we age, and they also differ depending on body weight and gender.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein states that for every kilogram of body weight, we must consume 0.8g of protein to prevent deficiency and sufficiently support optimal muscle protein synthesis (Harvard Medical School).
These recommendations state that an intake of 25-30 grams of high-quality protein per meal is necessary for optimal muscle protein synthesis.What this equates to is approximately
- 56g per day for the average sedentary man, and
- 46g per day for the average sedentary women.
For those over 70 years of age, the recommended daily intake for men is approximately 81g and 57g for women per day. Receiving enough protein is especially important for us as we age, to maintain muscle mass and optimise healthy aging. Older adults also require 1- 1.3 grams per kg to prevent muscle wasting and prevent osteoporosis.
Protein and muscle gain
Looking to put on muscle? Well the general recommendation for muscle growth is to consume 2.2g of protein per kilogram of your individual weight (Healthline 2019).
So if you are 60kg, you’re looking at 132g of protein. If you’re 80kg, you’re looking at 176g of protein. So approximately, you’re looking at doubling your average protein intake.
According to Sarah Dacres-Mannings, a spokesperson for Sports Dietitians Australia, there is also a specific time to consume protein when you’re looking to build muscle.
She states that the best time to send amino acids to muscles, when looking to build them up, is straight after a work-out. For optimal effect, she suggests trying to consume equal amounts of protein and carbs at that time.“The carbohydrates increase insulin levels and that actually helps the muscles take in the amino acids they need to build new muscles,” Sarah says. She suggests the following snacks after a workout:
- 2 glasses of low-fat milk
- A lean meat sandwich like a turkey roll
- Smoothie of low-fat milk, yoghurt and banana
- Tuna with pasta
Sarah also says that the timing of meals is important. “Spread your protein over the day, so you have three main meals and two or three snacks (containing protein). A lot of men, in particular, have all their protein at one meal,” she says.
Spreading protein intake out will optimise amino acid levels in the blood and promote muscle repair and growth (ABC.net.au)
Protein overloading – having excessive quantities
While having protein is important for muscle building and maintaining optimal bodily functions on a cellular level, it’s also easy to think that overloading on protein will have ultra-impressive results for our health.
The truth couldn’t be more the opposite.
It’s advised that we should not consume more than 2g of protein per kg of body weight, a day.
Having too much protein can contribute to increased body fat levels, and will take the place of vegetables, salad and carbohydrates which are important for health and recovery from everyday activities and also exercise training.
Other side effects of having too much protein in your diet?
- Constipation (lack of fibre)
- Diarrhea (consuming too many processed proteins or dairy)
- Dehydration (your body flushes out excess nitrogen with fluids and water)
- Intestinal discomfort and indigestion
- Unexplained exhaustion
Protein and weight loss
Protein is best known for its connection with weight loss, and is beneficial in trimming a few kilos as it increases fat burning by boosting your metabolic rate (Mamerow et al, 2014).
It also takes protein longer to digest than fats or carbohydrates, so it allows us to feel a really strong sense of feeling full, helping us with weight loss by reducing our calorie intake as a result.
If you are a healthy person trying to stay healthy, then simply eating quality protein with most of your meals along with nutritious plants foods should bring your intake to an optimal range.
Still don’t quite understand protein in your diet? Or do you not feel 100% and wondering how to improve your diet?
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