on Oct 17, 2016

If the word 'protein' brings to mind liquid food for the buff body builders, you probably don’t understand the component very well. If you dismiss ‘protein intake’ as something serial dieters need to stay slim in summer, while they shy away from carbs, we need to talk. There is a high chance you misunderstood the this important component and an even higher chance that you are not getting the right amount of it, depending on your lifestyle.

What is protein?

The most popular way to describe protein nowadays is a ‘building block’. This is due to the fact that the nutrient is used to repair and, in fact, build tissue, any tissue within our bodies. This includes muscles, hormones, enzymes, antibodies and more. Proteins are responsible for blood clotting, vision and transporting of nutrients around the body, amongst other functions. It’s far more serious than merely maintaining a lean stomach for the beach vacation you have planned, obviously.

The nutrient itself consists of amino acids, which are either synthesized within us or introduced by the foods we eat. At least 9 of such amino acids need to come from outside, from a protein-smart diet (more on this later), as we are unable to produce these key ‘building blocks’'.

In contrast, 11 of the 20 amino acids we need to be healthy can be produced by us, provided our bodies function well. It is suggested that roughly 17% of our body weight is attributed to protein. They are the foundations of muscle, bone, skin, tendons and ligaments within us. As old cells die, new ones are produced with the help of protein to re-build and replace them.

 What can go wrong with inadequate protein?

For starters, since proteins are transporters of vitamins, nutrients and oxygen throughout the body, their failure to do so could result in a wide range of issues. To begin with, not all proteins transport or are responsible for the same components/organs. Imbalance in proteins could results in an abnormal heart beat, for instance, or kidney issues. On a less dramatic note, as protein control fluid intake, their shortcomings could lead to significant water retention.

In their function as structural ‘building blocks’, proteins make up our bones, ligaments and other cells. For instance, following a sports injury we would be in serious trouble, if protein levels were not optimized, as this would prevent our ligaments from healing. Similarly, skin cell turnover is attributed to protein’s functions and the failure of said function would prevent proper healing, in case of physical damage.

Additionally, protein imbalance can affect your whole immune system, since antibodies are also proteins. Without antibodies, we would be open to all sorts of viral and bacterial attacks.

One example of a protein chain that needs to be carefully monitored is insulin. As it is responsible for proper release of energy, this particular brand of protein is key in regulating our sugar levels on a daily basis.

Examples of scenarios where poor protein levels could do tremendous harm to our health are many. The nutrient is simply too important to relegate it to a ‘vanity' ingredient or the domain of the elderly’s concern.

Is more protein better?

As life would have it, there are two sides to every story. It has been recently promoted that a diet high in protein carries all sorts of benefits, including tremendous weight loss successes. We have been so trained to see the carbohydrate as evil that we inadvertently turned to protein to save us all. The temptation is to assume we need more of this magical potion and to start introducing it into our diet indiscriminatingly

One of the problems with this approach is to find our starting point: how much protein are we currently consuming and what do we need to be healthy? A recent study suggests that women are not quite sure how much protein they consume and need. Online calculators are a rough science at best and we strongly suggest consulting a physician before drastically changing eating habits to include more protein.

If anything, according to some studies, an average American consumes too much protein. But before you stop reading this, consider this: not all protein was created equal and there are consequences to protein overloads. We need to stay protein-smart, to be healthy.

The protein champions will have you believe that more protein, meaning meat, poultry and eggs, is the solution to all problems. However, if you pay a closer look, this might not be entirely reliable information, depending on who you ask.

The Harvard Health Blog asks us to exercise caution, when believing the protein hype. They go as far as to question the fitness effects of excess protein consumption, which is against all popular theories on weight loss. They have a point, since data is confusing.

One thing is certain: animal protein does not equal the best protein and more of it can do more harm than good. For example, excessive animal protein has been linked to:

  • osteoporosis –– urinary calcium loss
  • cancer, especially due to composition of foods cooked in high temperatures
  • impaired kidney function due to the release of nitrogen into the blood stream (and arguable because of the possible link between animal protein and kidney stones)
  • heart disease due to excess cholesterol and saturated fat
  • weight-loss sabotage in the long-term

 What are the solutions?

 As always, healthy nutrition is our best friend. Introducing plant-based protein into our diet has numerous benefits and is easily achieved. Grains, legumes and vegetables are excellent sources of protein and have been cleared from the above negative effects of protein overdose. Typical ingredients to consider are: black beans, chickpeas, quinoa, lentils and tofu.

When picking your proteins, it is important to include all 9 needed amino acids. So a strict vegan diet could lead to some problems. The key is to combine vegan ingredients to reap the same benefits as diets that contain fish and lean meats, as well as dairy.

A doctor-formulated protein shake, based on proteins that combine all 9 essential amino acids could be the answer. Such a product would take care of the protein package, as a whole, meaning it would not introduce excess carbohydrates, fats and sugars, as a regular diet adjustment might.

So let’s not ignore the importance of protein in our everyday lives and give this powerful nutrient the respect it deserves.


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