Protein… is king!

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

It is true that the word “protein” has become fused to eating right and you may be wondering “is it really that important?” the short answer is “yes!!” and in this article I will simplify protein for you and explain why is it getting so much of the spotlight. Proteins are macronutrients that are required as building blocks in our body. Almost everything inside of us like muscles, organs, hair, nails, eyes, hormones and enzymes are made up of proteins; they are also required for repair and maintenance work in our bodies (much like bricks or Legos!). Proteins are themselves made up of ‘amino acids’ which are 21 in number and divided into three categories:

  1. Non essential: our bodies are capable of making these. (alanine, aspargine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid).

  2. Essential: we can’t make these so we need them from diet. (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine).

  3. Conditional: taken through food and are mostly required in situations like trauma and stress. (arginine, cysteine, glutamine, gylcine, ornithine, proline, serine and tyrosine).

Why?

The academia and wellness community is in unison on the importance of protein even though the advocates for choice of its sources may still be quibbling amongst themselves. There are nine major functions performed by proteins:

  1. Growth and repair: as mentioned before, most of our bodies are made up proteins therefore, in order to grow and maintain the tissues proteins are required as building blocks.

  2. Providing structure: there are three types of proteins that act as scaffolding for our tissues: keratin which is found in skin, hair, nails and horns of animals; collagen which is found in bones, tendons, skin and ligaments and elastin found in lungs, arteries and uterus.

  3. Biochemical reactions: proper functioning of our bodies are dependent on enzymes made of proteins which aid in biochemical reactions involved in digestion, energy production, blood clotting and muscle contractions.

  4. Messaging (not texting!): most of the hormones in our bodies are made up of proteins and amino acids which are secreted by hormone glands and travel to certain target organs to activate or deactivate their functions. Hence, they act like messengers which connect different organs together.

  5. Nutrient transporters: protein transporters are involved in movement of nutrients like vitamins, minerals and oxygen within and across cells of our bodies. Some are also involved in storage like ferritin which helps store iron.

  6. Fluid balancing: proteins such as albumin and globulin are essential in maintaining fluid balance in our bodies. Lack of protein in diets may lead to diseases like Kwashiorkor a condition in which edema (swelling of tissues) occurs in gut.

  7. Maintaining pH: protein act as buffer systems to maintain proper pH in our bodies, slight change in pH may lead to serious complications like respiratory acidosis or alkalosis.

  8. Boosting immunity: when our bodies are infected by viruses and bacteria, it develops antibodies which help fight off the infection. Lack of protein in our diet may cause prolonged illnesses and make us more susceptible to diseases.

  9. Source of energy: don’t know about you but I was surprised to know that apart from carbs and fat, our bodies can also digest proteins for energy, similar to carbs protein also has 4 calories per gram. Although it is not the primary choice as it is gives our less energy and is not as efficiently metabolized as carbohydrates or fat.

In context of healthy eating, enriching diets with protein can be beneficial in:

  1. Weight loss (and keeping it): protein helps in satiety by reducing levels of ghrelin (hunger inducing hormone) and increasing levels of peptide YY (makes you feel full). This helps in reducing food intake and thus reducing calories in your diet. A study has also found that having high protein breakfast can reduce cravings throughout the day. Our bodies require more calories to digest protein than fats and carbs, so eating high protein diet increases TEF resulting in increased metabolism. Many studies have shown that sticking to high protein diet may dieters help maintain their achieved weight.

  2. Muscle mass and strength: This is the reason why protein has become the mainstream macronutrient that everybody is talking about. Athletic bodies, especially involved in strength training require more than average amount of protein in their diets to grow muscle mass, repair broken tissues and prevent muscle loss.

  3. Bone health: multiple long term studies show that animal source protein have a positive impact on our bone health as opposed to the myths which states that eating animal proteins increase acid load and damage bones.

  4. Blood pressure regulation: Studies have shown that protein lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides thus help lowering blood pressure.

  5. Prevent sarcopenia: as the body ages, we start losing muscle mass and physical function of our organs; this condition is called sarcopenia which can lead to frailty, bone fractures and reduced quality of life among older adults. Having diets rich in protein along with physical activities can help preserve muscles and slow down sarcopenia.

How?

Now that you seem fairly convinced of proteins title of the “king” you must know how to get it in your diet. As I said earlier, there are different groups of people that prefer different sources of protein due ethical or environmental reasons which can cause a lot of confusion but meat, seafood, eggs and dairy are the best sources of protein followed by vegetarian options like beans and lentils. By “best source” I am not only implying to the amount per weight but also the ‘quality’ of protein. Sorry for the confusion but bear with me; food sources which have all the nine essential amino acids are considered sources of good quality protein. Almost all non vegetarian sources are considered good quality sources as they have all the amino acids whereas vegetarian sources are low in quantity as well as quality of amino acids that is why combination meals are recommended such as beans and rice, hummus and wholegrain pita bread, lentils with flatbread etc. if you’re a vegetarian or vegan then worry not, there are multiple ways we nutritionist can help you eat more and complete protein.


The takeaway box:

The million dollar question is how much protein should you actually eat? Well according to most institutes and organizations, the daily recommended intake is 0.8 gm per kg of body weight for people who have sedentary lifestyle and 1.2 to 2 gm per kg for athletes; so for example you weigh 70 kg and don’t have a physically demanding routine then you need 56 gm of protein daily but if you workout or are an athlete then you should aim higher towards a bracket of 84 gm to 140 gm of protein in a day, this is because athletic bodies have more than average muscle mass. One myth that’s circulating around is that eating too much protein damages the kidneys, truth is that if your kidneys are already compromised then having a high protein diet is harmful. Lastly, I’ve listed some better sources of protein for my vegetarian friends out there!

  1. Quinoa: one cup provides 8 gm of protein but is low in lysine.

  2. Tofu: made using soy milk, one cup has 20 gm of protein and all essential amino acids.

  3. Amaranth: good source of lysine but is low in leucine and threonine, 1 cup of cooked amaranth provides 9 gm of protein.

  4. Spirulina: it is a type of blue-green algae which provides 4 gm of protein in 1 tablespoon but is low in tryphtophane.

  5. Chia seeds: source of complete protein, two tablespoons provide 4 gm of protein.

  6. Rice and beans: rice is low in lysine but high in methionine while beans are low in methionine but high in lysine thus this combinations completes the amino acid profile and one cup of it provides 12 gm of protein.

  7. Pita and hummus: wheat is low in lysine which is provided by chickpeas in hummus. 1 pita bread with 2 tablespoons of hummus has roughly 7 gm of protein.

  8. Peanut butter samwich: lack of lysine in grains is covered by peanut butter. 2 tablespoons of PB on 2 slices of wholegrain bread provides roughly 14 gm of protein.


References and further reading:


Beaudry, Kayleigh M., and Michaela C. Devries. "Nutritional strategies to combat type 2 diabetes in aging adults: the importance of protein." Frontiers in nutrition 6 (2019): 138.


Dix, M., 2018. Protein Digestion: Enzymes, Absorption, And Ways To Improve Digestion. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/protein-digestion> [Accessed 1 July 2020].


Giles, Kaitlin H., et al. "Recommended European Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition protein and energy intakes and weight loss in patients with head and neck cancer." Head & Neck 38.8 (2016): 1248-1257.


Gunnars, K., 2018. Protein Intake – How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Day?. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-protein-per-day> [Accessed 1 July 2020].


Jäger, Ralf, et al. "International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 14.1 (2017): 1-25.


Kooienga, M., 2015. What is Protein and Why Do You Need It?. [Blog] nutritionstripped, Available at: <https://nutritionstripped.com/what-is-protein/> [Accessed 1 July 2020].


McGrane, K., 2020. 13 Nearly Complete Protein Sources For Vegetarians And Vegans. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/complete-protein-for-vegans#1> [Accessed 1 July 2020].


McLeod, Michael, et al. "Live strong and prosper: the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy ageing." Biogerontology 17.3 (2016): 497-510.


Schiavo, Luigi, et al. "A comparative study examining the impact of a protein-enriched vs normal protein postoperative diet on body composition and resting metabolic rate in obese patients after sleeve gastrectomy." Obesity surgery 27.4 (2017): 881-888.


Walle, G., 2018. 9 Important Functions Of Protein In Your Body. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/functions-of-protein> [Accessed 1 July 2020].


Wu, Guoyao. "Dietary protein intake and human health." Food & function 7.3 (2016): 1251-1265.