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Why Is Protein Important in Our Diets?

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Protein is essential for life! Like the other macronutrients – fat and carbohydrates, we need protein for a variety of reasons. But unlike the other two, our body doesn’t store protein, so we need some if it every day and here is why.

In general, there are three types of amino acids in our body: essential, nonessential and conditional. The nonessential and conditional types are made by the body as needed, but the essential type has to come from protein in our food and cannot be made by our body.

The essential amino acids in protein keeps us healthy by working in the background making new cells, enzymes and various hormones to keep our body functioning optimally. Most people recognize protein as building muscle and losing weight.

Building Muscle

When we exercise, the protein in muscle cells is damaged. Part of the recovery phase is called protein breakdown where the damaged cells are purged from the muscle. The other part of recovery is replacing the purged cells and adding new ones making for more muscle mass.

Because it takes more calories to support more muscle, metabolism is sped up and the body ends up burning more calories than before – even while at rest – known as the Basal Metabolic Rate.

Losing Weight

Most diet plans focus on controlling carbs to help their customers lose weight. It is true that in the short-term, a calorie deduction of 500 per day each day should result in a loss of one pound per week, and protein helps create that calorie deduction. First, protein keeps one feeling fuller longer, so there is less of a tendency to grab a snack (more than likely one that is not healthy) between meals. Because the craving to eat is not there, fewer calories are consumed.

Second, because protein is harder for the body to breakdown than either fat or carbs, the body uses some of the calories in protein to break it down – known as the thermic effect. For every 100 protein calories consumed, 30 are used in the thermic effect.
From building new cells for hair, nails, to balancing out enzymes and hormones, to building muscle and reducing calorie intake, it is easy to see why we need some protein each day. On average, about 8 grams of protein from meats, dairy, eggs, tofu and legumes per 20 pounds of body weight is required each day for optimal body performance.

Signs of Protein Deficiency

There is a mistaken belief that the only people who have to worry about balancing their diet are those who aren’t actively trying to eat more healthily. Unfortunately, with the best of intentions, many people can fall into the common trap of not eating enough protein. This is particularly common amongst vegetarians but also affects people who have greatly reduced their red meat intake. Protein is vital for your body to function properly, and a deficiency can have damaging effects. Let’s look at four of the big warning signs that might indicate a protein deficiency in your diet.

Sweet Cravings

Although one of the main functions of protein is to maintain your sugar levels, a deficiency in protein doesn’t always translate to standard hunger. Rather, it can manifest itself as cravings for all kinds of sweet, sugary food. While some cravings are just that, cravings, a constant craving is very likely to be caused by a deficiency of protein that is causing an imbalance in your blood sugar levels.

Lethargic

Balanced blood sugar levels have a much greater impact than simply affecting cravings. When your blood sugar levels are imbalanced your general energy levels can become unstable. This can lead to your mood lowering, your energy levels dropping and a general feeling of lethargy. Individuals with a protein deficiency often find themselves unproductive in the workplace and lacking any kind of energy at home.

Sleeplessness

It may seem counter-intuitive, but that same protein deficiency that is making you feel lethargic and depleted of energy won’t help you sleep. In fact, it will do the opposite. When your blood sugar levels are imbalanced, the body will crave sugar. A good night’s sleep is dependent on your body burning fat stored in the body. However, when the body is craving sugar, this doesn’t happen. In turn, people can find themselves lethargic during the day yet unable to sleep at night.

Immune System

One of the roles that protein plays in our body is to be used in the formation of various bio-compounds that help to boost our immune system. A deficiency of protein prevents this from happening, and as a result, our immune system stops functioning as well as it should be. This can lead to bad skin, weaker hair, and even a susceptibility to colds and viruses. If this sounds like you, you may need to address the level of protein in your diet.

When Do You Need to Supplement With Protein?

Generally speaking, most of us “average” people in the developed countries get enough protein daily from the food in our diet. All that is required for good health is about 0.5 gram per pound of body weight. For a 180-pound male, that is 90 grams of which a cup of milk or yogurt at breakfast, a can of tuna for lunch and a six-ounce steak for dinner would suffice.

However, our busy lifestyles, and ironically trying to stay healthy, can get in the way of eating right and getting enough protein required each day. For example, if you exercise during your lunch break, what time do you have left to eat protein for lunch? Or do you choke down something from the vending machine (most likely unhealthy) and call it good? In this case, having a pre-packaged protein shake or drink, or one you made at home and brought with you, can be your “meal” at work and with your other meals throughout the day, to give you adequate protein. Because our body does not store protein, it is important to get the right amount each and every day.

Athletes training for competitive events, especially weight-lifting, are another group that may need to supplement their daily protein intake with additional protein. While there are some different schools of thought as new study results come out as to the value of consuming protein within two hours of working out, many professionals still stick to this long-standing practice.

Many believe there is a “window of opportunity” immediately after working out where fast-digesting protein, such a pure glucose, can more effectively replace depleted glycogen in the muscle cells, than it can if the protein was slower digesting or consumed outside of the window. Older studies showed replacement can be as little as 50% if outside the window.

However newer studies are shedding a different light as to the validity of the older studies.  A good general rule of thumb is listen to your body. If consuming protein post-workout makes you feel better, what harm can there be in doing it.

But it is important to not overdue it either as consuming too much protein can be counter-productive and actually damage the health you are trying to improve. Excess protein eventually gets broken down into urea and passed through the kidneys. Not only can this overwork the kidneys, but it takes calcium from bones with it, which can result in osteoporosis and may also result in dehydration. And too much protein can also lead to weight gain, counterproductive, if your goal is to lose weight.

Most of us get more than enough protein as part of our normal diet. However, if your lifestyle gets in the way, know that you can get more protein by either taking a protein supplement or by drinking a protein shake.

Is Your Protein Supplement Unhealthy?

It can be hard to go into a store these days without being confronted by a vast collection of protein supplements that all claim to be packed full of goodness and nutrients. Sure enough, protein supplements have become the norm in kitchens and fitness centres around the world. Although some people use protein supplements when they probably don’t need to, there is a core base of users that need a supplement that offers them a high-quality source of protein. However, are all protein supplements made the same? Is your protein supplement as healthy as it can be?

Choosing a protein supplement is something that you should spend time on. As with most retail products, not all protein supplements are made equally, and not all of them are as good for you as they claim to be. The regulations over protein supplements can best be described as loose, so it is worthwhile knowing what to watch out for.

Sweeteners

The addition of sweeteners to your protein supplement may make it taste a little better, but it utterly defeats the purpose of taking the supplement. Protein supplements are a way of boosting your protein intake without changing your diet – if your supplement has sugars or artificial sweeteners in it, then it is changing your diet! Sugars also tend to trigger our cravings, and while protein acts to stabilise our blood sugar levels, it can only do that efficiently when extra sugar is not being introduced at the same time! Protein is a health supplement, not a snack. Avoid the sugar.

Denatured Protein

The process by which protein supplements are made can vary greatly. However, one such process should be avoided entirely, and that is denaturation. When protein is exposed to great heat, it can become denatured. In essence, this is the breaking down of the protein before you consume it. Protein is no good to our body in this state, and all of the benefits that you hoped to gain from the supplement are lost. Denatured protein should always be avoided.

Soy Protein Isolate

There are different types of proteins, isolates and concentrates, and while both have value, soy protein isolate should specifically be avoided. This is a highly processed form of soy that has been manipulated to form a protein, but the reality is that this protein is far from the type of high-quality protein you find in a whey protein supplement. If you are going to buy a protein supplement, invest in quality, and avoid soy protein isolate.

6 Best Sources of Protein

Not only is protein essential for good health and building muscle, it can help one lose weight. For this, it works in a couple of ways. First, it takes calories to process protein. For every 100 calories eaten, it takes 30 of them just to breakdown and process the food. Also because it takes longer to breakdown, it leaves you feeling fuller longer thus reducing the temptation to snack between meals on something that is most likely is unhealthy anyway.

Protein comes from two sources – either animals or plants. However, some plant sources are not complete meaning they do not contain all nine essential amino acids; usually a varied diet of protein sources will provide enough complete protein. Here are four of the best animal sources of protein along with two plant sources:

Seafood

Most seafood is a great source of protein because it is generally low in fat. However, the “fatty fish” – salmon, halibut, trout and tuna –  are sources of good fat, namely Omega 3 fatty acids.

Lean Meat

The white meat of poultry and pork are excellent sources of protein without all of the saturated fat as can be the case with many cuts of beef. For poultry, be sure to cut away the skin before cooking as that does have saturated fat in it.

Dairy

Most dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of complete protein. They also provide a healthy serving of calcium and are usually fortified with vitamin D – necessary to break down calcium into a usable mineral the body can use.

Eggs

Eggs are one of the least expensive forms of protein. Many choose to eat just egg whites and throw the yolk away, but that is a mistake. While the whites do contain over half of the protein, the yolk supplies vitamins A, E, D, and K, along with phosphorus, zinc and thiamin. The American Heart Association approves healthy adults eating an egg per day.

Beans

Fact: one-half cup of beans contains as much protein as an ounce of broiled steak. And they are loaded with healthy fiber which keeps you feeling fuller longer. This reduces the urge to snack between meals thus keeping your total daily calorie count down. Keep in mind, beans are not a complete protein by themselves and should be supplemented with one of the other protein sources in this list.

Soy

This complete heart-healthy protein should be part of any healthy diet. Fifty grams of soy protein has been shown to reduce cholesterol by about 3% in test subjects. Plus, there are so many ways to use the soy products tofu, tempeh and soybeans, one would never tire of eating them.

Protein is necessary for good health. And because the body cannot create the essential amino acids, getting enough complete protein on a daily basis is optimal health-wise.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Protein?

Diets that promote a heavy weighting towards protein are becoming more and more popular in recent years. Protein is a crucial aspect of any balanced diet and performs a number of vital duties in our bodies, from repairing damaged cells to maintaining our blood sugar levels. However, as with any diet, there must be a balance. With that in mind, there is a growing concern that some of these diets may be a little too protein heavy, and that this protein reliance can actually be bad for you. So is it true? Is there such a thing as too much protein?

While there are issues with having too much protein in your diet, many of the rumours surrounding the issue are just that; rumours. Some people will claim that too much protein will cause osteoporosis while others will claim it is a cause of cancer. The reality is that there has simply not been enough medical studies conducted that can verify these risk with any great certainty. However, there are a number of real side-effects that people should be aware of.

When our bodies break down protein, we rely on our kidneys to process the waste produced and filter out the good and bad. When the kidneys are overwhelmed, as can be the case with a very high protein diet, they can become overworked and unable to perform properly. This stress on the kidneys can lead to health problems, and is particularly risky for individuals who may have kidney issues that they are not yet aware of.

Another impact of a protein heavy diet can be dehydration. Many of the individuals who follow a protein heavy diet are those looking to add muscle or bulk to their frame. The increased protein can often be coupled with an increase in working out. An issue here is that the increased protein can cause dehydration that is not countered by an increase in water consumption. Anyone following a protein rich diet should be looking to increase their water intake to match.

Finally, if you are not looking to add bulk, then eating too much protein could be causing you to gain unwanted weight. Protein is fantastic for managing your hunger levels, as well as building muscle, but too much protein will be detrimental for those looking to lose weight. As with any diet, the secret is in finding the right nutritional balance for you.

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