The Value of Protein

Week in Review 4-20-18
April 20, 2018
Week in Review 4-27-18
April 27, 2018

Of the many questions I get related to diet and exercise, “how much protein should I eat?” is quite popular. As with many things related to health and fitness the answer depends on a variety of factors – age, exercise level, gender, etc. Any confusion about protein intake is compounded by the fact that a variety of guidelines, recommendations and opinions exist. Our goal for today is to dive into the topic of protein consumption and clear up any misconceptions that may be influencing your daily intake and behavior.

What does protein do for me?

Protein is comprised of 20 different amino acids that are extracted by tissues to perform a host of bodily functions. 12 of these amino acids are non-essential, meaning the body produces them. However, the remaining 8 can only be obtained via food intake, and are therefore considered essential. Functions driven by available amino acids include muscle protein synthesis, brain neurotransmitter synthesis and synthesis of tissue enzymes. Protein production within the body requires available amino acids as well. (John Berardi, 2015)

The other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats, are easy to consume and maintain within the body. However, if we fail to consume enough protein, and by extension the essential amino acids, then, over time, our body would cease to function.

So, how much should I eat?

Recommendations vary.  A sedentary, healthy adult is recommended to consume 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight.  Therefore, a 150 pound person would consume about 55g of protein (John Berardi, 2015).  However, this recommendation is the minimum amount required to avoid deficiency.  It covers the basic requirement for protein turnover and does not take into account other factors like exercise.  If you are exercising frequently and/or at a high intensity you may want to increase your intake to between 1.4 and 2.0 g of protein per kg per body weight.  That same 150 pound person might take in between 95 and 135 g of protein per day (John Berardi, 2015).  Research suggests that increasing your protein intake has many benefits including:

  • Immune function

  • Metabolism

  • Satiety

  • Weight Management

  • Performance

Given the data, some experts actually recommend amounts that meet or exceed 1 g per pound (remember 1 kg = 2.2 lbs) of body weight. When consuming protein, our goal should be to obtain protein from whole, lean food sources like chicken and fish or leaner beef cuts whenever possible. These sources have added vitamins and minerals and are absorbed more slowly. Protein can be supplemented if you don’t have access to whole food sources or you require additional protein above that which you can eat. Lastly, consume protein within an hour of exercise to help ensure adequate recovery.

If you’ve been told that high protein intake might actually damage your health, not to worry. Healthy kidneys can easily tolerate higher amounts of protein. A reasonable increase in protein intake should not lead to health issues. Lastly, increased protein intake will not lead to osteoporosis. In fact, osteoporosis is more closely associated with protein deficiency. A higher protein diet, combined with strength training will help to preserve bone density.

I follow a plant based diet

No worries. You can still get the essential amino acids from an assortment of plant foods. Each carries these essential amino acids in different proportions, therefore, it’s wise to eat a wide variety. If you follow a few basic principles your diet should provide enough protein:

  • You consume enough to sustain your body. If your intake drops or is too low, you may need to consider a plant based protein supplement.

  • Your food intake is built around quality sources of plant protein rather than cereals, grains and processed foods. These types of foods tend to be lower in amino acids or have nutrients removed during processing.

  • Your diet is varied – it includes fruit, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, etc.

  • You consume between ½ and 1 full cup of beans/legumes each day. This group contains higher amounts of lysine, an essential amino acid that might be otherwise be missed.

As long as your protein choices complement one another you’ll be just fine. Beans and rice are a good example of two plant based foods that have complimentary amino acid profiles (John Berardi, 2015), thus helping to ensure your intake includes all 8 essential amino acids.

Wrapping Up

Protein is an essential macronutrient that is comprised of amino acids. While our body produces some amino acids, we must rely on protein consumption for the others. The most basic recommendation for protein consumption, 0.8 g per kg of bodyweight, is the absolute minimum required to avoid protein deficiency. Depending upon factors like age, gender and activity level we may want to increase our intake to as much as 1 gram per pound of body weight. If you don’t want to spend time measuring (and really, who does) use the following guideline when determining your protein intake:

  • Men: 2 palm sized servings of protein with each meal

  • Women: 1 palm sized serving of protein with each meal

Plants are a great source of protein as well. If you follow a plant-based diet be sure to mix and match your choices to ensure a complete amino acid profile. Beans and rice are an example of such a pairing.

Need more protein?

As you can see, protein is an essential part of a balanced diet. While carbs and fats are easy to find, consistently incorporating protein into the diet in the right amounts can be challenging. If you’re looking to modify your current eating strategies and need guidance, contact us today to join the Vitalifit Coaching Program that is right for you.