There is a lot of debate in the nutrition world about the importance of carbohydrates and fats in the diet, people go to great extents to avoid both.
There is a general agreement by everyone that protein is necessary though. When it comes to losing fat and building muscle the general recommendation is to eat more protein, and it is a generally helpful strategy.
How much should we be consuming daily is another question with a lot of different opinions and recommendations.
With this post I am going further than the typical “build muscle and burn fat” by upping your protein intake explanation.
The goal is to look into role that protein plays in a healthy diet and what we gain besides bigger muscles and flatter stomachs by consuming adequate amounts.
Protein: The Macronutrient Golden Boy
Before we start the nitty gritty of protein, lets lay down some background on what protein is and how it works in the body.
Protein along with fats and carbohydrates are macronutrients meaning that they are needed by the body in larger amounts. I would also throw water in this category because it is truly essential to our bodies.
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients meaning that they are needed in smaller quantities than the macronutrients. Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential, but macronutrients are needed in larger amounts.
Protein is found in the largest concentration in many animal products such as beef, chicken, eggs and dairy. It can be found in much smaller concentrations in other foods such as vegetables, nuts/seeds and fruit.
All proteins are made up of twenty different amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.When we consume proteins they are broken down into amino acids and polypeptides.
When we break down these proteins to amino acids and polypeptides they are absorbed through the small intestine and enter the bloodstream to be transported and formed into new proteins and used around the body for various purposes.
Jobs Of Protein
These newly formed proteins make up organs, nerves, bones, muscles, nails, hair and flesh, but are also pivotal ingredients in enzymes, hemoglobin, hormones and antibodies as well.
Enzymes: Protein molecules that are the managers and stimulus for all biochemical reactions in the body.
Hemoglobin: specially designed red blood cells that deliver oxygen around the body
Hormones: protein molecules that are messengers and coordinate our metabolism, and almost every function in our body.
Antibodies: proteins that are used in the immune system to help us fight infections and other diseases.
Now we know that protein is largely responsible for much more than just tissue regrowth and repair, lets look at what the building blocks of protein amino acids contribute to in the body.
Amino acids are responsible for neurotransmitters, hormones, muscles (your heart is a muscle ), digestion and transport of nutrients between cells.
Essential Vs. Non Essential
All proteins we consume are a combination of twenty amino acids, think building blocks linked together. Of these twenty amino acids our body can produce eleven of them on its own making them non essential.
The other nine amino acids the body can not produce and must be obtained from the diet, which makes them essential amino acids.
For muscle tissue, organ and bone repair to happen the nine essential amino acids have to be provided from complete sources of protein in the diet.
Complete protein containing the ten essential amino acids is is mandatory for optimal health.We require a certain amount of protein and amino acids because they have so many important roles in the body.
Quality Over Quantity
There are other factors to consider when consuming protein that go beyond how many grams you are consuming. When it comes to protein there are three criteria that help determine the quality of a protein.
Amino Acid Profile: Complete proteins are important because they contain all the essential amino acids that our body cannot manufacture. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Without the presence of all the necessary amino acids, protein synthesis (cells generating new proteins) comes to a stop.
Bioavailability: The protein content doesn’t matter if you cannot properly digest and absorb proteins. Anti nutrients commonly found in grains, soy, legumes and brown rice prevent you adequately breaking down and absorbing the protein by as much as fifty percent (Note: If you are willing to soak and sprout legumes some of the anti nutrient effect can be mitigated)
Toxicity: Some proteins are more likely to trigger an immune or allergic reaction. All true allergies are actually an immune response to a protein.
The foods that meet the above criteria and contain the largest concentration of complete proteins are going to be from animal sources in the form of seafood, chicken, red meat , eggs and dairy for those who tolerate it.
Trying to Fill The Gap
There are other sources of protein that compare to animal products in terms of overall grams, but when using the criteria above fall short.
Take for example grains and legumes, they seem to have a good amount of protein, yet they lack the complete amino acid profile and have poor bioavailability due to anti-nutrients that prevent digestion.
Combining foods such as rice and beans is a better option than separately consuming them, but they still fall short on the amino acid profile.
To get adequate protein from a rice and beans combination you will need to consume large amounts. The problem with this strategy is you will get more starch than protein causing blood sugar surges and fat storage in the long term.
Because of the indigestible fiber some folks with compromised digestion don’t tolerate large quantities of legumes in the diet.
I think variety is necessary, and both plant and animal proteins are important to health. We should strive to get protein from both animal and plant sources.
Not all the proteins in your body have come from what you've eaten today, or even this week. Because the body is such an efficient machine we have a built in protein recycling mechanism.
We use old proteins that aren’t in demand anymore to help build new proteins that the body has a demand for. Some of the amino acids that are in your muscles could have once been a digestive enzyme or a part of another muscle in the body that was recycled, such as the heart.
Your Context To Consider
This is where the plot only gets thicker, there are too many considerations and factors that go into giving a blanket statement or recommendation of how much protein to consume.
Lets take a look at some of the considerations that should shape your protein consumption:
Goals: What you are trying to accomplish will shape your protein needs. If you are trying to recover from intense exercise and gain muscle mass your protein needs will be higher than someone who is obese and sedentary looking to lose weight.
Activity Levels: Someone who works in a manual labor job for eight hours a day or an elite athlete will have different protein needs than an office worker who spends all day sitting at a desk.
Genetics: We are all bio individuals with a unique fingerprint and genes. Our genetics will determine how we metabolize and react to certain foods that we eat.
Health: The body has different needs in different physiological states. A pregnant woman woman compared to a person with thyroid problems will both have different needs based on their health. Just like someone who already has kidney damage probably should not embark on a high protein diet, while an elite athlete might benefit from a high protein diet.
Climate/Season: During different seasons of the year we crave different foods. We also have different foods available based on the season and region that you are living in.
The above factors need to be considered when thinking about the protein level that will be appropriate for you.That being said there are a few different ways to calculate the amount of protein you should aim to get daily.
Play With The Numbers
There are no hard and fast recommendations that are accepted across the board by everyone. These ways of calculating protein intake do have wide margins and a number of factors to consider.
Chances are the best way for you to find your personal protein need is to play around with these numbers and see how you look, feel and perform with more or less protein in your diet.
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) set by The Institute of Medicine says based on lean body mass and the number of calories you are eating protein should make up 10%-35% of your diet. This range does leave lots of room for variables, but no real way to determine where you fall on that range.
0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight or 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight per day.This is a good range for those that are sedentary or not interested in gaining muscle mass, and at no health risk of health issues threatening lean body mass.
Those who are highly active and looking to retain or build muscle mass benefit from more protein in the diet . 0.9-1.3 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day for these highly active individuals would be appropriate.
Elite athletes or bodybuilders can go even higher consuming 1.5 grams + of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day to meet their needs for exercise and recovery.
Dieters or those looking to lose fat will need to be in a caloric deficit to accomplish this. Those looking for fat loss would do better to consume more protein. The range appropriate for this is from 0.7 -1.0 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Protein is vitally important to our skin, nails, bones, hair, muscle mass, hormone production, neurotransmitters and overall health.
We are made up of over fifty thousand different proteins that contribute to our structure from head to toe, and everything in between. What is still up in the air is the recommendation of how much protein to consume.
Something to keep in mind is to not force consumption of protein. There are going to be days where you crave less protein because you need less, and days where you crave more.
We have built in mechanisms that regulate our craving for protein based on our needs. Let your cravings guide how much you will eat. Be smart about it and listen to your body.
I have yet to see a formula that accounts for the complexity of the human body and takes all the necessary factors into consideration.
The above recommendations are a good place to start, but not a strict recommendation. As always, experiment and tweak how much protein you’re consuming based on whether you are reaching your goals or not.
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