The body’s building blocks

Do you know how much protein you need and how important it is for you to get enough?

Sumaya Dalmia
First Published10 Dec 2012
Eggs, like other animal proteins, contain all nine essential amino acids<br />
Eggs, like other animal proteins, contain all nine essential amino acids

For people interested in health, nutrition, and fitness, the word protein is probably constantly buzzing in their ears. You hear so much about protein—why it is important, how it builds muscle, that you should eat more of it, or get the newest miracle protein shake. So what really is protein and are you getting enough of it? How much do you really need? And is it only really available in meat?

There is little doubt about the importance of proteins—they are made of amino acids, which are the major structural component of every cell in the body. Not just the big muscles—every tissue, organ and part of the body is made up of proteins. These body proteins are constantly being damaged, broken down and then replaced by the protein we eat. There are 20 amino acids that form the basic building blocks of proteins in the human body. More than half of these the body can produce itself, and are called non-essential amino acids, since you don’t have to get them from your diet. Nine of the amino acids are “essential”, which means the body must absorb them from food. Here is where it gets interesting—not all dietary sources of protein contain all nine essential amino acids, and it’s the availability of these amino acids that determines the quality of the protein. So you have “complete” or “high-quality” proteins, which include proteins of animal origin like chicken, fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products; these contain all nine essential amino acids. And you have “incomplete” or “low” quality proteins, like legumes, cereals, vegetables, and nuts, which don’t have all the nine essential amino acids. The healthiest way to get protein in your body is to combine all the available sources to get a complete protein profile in your diet. For example, rice and dal in combination is much better than just rice or just dal. Rice, dal and some boiled eggs will give you an even better dose of protein.

How much do you need?

A nutritionally balanced diet should provide enough protein for most people.

If you have oats with milk and fruits and a couple of eggs for breakfast; around 100g of chicken with vegetables and rice for lunch; a handful of nuts in the evening; and roti, dal and vegetables at night, you’ve got your protein requirement for the day. Healthy people rarely need protein supplements and most vegetarians are able to get enough essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant proteins.

The amount of recommended daily protein depends on your age, health and activity levels. The average protein requirement for a healthy adult is 0.8-1g per kilogram of body weight, according to the US Food and Drug Administration and Harvard School of Public Health, US. For someone into recreational exercises for fitness, the amount could vary from anywhere between 1.2g and 1.4g per kg of body weight.

When we workout, we break down muscle tissue and we need proteins for muscle repair and growth. If the protein intake is inadequate then the protein synthesis cannot keep up with the protein breakdown and body proteins (muscle tissue) are broken down and used to fulfil the body’s amino acid requirement, resulting in muscle loss and weakness.

So if you weigh 70kg and spend an hour in the gym four times a week, including weight training, you need 1.2gx70kg=84g of protein daily to make sure that you preserve, repair and rebuild muscle tissue. If you are a vegetarian, it might be a good idea to take an over-the-counter protein supplement like whey isolate to complete your required daily amount. Supplements like whey isolate, soy proteins, and egg powder are safe to consume if taken in the correct amount. This is where you calculate your protein requirements and roughly calculate how much you’re getting from food and supplement the rest with a protein supplement. Protein supplements can help promote immune function and weight management if used with a balanced, healthy diet which has complex carbs, fruits and vegetables.

The four main types of protein supplement are whey, casein, egg and soy. Whey protein is the most common protein supplement and is a “complete” protein, containing all the essential amino acids. Like whey, casein protein is also derived from milk. The nutritional value of casein is lesser than whey, and the body absorbs casein more slowly. Egg protein is essentially powdered egg whites. Soy protein is a non-dairy plant protein and is suitable for vegetarians or those with milk allergies.

Many people eat more protein than they need without causing much harm to the body, but there are some problems with it. First, if you are eating more protein than you need, you are also getting in more calories than you need, and that will lead to you putting on extra weight. And if your protein source is meat or dairy, this means you are also getting more saturated fat than is good for you since saturated fat increases LDL or “bad” cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. It’s best to stick to beans, fish, chicken and nuts for your protein needs, instead of meats or dairy products high in saturated fat. Fish and nuts have the added advantage of being packed with heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

Pump up the protein

To include more lean protein in your daily diet, try these tips.

u Take yogurt with you to the gym and enjoy it as a post-workout booster.

u Include a whey isolate protein within 45 minutes after your workout.

u Make your breakfast oatmeal with milk instead of water.

u Snack on fat-free mozzarella cheese.

u Use a whole cup of milk for your cereal.

u Try smoked salmon or egg whites for breakfast.

u Take along a hard-boiled egg for an easy snack.

u Munch on edamame beans or a handful of nuts.

u Snack on sprouts of ‘mung’ (green gram) or ‘chana’ (chickpeas).

Sumaya Dalmia is a wellness consultant, fitness expert and owner SUMAYA, a personal training studio in New Delhi.

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