Walk into any grocery store, and you’ll find a wide selection of protein powders, bars and drinks. Check out the meat section and you’ll find row upon row of different cuts. Americans have heard that protein is “good” and an important part of a healthy diet, so they try to get plenty–often with the hope of building a leaner body. But will increasing your protein intake deliver on all the promises you’ve heard? Let’s set the record straight about “protein power.”
Protein is essential to our bodies.
If you subtract our bodies’ water content, our bodies are comprised of 75% protein. Most everyone knows that protein is an important component of muscle, but it is also found in nearly every body part, including bone and skin. In addition, protein is required for multiple functions that keep our bodies running moment-to-moment. The bottom line is that protein is needed to build and repair body tissues, as well as to regulate chemical processes.
We need to get a daily supply of protein through what we eat.
The proteins in our body cells are made from twenty different “amino acids”–or building blocks–in different combinations. Although the body can make most of them, there are nine specific ones called “essential amino acids” that can only be obtained through food. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, our bodies can’t store proteins. This means we need to consume adequate amounts of essential amino acids and calories each day to make new proteins.
Protein is found in both animal and plant food sources.
Animal foods are called “complete proteins” because they contain all of the essential amino acids. Examples include milk, yogurt, cheese, fish, meat, poultry and eggs. With the exception of soy, plant foods are not complete proteins, but if you eat a variety, you can get all nine essential amino acids. There is also plenty of protein in nuts, seeds and legumes (beans and peas), with lesser amounts in grain products and many vegetables.
Eating too little protein can result in serious health consequences.
Inadequate protein intake can be the result of dieting, anorexia nervosa, illness, poverty, or simply poor food choices. A lowered immune system–and therefore tendency to get sick more often–is often the first sign that protein is lacking in the diet. Over time, the heart and respiratory systems can also be weakened and in the most serious cases, death can result.
For children and teens as well as pregnant women, growth can be slowed if not enough protein is consumed. In addition, when you are not getting enough protein from food, the body breaks down muscle to support the daily chemical processes needed to survive. Decreased muscle mass means a weaker body–as well as a lowered metabolism.
Eating too much protein may also be detrimental to the body.
Researchers are concerned about the effects of high-protein, low-carb diets on health, especially over time. Athletes who are over-zealous about protein may also be doing their bodies harm. Consuming excess protein lowers the pH of the blood. To neutralize this effect, the body automatically draws calcium from the bones. Because of this, too much protein over time can promote osteoporosis, or brittle bones. In addition, some experts worry about the strain the kidneys undergo to process large amounts of protein on a regular basis.
Another concern is that when excess protein is routinely eaten in the form of animal products, a high amount of saturated fats and some trans fats are also consumed. The risk of cardiovascular disease and possibly some cancers may be increased, especially if these foods are eaten at the expense of disease-fighting fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Lastly, when someone is eating a lot of protein but very little carbohydrate, they can go into an unnatural state called ketosis. This occurs in the earlier stages of some of the popular low-carb diets. Ketosis causes an increase in blood levels of uric acid, which can cause gout and kidney stones. Serious dehydration can also result. More long-term studies are needed to better understand the effects of a high-protein, low-carb “lifestyle,” so expect more information in the future.
Eating excess protein won’t make you stronger or leaner.
Only exercise builds muscle mass. If you are eating a healthy, balanced diet, you will provide your body with plenty of protein to assist this process. If you are taking in more protein than your body can utilize, however, the extra amount is converted to fat.
Strive for moderate amounts of protein each day.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is from 10%-35% of calories. This is quite a wide range, from the vegetarian to the person who consumes meat on a daily basis. Unless you have a medical reason, you shouldn’t need to calculate total grams of protein each day. Most Americans have no problem getting ample amounts. In fact, many people get way more protein than their bodies need.
The scientific evidence isn’t clear as to whether or not vegetable protein is healthier than meat protein, but we do know that people who eat well on vegetarian diets enjoy many health benefits. The vast majority of experts recommend that meat-eaters choose lean cuts and small portions.
Try to include a protein source with every meal.
Unlike carbohydrates, proteins aren’t broken down into glucose to provide energy for the body. But when eaten together, protein foods do slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, which helps keep blood sugar levels steady so we feel energized until our next meal or snack. That’s why good protein sources should be included at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It’s all about balance.
Without a doubt, protein is an important, vital nutrient, critical for healthy daily living. But there is nothing magical about it either, so there’s no reason to go overboard with meats and supplements. Healthy, balanced eating includes ALL three major nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats.
To better understand how protein fits into a healthy lifestyle, check out the article “A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Weight.”