Protein is a vital macronutrient needed for our bodies, alongside carbohydrates and fats, and participate in more of a wider range of functions than any other bodily component. Protein molecules are complex compounds made of different smaller molecules called amino acids, and contain nitrogen. Proteins and amino acids are the building blocks of our entire bodies. Protein is essential for our bones, hormonal functions, metabolism, skin, hair, nails, muscles, organs, and for growth and tissue maintenance. Proteins make antibodies for our immune system and hemoglobin, a key component of the red blood cells responsible for delivering oxygen to the body tissues. Enzymes (protein catalysts) are critical for biological processes in our body and crucial for digestion. Insulin and thyroid hormones (also proteins) are two critical and vital hormones involved in metabolism. Testosterone (an important tissue builder hormone) is also a protein! Proteins maintain fluid and salt balance in our cells, help keep the acid-alkaline pH balance of the blood, and act as nutrient transmitters; ensuring our tissues get the nutrients they need. Neurotransmitters, the body’s chemical messengers, are usually made from the building blocks of protein as well. Functions of protein in our bodies are endless!
We need to consume a constant supply of amino acids to build proteins which create our body tissues. In times during our lives, when we need to build up our body’s strength even more, we need to look at consuming higher amounts of protein. Our bodies demand more protein during times of stress, illness, post-surgery, injury, with increased physical exercise, compromised digestion, and throughout infancy, pregnancy, and in the elderly.
To make a protein high quality, it needs to contain an extensive amount of essential amino acids. (Adequate proportions of nine essential amino acids must be present to make a complete protein). Essential amino acids need to be consumed from food, as our body does not have the capability to manufacture them. Most foods contain both “essential” and “nonessential” amino acids, but are considered incomplete if lacking in any one of the nine essential amino acids.
Animal origin foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, are examples of complete proteins. Vegetarians and Vegans need to pay special attention to the type of protein sources they consume, as plant proteins, the majority of the time, are incomplete (not supplying adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids). Vegetarians/Vegans may be consuming plenty of protein, but the selections of protein may be lacking in one or more essential amino acids to make them complete. Vegetarians/Vegans can ensure they are consuming optimal protein amounts, by combining their protein foods. (For example: grains with legumes, grains with nuts/seeds, or nuts/seeds with legumes). Legumes are beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. Combinations such as these are considered complimentary proteins because when combined they make a complete protein supplying adequate amounts of all nine of the essential amino acids. Consuming complete plant proteins such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and soy (fermented soy preferred such as tempeh), alongside combining other sources will help to supply the body with all of the needed essential amino acids. One doesn’t have to consume foods that compliment one another to make a complete protein during every meal. If we are consuming food sources which compliment one another throughout the day, our bodies can make complete proteins. Chlorella, a single-celled freshwater green algae, is also a complete protein, wonderful superfood, and a natural Vitamin B-12 source, which makes this superfood ideal for Vegans/Vegetarians.
It is more beneficial dividing our daily protein intake into meals throughout the day, opposed to consuming too much protein all at once during one meal. Protein helps us achieve satiety, making us less likely to indulge in empty calorie foods, such as refined and processed foods. Our bodies will only take what it needs. If too much protein is consumed all at one time (For example, 60 grams of protein opposed to 30 grams), the extra protein calories will ultimately end up being stored as fat. (Protein supplies 4 G of calories; same as carbohydrates)! Consuming too much protein on a daily basis can increase one’s risk of developing osteoporosis, as it causes an increase in calcium excretion and can play havoc on the kidneys, especially if from animal sources. However, on the other side of the spectrum, if one’s diet is deficient in carbohydrates and fats, our body will break down tissue proteins. (Our body uses carbs and fats first for energy). So ultimately, if we are not consuming enough of the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats), we can have a protein deficit. It all comes to balance. We want a healthy balance of protein and our other macronutrients to meet our unique lifestyle and specific needs.
How much protein do we need? For a non-athlete (average) adult, daily protein requirements are 0.8 g /K of bodyweight, whereas adult athletes require approximately 1.2- 2 g /K of body weight. There are many variables and factors that come into play when determining daily protein requirements. This is just a basic guideline, as there are many considerations for every unique individual, so these amounts aren’t set in stone. If uncertain how much protein you should be consuming, it is advisable to check with a nutritionist, dietician, naturopath, or healthcare provider, especially when wanting to consume higher than average amounts of protein. Recommended daily intake of protein is 12-15 % of one’s total caloric daily intake. To put this into perspective, an active athletic 130 lb/59kg woman requires approximately a daily protein intake of 71 to 118 grams of protein per day, taking into account other factors such as stress levels, health, etc. This would account for approximately 284 – 472 of her daily calories from protein.
Which “Whey” do you go with protein? Whey protein isolate has been filtered further than whey concentrate, resulting in less fat and lactose (carbs), a higher protein percentage, with better absorption. Whey concentrates contain the same types of amino acids and tend to be less expensive. If one has an intolerance to lactose or has digestive disturbances, then they may want to opt for Whey isolate protein. There are also protein blends, which contain both whey concentrates and isolates. When choosing Whey protein, grass-fed is a better option. There are also many Vegan plant protein powders available, but while many plant proteins aren’t complete, they do offer many of the benefits and advantages as other protein powders. Vegan plant protein blends are an excellent option, as they will supply all of the essential amino acids. For example, although Hemp and Pea protein powders both contain all 9 essential amino acids, both have inadequate amounts of specific amino acids. However, when these two protein powders are combined, they fully compliment one another and create adequate amounts of all of the essential controversial information and considerations to make when it comes to soy. Soy can be a topic all in itself. If brown rice protein powder is combined with your protein powder (non-complete on its own), make sure it is of a good quality and third party tested, as a poor-quality brown rice protein powder may have higher levels of heavy metals such as arsenic. If consuming single incomplete protein powders, be sure to consume other sources of proteins throughout the day to compliment them.
What to keep in mind when it comes to protein? Moderation, quality, creativity, and variety!
Renée Knudsen, RHN