Protein is a macronutrient (nutrients we need in large quantities) that is chemically composed of amino acids. These amino acids are the essential building blocks of our structure, including muscle, immune cells, hormones and hair.
There are 20 amino acids we need, and 9 of them are considered ‘essential,’ but can’t be made by the body and hence must be consumed in our diet. Once consumed, the amino acids we have ingested are broken down by the body and reassembled to create the amino acid needed.
However, not all foods are created equal, and so not all foods provide us with the same amounts of the same amino acids. This means that a variety of foods need to be consumed for our bodies to be able to assemble all of the required amino acids. Inadequate supply of protein will result in the body’s own muscle mass being broken down as we do not retain protein stores like we do for fat and glycogen (sugar).
How much protein do I need?
The right amount of protein for each person is dependent on many factors; the main ones being age, muscle mass, activity levels and current state of health. Nutritional organisations recommend we consume 0.75 (women) or 0.84 (men) grammes of protein per kilogramme of body weight per day. This can be achieved by consuming a palm-sized serving of steak and a wedge of cheese.
The body cannot store protein, so when consumed in excess it is broken down and used as energy or eliminated as waste. Try to consume your protein via healthy foods and stay within dietary limits. The jury is still out as to whether excess protein is harmful, but there are two good saying that apply here: ‘Better safe than sorry,’ and ‘Everything in moderation’.
There are several benefits associated with protein consumption as part of a balanced diet including increased satiety (feeling of fullness), improved muscle development and retention, boosted metabolism and it has been associated with long-term weight maintenance!
Quality vs quantity
Not all protein sources are the same; a ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ source of protein provides a balance of all nine essential amino acids. Based on essential amino acid content and digestibility, eggs and human milk provide the highest quality protein, as do animal foods. The protein quality of vegetables is lower due to limited supply of certain essential amino acids, so they aren’t absorbed as well.
This does not mean vegetarian diets limit our ability to thrive. If we consume a variety of healthy foods every day, the proteins within these products will complement one another to provide an ample supply of the essential amino acids.
What foods are best?
– Dairy products
– Hemp and chia seed
– Soy beans
Key points to note
While it is difficult to prove a cause and effect relationship between nutrients and their benefits, it is clear that protein is definitely your friend if you are a physically active person. Meat, fish and eggs will satisfy your body’s protein needs, but vegetarians need not be afraid of missing out, as soy and various vegetables provide complete sources.
When it comes to protein, a balanced diet is key, and regular consumption of protein-rich foods will not only keep you healthy but can also help you smash your health and fitness goals.
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