Why Prioritize Protein?Sep 09, 2023
What is Protein, and how much do we need?
Last week I talked about the 6 Pillars of Health and Longevity, and invited you to assess yourself to decide which of them may be a priority for you (see more and get the assessment graphic HERE). While all 6 are important, it may depend on what you’ve focused on (or ignored) in the past that will tell you which one(s) to prioritize now. This will be different for everyone, but I’m going to start with one of my faves: Just Eat Real Food! And over the next few weeks, I’m going to offer a quick tour of some of the important fundamentals – including where we might have unintentionally strayed down the wrong path.
The three main macronutrients are protein, fats and carbohydrates, with ‘macro’ simply meaning large, and these are the nutrients that are most common in our diet. On the flipside, micronutrients are those that are in much lower quantities in our diet.
Today we will look at protein and provide you with an understanding of this macronutrient and its importance in human health.
Why it’s critical to Prioritize Protein
Protein is incredibly important, as it is a main building block for most of the cells, tissues and organs in our bodies, as well as both enzymes and communication molecules like hormones and neurotransmitters. Without it our brain and body composition and health greatly suffer as a result!
Proteins are an essential nutrient and can be broken down into 20 building blocks known as amino acids. Out of these 20 amino acids, 9 are essential as the body cannot make them itself. This means that we must obtain these from the diet, through a variety of animal and plant-based sources. And yes, it is possible to source all of these from plant-based sources. The other 11 aminos can be synthesized by the body, making them non-essential.
Essential and non-essential amino acids
ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS: Histidine, Isoleucine*, Leucine*, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine*
NON-ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS: Alanine, Arginine, Asparagine, Aspartic Acid, Cysteine, Glutamic Acid, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline, Selenocysteine, Serine, Taurine, Tyrosine
*Branched-chain amino acids
Within the 9 essential amino acids, there are 3 branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s): leucine, isoleucine and valine. These are again different to the others as they do not require metabolizing by the liver, and are therefore taken up directly by skeletal muscle. Also, these 3 aminos are the most important for the manufacture, maintenance and repair of muscle tissue as they are responsible for the “flicking on” of the muscle building process, known as protein synthesis.
Of the three, leucine has shown to be the most effective amino at stimulating protein synthesis (the process of building muscle protein and therefore growth), yet the three work better together to provide a host of benefits and even boost energy during workouts. (1) (2)
Studies show that BCAA supplementation alone can blunt the catabolic hormone cortisol and decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness. (3)
Click HERE for a table that shows the protein quantity in many of the common foods we eat.
Benefits of protein
- Helps you feel full and satisfied longer. This may help support weight loss or weight management goals.
- Regulates blood sugar levels.
- Builds and maintains the body’s cells.
- Maintains cognitive function. Protein helps to create the neurotransmitters in the brain. These help communicate messages from your brain to the rest of your body. Some neurotransmitters include serotonin and dopamine. So protein may be of particular importance for those looking to support their mental health.
- Plays a part in a healthy immune system.
- Maintains muscle mass.
- Helps with recovery following exercise, injury, surgery, or infection.
Why do many of us not eat enough protein?
There could be many reasons, ranging from the cost of high-quality proteins, to a belief that too much protein isn’t healthy.
Unfortunately consuming too little protein can lead to a number of health issues, and this is especially true as we age.
How much protein do we need?
- The average intake
For a healthy person of a healthy weight who is mainly sedentary and not seeking changes in body composition – then an intake of 0.4 – 0.6 grams of protein per pound body weight is sufficient.
- When losing body fat
Protein has a high thermic effect, which means it requires more energy just to break it down, assimilate and digest than carbohydrates and fat. It also takes longer to digest, and has been shown to reduce appetite compared to carbohydrates and fat. (5) (6)
We also need protein to build muscle, which is very important when following a fat-loss diet. The more muscle you have, the more you’ll burn daily, the less stair-climber sessions you’ll need to do!
Having a high protein intake during a Calorie deficit is also important, as it is an anabolic nutrient, meaning we are more likely to preserve lean body tissue, which can sometimes be broken down when dieting. (9)
- When building muscle
The key to building muscle is a positive protein balance. This is achieved when protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown. A higher protein diet will upregulate protein synthesis (provided you have evenly spaced meals), which creates a net positive protein balance, resulting in that anabolic (building) environment. (10)
The studies that look at muscle mass and protein intake tend to vary from 0.8-1.0+ gram per pound bodyweight, so it’s safe to say a balanced approach would be most beneficial, so around 1g per pound bodyweight is highly effective. (11) (12)
- Active people and Seniors
Body composition goals aside, some people are highly active, through their jobs or activities (such as endurance training).
The research shows a daily intake of 0.5-0.65 grams per pound bodyweight for these types of people. (13)
Seniors can also benefit from more protein to help prevent aging diseases such as osteoporosis and sarcopenia (reduced muscle mass).
The research shows a daily intake of 0.45-0.6 gram per pound bodyweight. (14)
- Finally, those recovering from injuries may also benefit from a higher protein diet.
Studies show that animal protein sources are more effective than most plant-based sources at stimulating muscle protein synthesis due to their digestibility (low-fiber) and amino acid profile.
Also, proteins that contain high levels of BCAA’s, particularly leucine, will produce greater protein synthesis, improve insulin signaling and spare glucose in muscle cells.
Debunking the “Dangers” Of A High Protein Diet
Many people will try and tell us that a high protein diet is bad for us, and that it is linked to cardiovascular disease, dehydration, calcium loss and damaged liver and kidney function.
The question that must be asked is – show us the accurate research.
The small amount of research that may support these dangers appears - just like many things in the nutritional world - to have been greatly exaggerated.
Here’s what you need to know:
- There is no link to protein causing increased risk of coronary heart disease (15)
- There is no link to protein causing liver or kidney damage in healthy subjects (15)
- Recent studies show a positive relationship between protein intake and bone health. (16)
It’s essential that we Prioritize Protein. Why?
- Protein is a macronutrient needed by the body.
- The benefits of protein include keeping you full longer, regulating blood sugar, helping with recovery and maintaining the body’s cells, as well as cognitive function, immune system, and muscle mass.
- The amount of protein that you need a day depends on your height, weight, and activity levels.
- The best protein sources include lean meats, poultry, eggs, dairy, fish, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, and some whole grains.
- A variety of protein sources is best for overall health and in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Stay tuned for some High-Protein Recipes from the Sugar-Free Kitchen on Thursday!
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