Protein 101
29July/2016

Protein 101

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Protein 101

Too much, too little and what the effects of both are; we discuss all things protein.

By Belinda Potter 

Okay, so I get it. Protein is far less exciting for our taste buds than crunchy, munchy, salty carbs or smooth, rich, creamy fats but it can easily be argued that protein is perhaps our most important macronutrient for good health and yet many (dare I say most?) women under eat it. 

The skinny on protein 

Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are involved in nearly every process within your cells and tissues. To name a few, they provide structure to your organs, muscles, nails and hair; can be found in most of our non-steroidal hormones; are crucial to the production of our enzymes, immune chemicals and transport proteins; and assist our cells in synthesising new proteins. And, while our body is able to manufacture many of its own non-essential amino acids, without the essentials (of which there are nine) we risk ending up in all sorts of strife. 

What sort of strife you ask? Well, unlike fats, which are stored in our adipose tissue, and carbohydrates, which are stored as glycogen in our liver and muscles (with the excess being stored as fat), protein has a very limited reserve. Amino acids are constantly lost via protein turnover, which enables our body to carry out those critical functions listed above but relies on its reserves being replenished through our diet. In the absence of sufficient protein, our body will begin to catabolise (break down) existing tissue – particularly protein-rich tissue such as skeletal muscle. If you are consuming inadequate protein on a regular basis then you can also expect prolonged recovery from exercise, slowed healing of injuries, reduced energy, weakness and depression. However, chronic protein deficiency can be even more sinister, leading to the breakdown of our most important muscle – the heart – as well as decreased immune function, persistent fatigue, frequent infections, and changes to the texture of your hair and skin. Yes, insufficient protein can age you like a leathery old boot left out in the sun! 

Complete and incomplete proteins 

Where we can come a little unstuck is knowing the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. Generally speaking, animal products contain complete proteins and plant-based foods do not. So, if you are following a predominantly plant-based diet then it is important to combine incomplete proteins to ensure that you are meeting your body’s daily needs. This takes a little effort and knowhow – Google ‘combining incomplete proteins’ for more information. 

The right amount 

So, how much protein should we be getting? Well, the short answer is that it depends. Protein needs will vary based on your body type; training type, intensity, and frequency; and your overall nutrition. In short, it pays to experiment but here are some general guidelines to ensure that you are in the ballpark:

 

Protein per kg of body weight

Good for...

0.8g/kg

Intake for sedentary, generally healthy adults to prevent protein deficiency.

1.4-2g/kg

During high intensity exercise, low carbohydrate dieting or low energy intake. Female endurance athletes.

2-2.2g+/kg

Increased metabolism, weight management, satiety and performance. Female strength/power athletes.

 

Another benefit of consuming adequate dietary protein is the positive effect that it has on weight management and increased satiety, this includes:

 

  • Increased secretion of satiety hormones (Peptide YY, GLP-1 and CCK) and reduced secretion of the hormone ghrelin which is our ‘hunger gremlin’.
  • Increased thermic effect of food. In fact, protein is estimated to burn around 15-30 per cent of consumed calories via the digestion process.
  • Improved glucose management – think more stabilised blood sugar and less afternoon slumps or trips to the lolly jar.
  • Preservation of lean body mass during weight loss. 

Can you get too much protein? 

Within reason, studies have shown that higher intakes of protein are quite safe for the majority of the population but there are a few caveats to consider. Crowding out your plate with protein can leave little room for other macronutrients that promote good health such as fibrous carbohydrates, which are a great source of micronutrients and fibre. Too much protein can also lead to an increase in acid-load (remember proteins are amino ACIDS), which our very clever body buffers by leaching calcium from our bones. Again, we can counter this by teaming up protein with green leafy veggies which will have an alkalising effect. Glutamine or sodium bicarbonate supplements can also help to restore acid–base balance in the body. 

Can excessive amounts of protein still be turned into body fat? Yep, via a long and energy inefficient process but it is possible. Also keep in mind that animal proteins inherently contain some fat, so opt for leaner cuts where possible. Finally, anyone with existing or a predisposition to kidney disease should err on the side of caution and consult a dietician or physician before tucking into a high-protein diet.  

References: 

Berardi, J & Andrews, R. 2010, The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Precision Nutrition, Inc. 

McDonald, L. 2007, The Protein Book: A Complete Guide for the Athlete and Coach, Lyle McDonald Publishing, Salt Lake City. 

Medscape, Pesta, D & Samuel, V. 2014, A High-protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats, viewed 10 December 2015, <http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/837081>.

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