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Protein: What’s the hype about?

Anyone remotely interested in fitness has an opinion about protein. People will often criticize your plate of food based on protein content. Others will warn you about the perils of too much protein on your kidneys. So what is the fuss about protein?

Proteins are the source of amino acids in our body. We need these amino acids to repair our cells as well as manufacture new ones. It is the major constituent of your bones and muscles. Every cell in our body has protein and it is the building block of our body.

Our bodies cannot manufacture nine essential amino acids. A protein source is considered complete only if it contains all the essential amino acids. If you are consuming a complete protein in your diet, there is no need for BCAA supplementation. Read more about rating protein quality here. Eggs, meat and dairy are all complete protein sources. Soya is a complete protein source too. Some foods can be a complete protein source in combination such as Rice and Lentil.

The most common supplement is protein powder. There are various types made from various ingredients. This supplement is only useful to complete your protein requirements conveniently. It does not have any magical effects superior to whole food sources.

How do poor laborers get their protein?

This is such a common question. It comes up all the time when a person is asked to increase their protein intake by adding eggs, meat, cheese etc to their diet. Many would like to believe a diet of rice and lentils will satisfy their protein needs. After all, labourers rarely get to eat anything else and they look lean and ripped.

It is indeed possible to get all your protein needs from rice and lentils but this would require you to consume large amounts of both. A labourer can afford to do so because his activity levels are way higher than an office worker or a housewife. Activities that involve high stimulus on muscles like carrying heavy loads also cause the body to absorb and trigger high muscle protein synthesis. So if you would like to eat like him, please be prepared to workout like him too. Fair enough?

What if we don’t eat enough protein?

“I am obese, but I have no major health complications. Why should I eat more protein?” Often asked and valid question. Protein is the building block of our body, bones, muscles. Eating less of it does not cause major health complications immediately. However, it is like a house that doesn’t get timely repairs.

Slowly but surely, the bones get weaker and the muscles further reduce. Autophagy(self-eating) is our body’s way of surviving in conditions where dietary intake is deficient. When our body needs amino acids but there is none to be found, it breaks down various tissues to get it. Pains set in from routine activities, clumsiness sets in too. The person gets less and less active, resulting in further disuse and degeneration. As lean body mass decreases, metabolism goes down. At the same intake, people find their weight creeping up.

People usually ignore these symptoms until they cannot be ignored. Then they tell the doctor. A doctor cannot magically repair your bone mass density or your muscle mass instantly. There is no such medication. Even if you eat Calcium tablets, your body cannot absorb it well unless there is a stimulus to strengthen bones. This stimulus can be best provided by lifting weights. Protein is a major part of your bones and muscles. Eating carbohydrates or fats will not make amino acids available. Only protein can provide them. Look at this study on the elderly. Lifting weights just 2 times a week improved their bone mass density over a period of 6 months. Intake of sufficient protein along with lifting weights will improve your :

  • muscle mass (strength, coordination, reflex)
  • bone density, joint stability
  • metabolism (higher lean body mass = higher energy burnt per day)
  • Reduce sarcopenia and osteoporosis effects of ageing

So, protein intake is not for bodybuilders alone. If anything, they need slightly less of it compared to the general population.

How much is enough?

To start with, a minimum intake should be 1g per kg body weight. This means a person who weighs 70kg needs a minimum of 70g of protein. Here are some detailed guidelines on protein intake based on body weight, body type and activity levels.

In a typical Indian family, cheese/paneer and meat is for “special occasions”. Eggs are feared due to myths propagated about cholesterol. This rules out the most protein-dense sources from the regular diet. Rice and lentils are eaten in moderation due to sedentary lifestyles. Even hitting the minimum requirement of protein is difficult in such a situation. Know your protein sources and ensure the required dosage. Quality of life improvement can be seen just from meeting the required nutrition. When starting it is best to focus on one meal at a time rather than creating the perfect meal plan which never works perfectly. A breakfast with 6g of protein (one egg) is better than something with 1g of protein (Upma/Poha). Next day, add a 25g cube of cheese to the egg and get 10g of protein. Just focus on better meals every time. Soon, meeting your protein requirements will not be a hassle.

Concerned about weight? Total calories matter. Here’s how to plan your entire diet. And how to measure macros in homemade food. Here’s an amazing app that does all of the above for you: it calculates your calories and macros and even generates a sample diet that fits your macros.

Protein: What’s the hype about?

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