We all know that protein is an essential component of a healthy diet. But what makes it so important? Well, protein is known to be the ‘building blocks of life’ and is a component of every cell in the human body.
In fact, it accounts for 20% of our total body weight. Protein plays a vital role in the body, both building and repairing muscles, organs, bones, skin, cartilage and blood. It is needed to make enzymes, hormones, antibodies and other chemicals.
So protein clearly plays a key role in ensuring our well being, and without it we may notice our health begin to suffer.
Just as protein is important for good health and well being, it is also required for optimum strength and fitness.
When we undertake a training session our muscles are put under a great deal of stress and become damaged, but with a balanced nutrition plan that meets the body’s protein requirements, muscle fibers will repair and rebuild quickly.
But without sufficient protein in our system, our bodies will struggle to meet the needs of our muscles, and training benefits will be minimized or completely stagnant.
Put simply, you can’t build stronger muscles without protein.
Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three primary “macronutrients” and our bodies require it in fairly large amounts in order to function properly.
However, unlike the other two macronutrients, excess protein is not stored in our bodies – if we’re running low, there are no reserves to take from, and the protein will be stolen from our muscles and other protein structures.
This makes it extremely important that we fulfill our daily protein needs through the foods that we consume.
So don’t overlook its importance and make sure you pay this nutrient the attention it deserves. (WHO: Protein and Amino acid requirements in human nutrition.)
What Exactly is Protein?
Whilst proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Amino acids are organic molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sometimes sulphur.
There are 20 amino acids, which bond together in chains of varying lengths and shapes, arranged in countless different combinations to create different proteins, each with its own specific function.
Some amino acids can be formed within our bodies, but there nine amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body and must be supplied through food. These are known as the essential amino acids and include:
Luckily, there are a range of food sources that ensure with a little thought we can easily hit our protein requirements. But the failure obtain enough of just one of the essential amino acids can have negative effects on our health.
When the body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs to function properly, it will begin to display certain symptoms to signal to us that something is wrong. Protein deficiency symptoms can often go unnoticed to many individuals and are often unaddressed.
Tiredness and general weakness, muscle and joint pain, hair loss, constant craving, difficulty sleeping and low energy, moodiness and stress are all signs of protein deficiency.
Muscle or Joint Pain
It is common for an individual low in protein to experience muscle and joint pain. Our body is in a constant cycle of repairing itself from the stresses and strains of physical activity and day to day life.
Without adequate protein the body will struggle to carry out this repair, so painful joints and muscles can be one of the first signs that something’s not right.
We all know that we need protein to build and repair muscle. If were not getting enough of it, our bodies will be unable to repair any muscle damage, and if we’re lacking in protein, the body may even start to take protein from the muscles, causing them to shrink and become weaker.
As a result, you may find yourself feeling weaker than usual, and finding general activities and workouts more difficult than usual.
Just as protein is the building blocks of your muscles and other bodily tissues, it is the building blocks of your hair. In fact, your hair consists of mainly protein.
So if your body is lacking in protein, you many notice that your hair is thinning, breaking easier, or completely falling out.
Constantly craving carbohydrates and feeling like you’re never quite full is often one of the first signs that you’re low on protein. Proteins role in our diet reaches past its direct nutritional qualities; one of its most crucial functions is keeping blood sugar steady.
So high protein foods will keep blood sugar stable and keep us fuller for longer. If you’re not meeting your body’s protein requirements your blood sugar will be up and down and you will find yourself craving more carbohydrate foods like breads, cereals and sweets.
If the body doesn’t have enough protein it begins to crave sugars and excess carbohydrates, as discussed above. This can lead to a dependency on carbohydrates as a sole energy source.
Carbohydrates burn off relatively quickly, meaning cravings and hunger will appear faster than in an individual who consumes more protein within their diet. So it’s not uncommon for individuals with a low protein intake to wake repeatedly throughout the night as their body is craving its next meal.
Low Energy, Moodiness and Stress
Another sign that might indicate a lack of protein in the diet is feelings of low energy, moodiness and the inability to deal with stress.
This is because without sufficient protein in the diet to help stabilize blood sugar, the body will go through exhausting highs and lows leaving you without the energy you need to handle the stress of day-to-day life. I should also add that if you are suffering from low energy, you should consider a 7 or 14 day detox. The results can be spectacular.
So What are the Best Sources of Protein?
Many of us associate protein purely with meats, fish, eggs and dairy, but high protein foods come in all forms and there are many quality sources to choose from.
And whilst, yes, they are some of the highest protein-containing foods, many plant sources are great sources of protein too. That’s right, all foods contain a certain amount of protein, even fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.
Sources of animal-based protein
- Chicken: When it comes to animal protein, many people tend to opt for lean protein from white meat such as chicken or turkey. At 27 grams of protein per 100 grams, chicken is often a favourite amongst the bodybuilder community.
- Beef: Beef contains 26 grams of protein per 100 grams, making it one of the highest sources of animal-based protein. However, it takes a very long time to digest, leaving your muscles waiting for their protein fix and not the best source of post-workout protein.
- Salmon: Though slightly less than chicken, salmon is a great source of protein for those preferring to eat fish than meat. Salmon provides 20 grams of protein per 100 grams.
- Milk: Milk is often a popular source of protein, whether as a drink, on cereal or in the form of yogurt. With 3.4 grams of protein per 100 grams, a pint of milk will provide you with around 18 grams of protein.
- Egg: One medium cooked egg contains over 5 grams of protein, whilst the egg white alone contains 3.2 grams. To compare it to the foods above, per 100 grams an egg provides around 13 grams of protein.
Sources of plant-based protein
There is often a misconception that individuals following a vegetarian or vegan diet are unable to consume enough protein. But the truth is that there are plenty of high quality plant sources of protein that can be used to meet individual’s protein needs as researched by Young and Pellet.
There are plenty of plant-based athletes attesting for it. Check out strong man Patrik Baboumian, ultra-distance runner Scott Jurek or NFL defense men David Carter as examples. Great sources of plant-based protein are nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains such as oats, and even some vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli.
- Almonds: You can’t get much better than almonds, with as much as 21 grams of protein per 100 grams, they certainly pack a high protein content, making them a great post-workout snack.
- Oats: Oats are an excellent food to incorporate into any diet regime, as oatmeal, flapjacks or even in a smoothie. A typical serving of 100 grams of oats contains as much as 16g of protein making it an excellent source.
- Kidney beans: Kidney beans are another great source of protein, providing 15 grams per hundred grams. That’s only about one cup of beans, making it easy to ensure you eat enough to fulfil your daily protein requirements.
- Quinoa: You may not have heard of the grain-like seed quinoa, but it’s a food so healthy that NASA plans to grow it on interplanetary space flights. As far as its protein content goes, quinoa is even slightly superior to egg, providing around 14 grams of protein per 100 grams.
- Hemp seeds: Saving the best until last, not only to hemp seeds contain significant amounts of all nine essential amino acids, they also contain 37 grams of protein per 100 grams. That’s higher than any other food source listed above. Hemp seeds are thought to be the most nutritionally complete food source in the world.
For more information on vegetarian sources of protein, check out the ‘High-Protein Vegetarian Cookbook: Hearty Dishes that Even Carnivores Will Love’. This book is an incredible resource for any vegetarians looking to give their meals a protein boost and learn incredible new recipes that will have them hooked.
The author, a self-proclaimed ‘vegetarian living with a meat-eating guy’, has developed recipes for every time of day that are not only deliciously satisfying but also high in protein.
So how much protein should you consume and how can we keep track of it?
The daily recommendation of protein differs from country to country, but the figure of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (Institute of Medicine, dietary reference intakes) is often recognized as a healthy level for a sedentary adult individual.
For an active individual who’s hoping to build muscle, recommendations range from anywhere between 1 gram per kilogram of body weight to 3.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Top researcher Dr. Peter Lemon suggests an RDA of between 1.7-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for those who take part in regular strength training.
Keeping track of your daily intake of protein is simple. Your food will usually have a nutritional value label on the packaging, with information listing nutritional values per serving or per 100 grams of weight.
Write down everything you eat and figure out protein content manually, or enter it into a tracker such as Cron-o-meter to keep track of your macronutrient intake, as well as other health metrics including vitamins and minerals.
This might sound like a nuisance, but you only need to do it for a week or so to get an idea of whether or not your typical daily meals are supplying you with adequate amounts of protein for your body weight.
Importantly, it may help you to realize if you are consuming too little protein and give you the opportunity to do something about it before your health begins to suffer.
Protein Powders and Shakes
The use of protein powders as supplementation is today more popular than ever, with many people choosing to supplement their protein intake with powders and shakes.
The assumption that protein powders are reserved for only the budding bodybuilders in the gym is beginning to be overshadowed by the fact that people of all shapes and sizes are using protein powders to stay on top of their protein requirements.
There are many different powders to choose from, all of which come at varying qualities and with varying ingredients. Whey and soy based protein powders are popular and long standing favourites amongst the gym-goers and bodybuilding community.
But other protein powders, including rice protein, pea protein and hemp protein, are becoming more and more popular too.
It’s worth noting to check the levels of protein per scoop that your protein powder provides and if it offers enough protein for you to reach your target. However, remember that whole food sources are still essential to health and fitness, and protein powders should not take their place.
An excellent option is to complement your protein shakes with nutritious and health-promoting food sources such as banana, berries, avocado, or perhaps even oats for an extra protein boost.
There are some fantastic books and resources to help you get started with implementing healthy and balanced protein shakes into your diet. Check out the Bariatric Foodie Guide to Perfect Protein Shakes for great ideas and tips to keep protein shakes fun and flavourful.
High-protein diet for weight loss
Many people who are struggling with weight issues often have underlying problems with metabolism-boosting hormones, including the important thyroid hormone leptin.
Leptin, also known as the “satiety hormone,” regulates energy balance in the body by inhibiting hunger when we have consumed enough food. Often individuals with thyroid issues do not release enough leptin and are unable to recognise when they are full.
This can lead to over-eating and weight gain.
World-renowned Endocrinologist Dr. Ridha Arem came up with a comprehensive plan that includes a high protein version of the Mediterranean diet.
The plan focuses on increasing whole plant food intake, whilst simultaneously increasing protein intake to improve hormone efficiency and bring about long-lasting weight loss.
For more information check out her book ‘The Protein Boost Diet: Improve Your Hormone Efficiency for a Fast Metabolism and Weight Loss’. Followers of The Protein Boost Diet can expect to experience an increase in thyroid hormone efficiency, resulting in long-term weight loss.
Don’t overlook the power of protein
Now that you understand what protein is, why it’s important, and where you can get it from, you can make sure to pay it the attention it deserves.
When increasing protein intake in your diet, ensure that you are including plenty of fruits, vegetables and sources of dietary fiber, as well as drinking plenty of water and staying well hydrated to maintain healthy digestion prevent constipation and other digestion issues that can sometimes come with a change in diet.
For more information on protein and how to successfully eat for optimum health and fitness, check out ‘Protein Power: The High Protein/Low Carbohydrate Way to Lose Weight, Feel Fit and Boost your Health in Just Weeks’.
The popular book guides readers through successfully implementing a high protein diet into their lifestyle, helping readers to decrease their carbohydrate intake to a level that suits their lifestyle and energy demands, ultimately leading to a loss of excess weight an improvement in overall health and well being.
Protein in your diet
With this awareness of the importance of protein, whether for muscle development or weight control, finding the best source of protein to fit your lifestyle and diet is vital. For many people, the best and most convenient solution to this is Protein supplements.
However, finding the right protein powder can be an issue, with a whole world of choice that never ends, picking the right one is not easy. Next we take a closer look at protein supplements and which one could be right for you.