Take It In: The pros of protein undenied

Feb 20, 2019 by Carol Bareuther

Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Protein has long been the favorite of the three dietary macronutrients, sought out for years while the other two, carbohydrates and fats, have been labeled foes and shunned in a number of popular diets. Witness millions of people in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. embarking on the high-protein, low-carbohydrate Adkin’s Diet, a weight-loss plan first developed in the 1960s and popularized in the beginning of the 2000s.

Today, protein remains popular. According to the “10 Key Health & Nutrition Trends for 2019” published by the Kerry Nutrition & Health Institute in Ireland, protein continues its role as a dietary darling linked to satiety, alertness and muscle repair.

Protein, like carbohydrates and fat, provides calories and is needed in relatively large daily quantities. Vitamins and minerals are called micronutrients because they are only needed in small amounts to keep our body’s basic functions humming along. While we can store carbohydrates and fats in forms such as muscle glycogen and adipose tissue, we don’t store protein.

What’s more, protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, which is crucial for building everything from skin, hair, nails, muscles and vital organs like the heart, lungs and liver to smaller substances such as hormones and enzymes necessary for myriad bodily functions. That’s why we need to eat protein-containing foods daily.

Foods that contain protein come from both animal and plant sources. On the animal side, this includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. On the plant side, dried beans, nuts and seeds, soy products such as tofu, grains such as quinoa, and vegetables such as potatoes, lima beans and green peas contain protein. While animal protein is typically the most abundant and popular in the diets of those of us living in industrialized nations, it’s absolutely possible to follow a plant-only diet and get plenty of protein.

How much protein is needed depends on individual factors such as sex, activity level, age and state of health. For example, men typically weigh more and have more muscle mass than women,  hence men require more protein. The U.S. Dietary Reference Intake recommendation for daily protein in sedentary adult men and women is 0.36 grams per pound. On average, that would amount to about 5 to 6 ounces of chicken, one cup of milk and two tablespoons of peanut butter. This doesn’t count the additional protein found in foods served along with these items.

Athletes, however, require 0.45 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound, or 68 to 135 grams daily for a 150-pound person. At the max, this equals  10 ounces of chicken, three cups of milk, four tablespoons of peanut butter and three eggs.

Lean body mass decreases with age, hence seniors require less protein than those in their 20s. Those healing from extensive burns require more protein than average, while those with inadequately functioning livers or kidneys often need less. Conversely, eating too much protein can cause kidney and other health problems.

The best way to eat the right amount of protein is to focus on food sources rather than protein powders. This is because protein found in foods is naturally packaged with other nutrients needed for good health, while supplements are a concentrated source that can raise the risk of overconsumption.

Finally, eat protein to advantage. For example, munch an apple with a wedge of cheese to make a satisfying snack. Forking into a lunch of baked chicken or fish rather than carbohydrate-rich pasta or pizza can keep mental alertness high rather than let sleepiness set in.

For athletes or active lifestylers, eating high-quality protein such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy or soy within two hours after exercise improves muscle repair. These are all reasons why protein remains the favorite macronutrient.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health-and-nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.