Do you obsess over the food you eat? Is there a particular macronutrient you are concerned with, or does fat, carbohydrates, and protein all get the same attention?
For those looking to add muscle and build strength, protein has been a hot topic for years. But do you know why your body needs it? Read below to learn more about the importance of protein.
What is Protein?
Proteins are large macromolecules comprised of long amino acid chains. They differ from carbs and fat in that they contain nitrogen in addition to carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential as they are not synthesized by our bodies.
What does Proteins do?
Protein has many physiological roles vital for health. Structurally, it is well known that protein provides the basis for muscle. Additionally, it is a fundamental component of organs, bones, and skin.
Since proteins form muscles, they have a large role in locomotion. Muscle contraction is made possible by the movement of proteins, thus allowing for movement at various joints.
Antibodies are proteins that have a prominent role in the immune system. They target and neutralize foreign substances.
Proteins that function as enzymes, receptors, and hormones transmit signals or carryout important reactions in the body.
Proteins like hemoglobin and myoglobin work to transport and store oxygen, respectively. Other transport proteins are vital for the absorption of key nutrients from the food we digest.
Lastly, protein can provide yet another energy source. Although this is not the ideal situation, protein can be mobilized from muscle tissue during starvation.
Why is This Important?
The answer to this should hopefully be obvious at this point. To be clear, protein has a hand in virtually every event vital to human life. It provides structure for the diaphragm and lungs, allowing for respiration. Transport proteins carry the oxygen we inspire. The heart is another muscle formed by protein and is integral in delivering oxygen rich blood to every tissue in the body. Get the point?
Proteins are found in a wide variety of foods and can be obtained from both animal and plant-based sources.
Animal sources of protein include dairy, beef, poultry, and fish. Protein rich plant-based sources include legumes, nuts, oils, and vegetables like peas and spinach. The advantage of consuming animal sources is that they possess all of the essential amino acids, as well as larger amounts of protein.
A wide variety of protein supplements exist in the form of powders, pre-mixed drinks, and bars. Nutrients obtained from foods naturally is always superior, but supplements can be advantageous in that they are convenient and often fortified with other vitamins and nutrients. However, they can be high in sodium, sugar, and artificial flavors.
How Much Protein is Enough?
The answer varies depending on who you ask, but you are likely getting plenty. Severe protein deficiency, or Kwashiorkor, is not common in the U.S. Symptoms include thinning hair, loss of teeth, skin rash, distended belly, and swollen ankles. Fortunately, even the most nutrient-poor American diet is typically rich in this macronutrient, so deficiency is rarely a concern for the vast majority.
At the other end of the spectrum lies excessive protein intake. The protein we ingest is catabolized back into amino acids. In turn, the liver breaks down amino acids further so their byproducts can be used for any number of the previously described functions of protein. Excess protein is discarded by the kidney through urination. Thus, too much can cause your liver and kidneys to work too hard. Those that suffer from renal disease are more likely to suffer from excessive protein intake. Symptoms can be non-specific and include loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Falling somewhere in between is ideal. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that an adults receive 10-35% of their caloric intake from protein. At 4 calories per gram of protein, following this guideline means that you would take in anywhere from 50g to 175g of protein on a 2000 calorie diet.
But not all diets are created equal. How about relating protein consumption to weight? The American Dietetic Association’s recommends 0.36g/lb. of bodyweight. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (the governing body who provided my CSCS licensure) recommends nearly doubling intake for competitive athletes (0.8g/lb). Still, some bodybuilders, power lifters, and other fitness competitors recommend taking in as much as 2x your bodyweight.
Protein is important. In fact, it is just as important as other major macronutrients like fat and carbs. Balance is important. Many of the negative effects associated with animal protein may be due in part to a lack of fiber in the diet.
Being a vegetarian or vegan does not preclude you from performing in competitive sports at a high level. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources, but keep in mind they may be incomplete. The advantage of animal sources is that they provide all the essential amino acids in much larger quantities. However, hemp, soy, and chia offer complete proteins as well.
Supplements can be convenient and allow for protein intake in the absence of a large prepared meal. Avoid those that are high in sugar and other preservatives. It is always helpful to let a health professional know when you are starting a new one.
If you plan to start tracking your protein intake, you should know at what end of the spectrum you fall at prior to starting. If it turns out your current diet typically consist of 30g/day, jumping to 200g/day may not be a good idea. Start simple, and build from there.
As always, if you have any questions, ask a trained professional.
Anthony Dugarte M.D., C.S.C.S.
About Dr. Dugarte
Anthony Dugarte, M.D., C.S.C.S. is a Cleveland, Ohio native who has enjoyed success in sports, as well as academics. He accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend Kent State University and graduated, Cum Laude, with a B.S. in Exercise Physiology. At Kent, Dr. Dugarte was a member of the Golden Flash Football Team and earned Academic All-American Honors as a defensive lineman.
He is currently the Research Fellow for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Dugarte has 8 years’ experience as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
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