I was recently asked by a vegetarian friend of mine if I thought she should be taking a protein supplement. She mentioned that she didn’t think she was getting enough protein in her diet; that alone was a giveaway that she almost certainly needed supplementation. The majority of my male friends supplement protein, but I know very few women who have taken this step. There is unfortunately an ignorant stigma around protein, but we need to overlook this and concentrate on the facts.
What is protein and why is it important?
Protein is composed of amino acids. There are 12 non-essential amino acids (the human body has the ability to make these) and 8 essential amino acids, those that we must get from our diets. Why is protein so important? These amino acids are responsible for nearly every metabolic activity and compose our tissue structure (contractile proteins and fibrous proteins), non-steroid hormones, enzymes, immune chemicals (immunoglobulins and antibodies), transport proteins, and much more. Getting adequate protein from our diets is not simply important for guys that lift weights- protein is the macronutrient that keeps us all functioning on a daily basis. Without adequate protein in the diet, things like enzymes and structural proteins are cannibalized, and vital human functions begin to fail.
Are all proteins created equal?
The answer is no. The Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) uses the measurement of Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) to determine protein quality in the food we eat. Take a look at the chart below:
You’ll notice that animal proteins rank highest on the spectrum, while plant proteins rank lower. Women tend to consume less animal protein than men, and vegetarians don’t consume any animal protein at all; based on the chart above, you can see why vegetarians have a difficult time getting enough protein in their diets, and why protein supplementation should definitely be considered by more women, and certainly by vegetarians and vegans (or better yet, why all people should simply eat a balanced diet including both animal and plant proteins…)
How much protein do we need?
The recommended minimum amount of protein for sedentary (inactive) adults is 0.7g per kg of body weight. Please note: this is the minimum amount (to prevent deficiency and vital protein cannibalism) for an inactive person. As I stated above, amino acids are vital to our health and function, so why limit ourselves in any way? Recent research has shown that higher levels of protein in the diet can be vital to immune function (think health), metabolism (think fat-burning), satiety, weight management and overall performance. Due to this, many experts recommend protein levels upwards of 1g per pound of body weight for both men and women. If weight-training or another type of high-intensity exercise is part of your lifestyle, don’t be afraid to consume around 1g of protein per pound of body weight.
What about my kidneys?!?
Fact: High-protein diets do not harm kidneys.
Fact: High-protein diets do not lead to calcium loss.
Do you require additional supplementation?
Before running out and buying a tub of whey protein, take an honest look at your diet. If you are getting enough protein from whole foods, supplementation is unnecessary- and you’re in great shape because lean, whole food options have a more complete micronutrient profile (think vitamins and minerals) and have a slower absorption rate than supplements. However, if you can’t seem to get enough protein from food sources, protein powder will be a great addition to your diet. Even if your protein intake is borderline, keeping a protein supplement in the house is highly recommended- that way, you can supplement when you need it and concentrate on getting enough whole food protein when you have the time.
A few final comments
If you now realize that you need more protein in your diet, make sure you decrease your carbohydrate intake as you increase your protein intake. Protein has the same number of calories per gram as carbohydrate, so if you are already at a neutral calorie balance (not gaining or losing weight), make sure you adjust your carbohydrate levels accordingly. Secondly, don’t think of protein supplementation as simply protein shakes. There are all sorts of protein powders (whey, egg, pea, etc.) and they can be all used in cooking and baking; get creative- where there’s a will, there’s a way!
For more information on protein supplementation and if it’s right for you, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.
Happy Hump Day!