It’s your body’s basic building block, it can help you lose weight, you will build muscles by eating more protein – you’ve heard it all. But here’s something you probably didn’t know. Too much protein will make you fat!
Protein is an essential macronutrient – meaning your body require it in relatively large amounts. Protein is vital in building and maintenance of virtually every body part or tissue such as muscle, bone, skin, nails and even hair. According to Harvard School of Public Health, “at least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.”
Human body can survive approximately 6 months without eating fat and a lifetime (after infancy) without eating carbs. It can only live for a maximum of 70 days without eating any protein. Our bodies are ill-equipped in storing excess protein and is unable to make it from scratch either – making it the only macronutrient that must come from food. A lack of protein will cause your body to cannibalize on itself. If we fail to eat enough protein our bodies will break down muscle fibers to fulfill its protein requirement.
The good news is that almost all developed countries have enough protein products on the market to meet your body’s daily requirement. In addition to an all-time high consumption of protein from natural sources, such as meat, we have seen a tremendous spike in protein rich food products such cereals, protein bars, protein chips, protein shakes. Now for the bad news, with this abundance of protein availability, we may be eating it a lot more than we really need.
Why do we eat so much more protein? For one, because it’s so easily and abundantly available. But there may also be a more psychological reasoning. There is no current set limit for maximum amount of protein one should intake. For years, it’s been hyped as something we need more of. Unlike many other diets and fads, which toss the idea of refraining yourself from eating something, the obsession of protein is all about eating and drinking more of it. The daily protein requirement varies between individuals and their lifestyle. While there is no real upward limit on protein intake, there is a minimum Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for maintaining proper body functioning. An average adult requires a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight or about 0.36 grams /pound. So, a 200lbs. individual, would require 70-72 grams of protein each day. That’s a very modest amount – a chicken breast contains 31g of protein per 100g. Most of us are way overeating it.
Another reason for its over-consumption may be that we have long associated eating protein to building muscles or getting leaned/toned. The reason why you have muscles in the first place is because of gravity. Your body must counter the effects of gravity, so it builds enough muscle that you can perform you daily tasks. In space with no gravity NASA scientists lost bone and muscle mass if they didn’t exercise! When you engage in weight training, with enough stress (resistance), you are effectively causing microscopic damage to your cells. The greater the damage to your muscle tissue the more the body will work to repair itself. This cycle of damage and repair is what causes muscle hypertrophy. Its common among bodybuilders to take upwards of 1gm of protein per kg of bodyweight. For an average Joe this is too much.
New year is around the corner. You will see an influx of “new year resolutionaries” at your gym. Most of them will also get on the supplementation bandwagon. I don’t blame them. The media machinery pumped millions of $ into creating this obsession. Protein is among most popular supplement. At my gym, the influx tend to last about a month. However, most will continue to consume protein past their initial gym run. Continued use of protein without proper exercise program will not aid in muscle growth or weight loss. And this is the root of the real problem. We start eating more protein with the aim of losing weight or gaining muscle but if we don’t have a proper exercise program, we are just adding more calories we didn’t need.
There are 4 calories in a gram of protein. And 3,500 calories equal about 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of fat. Let’s imagine your daily caloric requirement is 2500kcal. If you decided to add an additional 100g of protein to your diet you will also add additional 400kcal (100g of protein multiplied by 4cals per gram of protein). In a little over a week you would have added one pound of extra body fat or about 3.5 pounds of fat in a month. The logic is simple, if you are not burning excess cals your body will switch on the fat making machinery.
On one hand it is essential for life and on the other too much of protein will yield undesired results. The message is clear, active individuals require higher amounts of protein and inactive folks – not so much. It is not uncommon for a bodybuilder to consume 1.2g – 1.5g of protein/pound of weight (or 2.6g – 3.3g/kg). Intake of excess protein with a sedentary lifestyle will work the opposite. You will gain weight alright, but in the shape of fat.
The source of protein also plays a big part in your overall health. When we consume protein, we also consume everything that comes along with it. Whether your source of protein is meat, poultry, fish, legumes or protein powder – your body must deal with the entire “package” that you put in it. For example, if you look up the nutritional chart for turkey you will see it contains protein and many other nutrients such as fat, potassium, carbs, sodium and cholesterol. When you eat turkey your body must digest, store and/or excrete all these nutrients. If your intention was to increase protein intake and you chose a diet that was also high cholesterol, it may end up doing more overall damage to your health. When designing your nutrition program, always look at the bigger picture to determine if it’s the best fit for your health goals. Having said that, the bigger picture on protein is not complete without discussing the source of protein.
Protein is made from twenty-plus basic building blocks called amino acids. Nine essential amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine must come from food. Protein from plant-based sources are slowly gaining popularity however animal protein is the primary source of protein by far. Possibly due to most vegan protein lacking one or some essential amino acids – incomplete protein. Protein from animal and fish are complete source of protein in that they contain an adequate proportion of each of the nine essential amino acids. Still, you should exercise caution if your primary source of protein is red meat or processed meat. Red meat and processed meat are linked to causing or increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. These risks are more pronounced in processed red meat so thick twice before eating sausage, hot dogs, salami, bacon etc.
Whether your goal is to increase muscle, reduce weight or just not be protein deficient, you should focus on your source of protein and other nutrients accompanying it. Keep an eye on the total amount of cholesterol, sodium, calories and other nutrients you are ingesting. Also replace red meat and processed red meat with healthy protein sources such as beans, legume, nuts, soy foods, fish, or poultry. If you are building a protein pyramid plant protein like whole grains, beans, legumes and nuts etc should be on top. Followed by fish and poultry and lastly red meat (red meat – in very small quantities – maybe on special occasions only). Processed meat shouldn’t even be on the list. If you love your whey protein powder that’s fine, but it cannot be your only source of protein. Your body was not designed to be one-dimensional. You should aim to eat a more balance diet and expand your protein intake to wider quality of sources. Yes – it’s hard to eat vegan but its necessary for a healthy body. Start out small. I am getting about 70% of my protein from poultry/fish, down from 90%, and the rest from legume, nuts, beans etc. I am aiming for a 50-50 by first half of year 2019. The take away is to increase plant-based protein in your diet and upgrade your source of animal protein. The plant kingdom offers a wide variety of mix and match so you get your full essential amino acids. Replace red meat and processed red meat with chicken, turkey, duck, eggs, fish and other sea foods.
Here’s some of the plant-based protein foods high in protein:
Soybeans: 36g Protein/ 100g
Soybeans are not only rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, they are also rich in protein and are relatively low in carbohydrates. 35 to 38 percent of their calories come from protein while most other legumes obtain approximately 20 to 30 percent. Soybean protein is a complete protein source containing all essential amino acids. Its protein is also of the highest quality – equal to that of meat and milk proteins.
Edamame : 11g Protein/ 100g
Edamame are the least processed form of soybeans. Edamame is basically immature soy beans that are harvested before they ripened. They are green in color while regular soybeans are beige or light brown. It is a complete source of protein providing all the essential amino acids. Edamame is also rich in several vitamins and minerals, fiber and healthy polyunsaturated fats.
Quinoa: 16.2g Protein/100g uncooked
Though some consider it a whole-grain, Quinoa is technically a seed. Quinoa is a complete protein. In addition to high protein, it’s low in saturated fat, is gluten-free, cholesterol free, high in fiber and low in sodium. Protein found in Quinoa is comparable to casein protein.
Hemp Seeds: 32g Protein/100g
Hemp seeds are exceptionally rich in omega-6 to omega-3. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is optimal for human health – between 2:1 and 3:1 They are also a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. Hempseed is a complete protein source containing sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids.
Spirulina: 32g Protein/100g
Spirulina is a blue-green algae used as a food source for centuries around the world. We have recently become acquainted or reacquainted with it. Spirulina in now available in many dietary supplements and certain foods and beverages such as smoothies. Spirulina is incredibly rich in protein – about 60% protein. It contains all essential amino acids and is also a good source of antioxidants, B-vitamins and other nutrients. Spirulina is considered by NASA as one of the potential foods to grow in space.
Mixed-Nuts: 20g Protein / Cup
Nuts are tasty, easy to eat and are packed with nutrients. Eat them as snacks or add them to meals but make them a part of your daily routine. Most nuts are incomplete source of protein however they are rich in minerals, fiber, vitamin E, healthy fats and are high in protein. Instead of eating foods with unhealthy saturated fats, substitute it with a handful of nuts to get a solid source of nutrition punch. Don’t ruin its benefits by covering nuts in salt or sugar. Try to eat it raw. Popular nuts include walnut, almond, macadamia nuts, hazelnut, pistachio and cashew. Most of them are also quite heart healthy.