The Truth About Protein

Despite the fractious debate on low-fat, high protein diets, protein remains an important element in our diet as it serves various crucial functions in the human body. Protein makes up about 75 per cent of our body weight and is in our muscles, skin, bone, hair and every other part of our body. Composed of enzymes and amino acids, protein provides the power source for chemical reactions in the body and carries oxygen in the blood. But is all protein the same?

Forms of Protein
There are different types of protein, complete protein and incomplete protein. Complete proteins, usually found in animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, have all the amino acids needed to develop new proteins. This means eating a serving of meat will provide your body with everything it needs to make new proteins.

Incomplete proteins, found in fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, lack one or more amino acids. In order to make up new proteins, it is necessary to eat a varied diet and/or use protein supplements. This is of particular importance to vegetarians and vegans, since almost all of their protein sources will be incomplete.

Adults need a minimum of one gram of protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. If you don't get that protein, your body begins to slowly break down its own tissue in order to get what it needs. So, for the average 140lbs woman, it is necessary to eat about 63 grams of protein every day.

Advantages of Protein
There are many great reasons to make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet every day.

  • Foods that contain high levels of protein, like chicken, beef, fish and beans, tend to be digested more slowly from the stomach to the intestine, thereby making you feel full longer. Additionally, protein has a gentle stabilizing effect on blood sugar, unlike a highly refined carbohydrate, which can cause a sudden spike and decline in blood sugar.
  • There is evidence to support the claim that consuming protein low in saturated fat, such as beans, soy, nuts and whole grains, and cutting back on highly processed carbohydrates improves blood triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein. These changes could reduce your chances of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.
  • Protein-rich foods like beans, soy, nuts and whole grains also offer healthy fibers and nutrients that are important in a well-rounded diet.
  • A lack of protein in the diet can lead to growth loss, weakening of the muscles, heart and respiratory system, decreased immunity and death.

Disadvantages of Protein
Despite all the wonderful things protein does for you and your body, consuming too much protein can be quite bad for you.

  • The human body can store only small amounts of excess protein. During digestion, protein is broken down into amino acids that the body uses for energy. Any amino acids that are not used are converted into fat.
  • The digestion of protein releases acids that the body neutralizes with calcium. Eating excess amounts of protein requires a great deal of calcium, which can be leached from bones. A protein-excessive diet on a long-term basis could significantly weaken bones.
  • A high-protein diet, like Atkins may increase the risk of kidney stones and osteoporosis.

Alternative Sources of Protein
Although many people think that meat is the only source of food that is high in protein, various other non-meat foods are often recommended to people looking for an alternative. At the top of this list are soy products including tofu. These food sources are typically recommended to vegetarians.

In addition to being high in protein, soy-based foods contain less saturated fat than meat and provide fiber as well as vital vitamins and minerals. Soy, a member of the pea family, is used to make a variety of products these days including soy-based milk, ice cream, cheese and yogurt. Soy is also the basis for tofu, which is commonly used in hot dogs, hamburgers and other products made to imitate meat.

While soy is a good source of protein, it is important to remember not to consume too much on a daily basis. Soy contains components known as isoflavones, which tend to imitate estrogen. Consumed in high quantities, isoflavones may disrupt common body functions because of the perceived increase in estrogen. However, this point is still debated and not everyone agrees on just how much soy is safe to eat. Additionally, other reported health benefits of soy, such as lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of certain cancers and helping to minimize the effects of hot flashes in menopausal women, is still up for debate.

Aside from soy products, other great non-meat sources of protein include:

  • beans and legumes
  • nuts
  • peanut butter
  • cheese
  • yogurt
  • whole grain products

Protein Supplements
Individuals having troubles meeting their protein needs may want to consider using protein supplements. Made from soy or dairy sources, protein supplements come in a variety of forms including protein bars, protein powder (which you use to make into a drink) and already prepared protein shakes. Rich in both protein and calories, protein supplements are not ideal if you are looking to lose weight. Although they are not harmful, these products are not enough to achieve weight loss alone.

Using a protein supplement once in a while is a great way to make sure you keep up your protein intake. However, avoid using them as a daily meal replacement.

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