Since we were born Mother Nature has provided us with abundance of high-protein foods to ensure our growth and cell regeneration. A primary building block of the body, this vital nutrient has been an integral part of the human diet for decades, but in recent years, many people have taken its benefits to extremes by either consuming too much of it or excluding its animal sources completely, trusting vegetarian recommendations.
Delving into rigorous scientific research and medical publications, supported by my personal experience, I decided to discuss the purpose of protein in our diet while looking at some misconceptions and incorrect recommendations.
Protein is the building block of our muscles, organs, bones and connective tissue. It comes form the Greek word ‘protus’, meaning ‘prime importance’ for a reason. All enzymes are proteins that control digestion and energy production. Some proteins also function as hormones, such as insulin, oxytocin, and somatotropin. Insulin transports glucose to our cells where it can be used for energy, oxytocin stimulates contractions during childbirth while somatotropin is responsible for muscle growth. The hemoglobin protein also transports oxygen to cells while actin and myosin are involved in muscle contraction and movement. Another vital function of protein is its ability to protect us from infections in the form of antibodies. These proteins are located in the blood stream and are used by the immune system to defend us against bacteria and viruses. They work by immobolising the ‘bad invaders’ which allows the white blood cells to destroy them and fight off diseases.
However, one of its subsidiary benefits has made it the perfect panacea for obesity – its ability to keep us feeling full for longer, suppressing our appetite. And this is how the success of the Atkins diet found its gimmick.The diet recommends eating as much as you can, regardless of calories as long as you only consume high-protein, fatty meals, and no sweet fruit and vegetables. The book became a best-seller, knocking Harry Potter off the shelves, turning Dr. Atkins into the new Messiah of Fitness. With its success came the criticism from the medical community, proclaiming its principles as a scientific heresy whose recommendations were ultimately against the long-term human health.
In 2008, a BBC Horizon Documentary commissioned its own scientific investigation to deduce evidence that the Atkins diet’s success came from protein’s properties to suppress appetite, making people consume fewer calories. The additional benefit further goes into the body’s dynamics to burn more calories using protein as energy, called the thermic effect of eating – when the body expends almost twice as more energy to break down protein than carbohydrates.Thus, the Atkins diet is just a restrictive eating plan that offers short-term success, turned into a food craze that guarantees long-term health problems. Increasing protein is smart, but eliminating other foods vital to our health is pure idiocy – high intake of saturated fat causes heart problems and the exclusion of carbohydrates leads to deficiency in B vitamins, fibre and phytonutrients that support the immune and nervous systems. Our brain runs on glucose and this is its best energy source. When we don’t consume enough carbohydrates, we are literally starving the brain.
In fact, the Atkins diet, also known as the ketogenic diet was created in 1920s to treat children with epilepsy since this way of eating can reduce the development of seizures in the brain. The body starts producing ketones which are made when fat is used for energy. However, ketones are toxic and create extra burden to the liver and the kidneys, further damaging the brain and the muscle tissues. This can also lead to water retention and migrane and make our blood acidic, leading to amonia build-up. Ammonia is a waste compound that is excreted in the urine. When its levels increase this indicates problems with our waste-removal organs – the kidneys and the liver and if the accumulation continues, our cells will be severely damaged by this poisonous substance.
The problem is not in the protein content but in the exclusion or very low levels of carbohydrates and the high amount of saturated fat. Our body is not designed to live on a restricted diet. It must receive a variety of nutrients that meet the individual’s lifestyle needs. Generic recommendations, such as 50% of daily calories must come from carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 20% from fat are not valid anymore because we are all different in relation to metabolism, energy requirements, daily activities and body composition. Protein should never be compromised in our diet. Considering its vital role in the body, this would be detrimental to our skin, muscles, bones, immune system and digestion.Many studies link a high-protein diet to lower blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes. In elderly, protein increases the circulation of IGF-1 – the human growth hormone – which can protect from hip fracture and prevent the development of osteoporosis. Moreover, this vital nutrient improves the liver function as two amino acids – methionine and choline participate in the transformation of fat into lipoproteins that are then removed from the liver. Therefore, if we were to reduce our calorie intake, it should be at the expense of saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, not protein.
Here you will probably ask the vital question of how much protein we need to take then. It’s simple – depends on your fitness goals and lifestyle needs. For example, I take around 260g of protein per day because I am currently training for a fitness figure competition and my aim is to build muscle. If your goal is to loose fat, protein must also be high as you don’t want to loose any muscle during your fat loss programme. If you are moderately active, I would probably say around 2g per kg of body weight.
The quality of protein is also paramount as this defines its biological value which is the rate of retention and utilisation of protein in the body. Thus the higher the biological value, the better the body will use it. Milk and egg protein rank high along with all meat sources. Vegetable protein is unfortunately not complete – it doesn’t contain all amino acids needed by the body. However through food combining, a complete profile can be obtained. In addition, vegetarians need to eat higher amounts of certain nutrients to obtain the same amount as per 100g of chicken, for example. Therefore, when choosing your protein sources, free range eggs and poultry, fish and extra lean red meat, preferably organic are your best choices. Free change means better developed animal muscles and hence a better quality protein. Extra lean cuts guarantee you less saturated fat while organic feeding means no antibiotics and toxins for the body.
As you can see I highly support the need of more quality protein in our diets. In subsequent posts, I will tell you more about the building blocks of protein – amino acids – so you can fully see its vital functions in the body.
Hope you all start getting more in your diet and let me know what you think on this topic.
With health & balance,