Of the three macronutrients, proteins are the chief nutrient you should be eating in your diet. While our diets are loaded with fat and carbohydrates, getting adequate amounts of protein is always a struggle.
We need proteins in our diets so that our body stays healthy and works the way it is supposed to.
What are Proteins?
Proteins are found everywhere in our body- skin, tissues, and organs. Proteins are also present within the cell structures (like DNA, RNA), thus indicating how important they are.
Did you know there are more than 10,000 types of proteins found in our bodies? This doesn’t mean you need to eat 10,000 different types of proteins every day.
Here is the why.
Proteins are made up of chemical ‘building blocks’ called amino acids. When we eat protein-rich foods, our body breaks down the proteins into individual amino acids. It uses them to make new proteins as needed by the body.
Think of them as lego blocks that can be broken down and rearranged into different designs and structures. Intriguing right?
There are 20 different amino acids linked in different combinations making various proteins needed by the body.
Our body can synthesize 11 amino acids and are known as Non-Essential Amino Acids. The remaining nine amino acids need to be supplied through diet as our body cannot synthesize them. They are known as Essential Amino Acid.
Amino Acids are also classified based on their structure .i.e. Branched Chain Amino acids (BCAA) and aromatic amino acids (AAA)
Quality of Proteins
The quality of protein is determined based on the presence of the essential amino acids.
Different foods have different quantities of essential amino acids.
Proteins from animal sources like chicken, meat, fish, dairy, etc., contain all nine essential amino acids and are called complete proteins. Soy proteins also contain all essential amino acids.
Plant proteins (beans, cereal, nuts, whole grains) are missing on one or more essential amino acids and are called Incomplete proteins.
But that is okay because you can combine two incomplete proteins and make them complete, for example, cereal pulse combination.
Why do we Need Proteins?
Proteins are vital to our bodies for functioning and staying healthy. As we mentioned earlier, proteins are found almost everywhere in our bodies.
We know that proteins are required to build muscles and strengthen them, but that is not all.
They are involved in several functions and at various levels in the body.
- Transportation: Transporting molecules throughout the body, for example, RBC carrying oxygen, lipoproteins carrying fat.
- Healing and repair: Proteins help to repair cells and make new ones, for example, collagen, keratin, etc.
- Protection: Proteins are essential to your immunity. They protect the body from viruses and bacteria. For example, WBCs produce antibodies.
- Growth: Promoting proper growth and development in children, teenagers, and pregnant women. Lack of protein can lead to developmental delays and growth retardation.
Furthermore, proteins help in weight loss. Adding protein to the diet is of utmost importance when ill or fighting diseases, recovering from trauma and surgery, healing wounds healing, etc.
How do Proteins Help in Weight Loss?
Most weight-loss diets focus on improving protein intake and, here is the why.
- Proteins are needed to synthesize hormones responsible for making you feel hungry and full – Leptin and ghrelin.
- Proteins promote satiety .i.e. make you feel full, which helps curbs cravings and discourages overeating.
- The energy required to digest protein is higher and thus helps boost metabolism.
How Much Protein do you Need to Eat?
An ideal man or woman needs to eat 0.8g per kg body weight of protein. The requirements increase to 1.0 -1.7 g per kg body weight for people who work out regularly or train intensely.
Eating more than 2g per kg bodyweight protein is considered excessive and does not provide additional benefit.
For people who work out, the timings also make a huge difference. Eating protein-rich foods after a workout helps repair muscles and build them up. It is advisable to eat 20g of good quality protein within 30mins of exercise or training for good results.
Protein requirements are higher in infants, growing children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating mothers to support growth and development.
Calculating your Protein Requirements
Calculating your daily protein intake is easy. Let’s calculate our daily protein requirements.
A standard man or woman needs 0.8g per kg body weight of proteins per day. Here standard stands for man or woman, who is not regularly exercising or pregnant, or recovering from an illness or surgery.
If you weigh, say 60kgs.
Then your protein requirement for the day is- 60 X 0.8 = 48g
Thus, for a man or woman who weighs 60kgs, the daily protein requirement is 48g per day.
Consequently, in case of illness or increased physical activity, the protein requirements can be increased up to 1.0 gm per kg body weight.
Now, let’s look at protein-rich foods you need to eat to fulfill your protein requirements.
Protein-Rich Foods to Add to your Diet.
Eating enough protein is easy. All you have to do is add foods from different food groups to your daily diet.
Below are few protein-rich foods that need to be a part of your diet daily.
- Lean meats & poultry: beef, lamb, veal, chicken, turkey, duck
- Fish and seafood: fish, prawns, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops, clams
- Eggs – the best. Make eggs your breakfast for a healthy start to the day.
- Dairy products: Milk, yogurt (especially Greek yogurt), cheese (especially cottage cheese). For people who pursue a vegan lifestyle – Almond milk or soy milk are good protein substitutes.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, macadamias, hazelnuts, cashews, and seeds like, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds.
- Legumes and beans – all beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya, split peas, tofu.
Besides our daily meals, adding protein-rich foods as snacks helps meet your daily requirements. A few examples of protein-rich snacks that you can add to your diet are:
- Roasted chickpea snacks
- Seed mixes
- Hummus (a dip made from chickpea) and veggies
- Peanuts and nuts like almonds, walnuts, pinenuts, etc.
- Peanut butter or nut butter
- A milk or soy milk smoothie with nuts
- Paneer with veggies
- Sprouts salad
- Idli or dosa (cereal-pulse combination makes it a complete protein)
- Curd or yogurt or buttermilk
Shakes and supplements are also commonly consumed to meet protein requirements. But when you can get enough proteins from natural sources why go for them?
Energy bars or protein bars are the latest fads for adding proteins to the diet. A word of caution as most energy bars and protein bars though marketed to be high in proteins are loaded with sugar and carbohydrates.
Protein Deficiency and Its Symptoms
Protein deficiency occurs when our diets are low in protein-rich foods. It is especially critical in pregnant women and growing children leading to growth defects and in some cases, even death.
In India, protein deficiency is common, and symptoms include:
- Wasting and loss of muscles,
- Edema – a build-up of fluid, especially in ankles and feet.
- Low immunity
- Delayed wound healing
- Decreased stamina
Does Eating Proteins harm your Kidneys?
It is a misconception that eating proteins harms your kidneys. Proteins are only a problem for people with weak kidneys or with pre-existing kidney problems. People with healthy kidneys do not stand any harm.
When it comes to good health, both the quantity and quality of protein are critical. Determine your daily protein requirements and examine your diet for the quantity as well as the quality of proteins.