The word protein comes from the Greek word proteois, which means primary or most important. It is of upmost importance in the human body. When the body digests protein they are broken down to amino acids. These amino acids are used in the construction of new body tissues (muscle, skin, hair), hormones, enzymes, immune chemicals, and transport proteins(these transport nutrients about the body).
Muscles depend on protein turnover(breakdown and synthesis) to become bigger and stronger when stimulated by exercise. During intensive exercise, as the muscles are put under stress, protein breakdown occurs in the muscles. Protein synthesis (the assembly of amino acids into new protein structures) needs to occur for these muscle tissues to rebuild and adapt to the stress. Therefore, protein in the diet is essential for recovering from exercise and becoming stronger.
This isn't just important for our muscles, all tissues in the body go through protein turnover. For example, the skin goes through this process. Old dead, dry skin cells flakes away, and new healthy skin cells take their place. Therefore adequate protein in the diet is important for healthy skin.
Eating protein burns more calories
After you eat, your body must use energy (burn calories) to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients taken from the food you have eaten. This is known as the Thermic Effect of Feeding. Eating calories actually increases the rate at which your body burns calories. This makes up approximately 10% of the total calories burned through the day. As protein is harder for the body to digest and absorb then carbohydrates and fats, the body burns more calories after protein is ingested when compared with carbohydrates and fats. Approximately 25% of the calories consumed from protein will be used in digesting and absorbing that protein. With fat and carbohydrates it is only 5%. This means for every 100 calories of pure protein ingested , 25 calories of that are burned in processing it, compared to only 5 calories for fat and carbohydrates. So, eating a diet with a higher percentage of protein increases the total amount of calories burned throughout the day.
Protein fills you up
A meal high in protein is more satiating than a meal higher in carbohydrates or fat. This means it helps you feel satisfied for longer. Carbs may make you feel full directly after eating, but protein has a greater prolonged satiating effect.
Helps burn fat
Protein helps to liberate free fatty acids from adipose tissue (body fat), these fatty acids can then be used as fuel by the cells.
The RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) is:
- 0.84 gram/ kg of body weight for men
- 0.75 gram /kg bodyweight for women
It should be noted that this is the amount to only prevent protein deficiency. i.e.: this is the amount required to cover the basic daily requirements for protein turnover of a sedentary person. If taking part in high intensity training, fighting illness, recovering from injuries, or pregnant this needs to be increased to about 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight to aid in the synthesis of new proteins. This is the difference in giving our bodies the bare minimum of a nutrient to survive, or giving it enough to keep your body functioning optimally.
“You need a small amount of protein to survive, but a lot more to thrive”
Easy-to-remember portion sizes
You want to be having a portion of protein with every meal. A good guide for measuring a portion of protein is to use the palm of your hand. So a palm size piece of chicken breast or steak would be one portion. Obviously this isn't an exact science but is close enough. As a general rule, women should be consuming 1 portion(1 palm size) with each meal, men should be consuming 2 portions(2 palms) with each meal.
Foods high in protein are:
Meat - chicken, turkey, beef
Fish - salmon, tuna, cod
Dairy - cottage cheese, Greek yoghurt
Beans, peas, legumes, tofu
Should you use protein powders? Well, it depends. Protein powders are supplements, not replacements. They supplement your diet. It is very possible to get adequate protein from whole foods you consume in your diet, but some times it is just easier to have a protein shake. Especially when you are stuck for time. Protein powders are very useful for making up delicious nutritious shakes. Blend up some berries, a banana, some Greek yoghurt, ice cubes and a scoop of chocolate protein powder, and you have a tasty, nutrient dense, quick meal that will keep you going for a couple of hours.
For people who miss their sugary-sweet treats when eating clean, protein powders are also great for making some healthy treats.
In short - are protein powders essential? No. Are they useful? Yes
Wont consuming lots of protein turn me into a beefy bodybuilder/meathead?
No. Protein will play an important role in a bodybuilders diet, but to pack on slabs of muscle mass you have to be consuming a lot of extra calories. You would have to be eating way more calories then you are burning so the extra calories can be stored as muscle mass. Obviously, you would have to be training like a bodybuilder too, or else those extra calories get stored as fat not muscle. Growing big muscles doesn't happen by accident, it takes years of discipline in the diet and specific training for literally hours each day (plus the odd "supplement").
What I am talking about in this article is increasing the percentage of protein in your diet, therefore lowering the percentage of other macronutrients be it carbs or fat (usually carbs). So you will be taking in a similar amount of calories, just more coming from protein. Incorporating this type of diet, along with some progressive resistance training, can have a very positive effect on body composition (dropping body fat, increasing lean muscle).
Won't eating a high protein diet kill my kidneys?
Let me just say I am not talking about a high protein diet, just higher than your average pizza & ice cream eating couch potato. Something in the range of 30 - 40% of the diet from protein.
There has been a lot of talk in regards to high protein intake being bad for the kidneys, but not a lot of scientific evidence to back it up. Diabetes and obesity increase the risk of getting kidney disease. Higher protein and lower carb diets can significantly help reduce the risk of getting both diabetes and obesity, which in turn will lower your risk of getting kidney disease.
The following article goes into a lot more detail on this topic:
- Protein is essential for healthy tissue such as skin, hair and muscle
- Protein helps in growth & repair
- If taking part in intensive exercise you need adequate protein in the diet to recover from the exercise and for your muscles to adapt to the stimulation
- Digesting protein burns more calories than digesting carbohydrates or fats
- Aim for having protein with each meal. The general rule is 1 palm size piece for females, 2 palm size pieces for males
- Consuming more protein can be a significant factor in improving body composition