In this blog, I am going to be telling you all about protein; what it is, where you get it and why it’s important to include it in your diet (even if you’re not aiming to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger).
What is Protein?
Protein is a nutrient which is used for growth and repair. Protein makes up our muscles, organs, skin and hair. Like carbohydrates, protein contains 4kcal/g.
When we eat protein, it is broken down in the gut into amino acids. There are 20 amino acids which are split into two groups; non-essential and essential.
Twelve of the 20 amino acids are considered non-essential because they can be manufactured in the body. These include:
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
The remaining 8 of the 20 amino acids are considered essential. This is because they cannot be made in the body and therefore need to be obtained from our food. These include:
Once they are absorbed, these amino acids are found in the bloodstream where they are taken up by the body cells. They are then re-assembled into new proteins which may be used for:
- Building, maintaining and repairing body cells and organs
- Making hormones and enzymes which will regulate body functions
- Making antibodies and important components of the immune system
Good Sources of Protein
In the UK diet, the main sources of protein are animal sources. These include:
- Meat – poultry and red meat
- Dairy products – milk, cheese and yoghurt
Don’t worry if you’re a vegetarian or vegan as protein can be found in many plant sources including:
- Cereal products
- Meat substitutes such as Quorn
As long as you get a regular intake of a variety of different foods and ensure you substitute animal products which these plant-based sources of protein, there is no reason why you can’t maintain a healthy diet. The danger of not making these substitutes is that you could be at risk of suffering nutrient deficiencies such as iron, B vitamins and calcium.
The Bottom Line
You don’t need to fear becoming a bodybuilder overnight from protein consumption. You would need to eat large amounts and do heavy strength training to gain large amounts of muscle, especially if you’re a woman. It is important to ensure you’re getting a regular supply of protein to make sure you’re getting a regular supply of amino acids in the cells. The amount needed depends on age, gender, activity level, etc. Protein deficiency is not very common in the UK, especially with certain diets asking for a high protein intake as a replacement for other food groups. The risks of consuming insufficient protein include:
- Growth failure
- Loss of muscle mass
- Decreased immunity
- Weakening of the heart and respiratory system
However, consuming too much protein can be dangerous with some health risks including:
- Can be a burden on the kidneys and liver
- As high protein often means low carbohydrate – and carbohydrate is the only fuel that the brain can use – the brain can be deprived of energy
- Very low carbohydrate diets can lead to ketoacidosis (a metabolic state which is associated with high concentrations of ketone bodies. These are formed by the breakdown of fatty acids and the deamination of amino acids. It is more commonly associated with type 1 diabetes and alcoholism. In extreme cases, it can be fatal)
- High protein foods such as meat and dairy usually have high levels of saturated fats which can lead to conditions such as Coronary Heart Disease
- High protein diets are low in fibre which can lead to constipation and colon diseases
High protein foods can help stave off hunger pangs because they have been known to act as a mild appetite suppressant and can decrease hunger. This will help if weight loss is your goal as you will be less likely to feel the need to snack out of hunger between meals.
At the end of the day, ensuring that you get regular intakes of protein in each of your meals from a variety of sources along with adequate sources of carbohydrates and fats will provide you with all that you need for a healthy and balanced diet.