As women with an interest in weight loss and nutrition, we hear a lot about the importance of protein. But what actually is protein and why do we need it?
Well, believe it or not, protein isn’t just important for body builders to build muscle with. It’s needed by everyone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s necessary both for the normal daily functioning of your body and for proper nutrition.
Protein is made from molecules called amino acids. And the fact is, most of your body itself is also made from amino acids.
As you probably already know, your body is in a constant process of regrowth. It’s continuously shedding and re-growing its skin. It’s been estimated that the human body totally rebuilds itself – that is, every single cell is completely replaced, every 4 to 7 years.
On top of that, your nails and hair are constantly growing as well. All this new- and re-growth occurring in your body relies on amino acids from your diet to make it possible.
A moment ago I mentioned body builders. Well, muscles are made of amino acids as well, which means that if your goal is to increase your muscle size, then you guessed it, you need more protein to allow that to happen as well.
Amino acids are the building blocks of your body, and your dietary protein is the source of these amino acids.
So as you can see, the expression “you are what you eat” in fact really is true in a literal sense when it comes to protein.
Now there’s a very important point you need to be aware of when it comes to your protein intake. And that is that unlike carbohydrates and fats, your body can’t store protein. After about 3 hours, the protein you consume as part of a meal starts to become broken down and is removed from your body.
So what happens when there’s none left?
Well, because your body is in a constant state of growth and renewal, it MUST have a constant supply of protein. And if your dietary supply of protein has run out it has no choice but to get what it needs from your muscle tissue.
That’s right – your body goes into a state called a catabolic state, where it eats away your muscle tissue to get much-needed amino acids. Now, whatever your health and fitness goals may be, this is bad news.
Muscle tissue is obviously beneficial from the point of view of keeping you strong. But it’s also important from a weight loss point of view. That’s because unlike fat tissue, muscle tissue is very active – your body burns up calories simply maintaining it, even when it isn’t being used. Even while you’re sleeping, in fact.
So any loss of muscle tissue means a drop in the number of calories your body burns on a daily basis – in other words, a drop in your metabolism.
Now, for the average person, this isn’t the end of the world. As long as your diet isn’t too messed up, the loss of muscle tissue will only be small and it can eventually be replaced – not a big deal.
But if your goal is to gain muscle or lose weight, then muscle tissue loss is something you want to avoid as far as possible.
Small steps in the negative direction add up, after all. And since physical transformations usually aren’t the easiest of projects, you want to do all you can to make your task as easy and successful as possible.
So to avoid or minimize the tendency for your body to become catabolic, it’s simply a matter of following two simple rules:
- Make sure you get enough protein with each and every meal (yet another reason behind the importance of balanced meals).
- Try to have a meal every 3 to 4 hours. This means 5 to 6 small meals a day, rather than the regular 3 large meals that we all grew up with.
These rules will help keep your body supplied with an adequate and regular supply of amino acids.
As well as being a source of amino acids for your body however, protein also serves another important function in your diet. Along with fats, protein slows down the absorption of energy from carbohydrates into your bloodstream.
In other words, protein lowers the GI of the carbohydrates you eat.
When your body digests carbohydrates, the energy they provide gets transferred into your blood as glucose, or blood sugar. And when your blood sugar level rises, your pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin into your blood, whose job it is to transport the blood sugar into your cells, muscles and liver.
The amount of insulin that gets channeled into your bloodstream depends on your blood sugar level. If your blood sugar level goes up a lot and rapidly, as it would when eating a large amount of high GI carbohydrate, then so too will your insulin level.
So-called “blood sugar spikes” are best avoided as much as possible because over time they lead to associated health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Syndrome X, as well as leaving you hungry and craving more carbohydrates.
On top of that, the resulting high insulin levels in your blood lead to increased storage of energy as body fat.
So slowing down this energy transfer is yet another reason for making sure that you have protein as part of each and every one of your meals.
Now, one final point to note about protein is that not all types are created equal. There are 9 essential amino acids for adults, in other words, 9 amino acids that your body must have provided to it in your diet, since it can’t produce them on its own.
Protein foods that contain all 9 amino acids are called complete protein foods, and those that don’t contain all 9 are called incomplete protein foods.
Your body must have all 9 amino acids for it to be able to make use of them, otherwise they’re of limited benefit and are normally just burned for energy.
All protein foods from animal sources, including meats, poultry, fish and dairy products, are complete protein foods. Most plant-based protein foods are incomplete protein foods. There are a handful of exceptions to this – such as soy, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
It’s possible however, to combine different incomplete protein foods to obtain all 9 essential amino acids, in other words, to make a complete protein portion. This can be done by mixing foods from the two or more of the following incomplete protein groups:
- Grains and Cereals
- Nuts and Seeds
So you can combine rice (grain) and walnuts (nuts) for example, to achieve a source of complete protein. Combining two or more foods from the same incomplete protein group won’t achieve this outcome, however. Often times incomplete protein foods can also be beneficial when eaten with a complete protein food, since your body may be able to use it as a source of the amino acids that are lacking.
It’s important to bear this concept of complete and incomplete proteins in mind when looking at various foods such as high protein breakfast cereal.
Some of the best sources of complete proteins are lean cuts of beef and lamb, kangaroo meat, chicken and turkey breast, fish, eggs, tofu and cottage cheese. There is also a wide variety of protein powder supplements available that contain very high levels of complete protein.