Protein is the nutrient all of us likely know a little bit about when we think of yummy meat entrées or eggs. Our bodies need protein for proper growth, muscle maintenance, immune system health, even nervous system health. Protein can also be an energy source for our bodies when we don’t eat enough carbohydrates and fats.
Daily protein requirements vary based on age, activity level, state of health and physique goals, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Canada’s current Food Guide no longer specifies a daily intake range (more on ranges below), but recommends that we eat a variety of protein foods. Vegans in particular must eat a wide variety of plant protein sources to meet daily needs.
IMPROVING HEALTH AND BODY COMPOSITION WITH PROTEI
Protein can absolutely support optimal health, body composition and a healthy metabolism when consumed in the right amounts in combination with regular exercise. Below are some of the ways protein helps us:
- Increase Calories Burned: Bumping up our protein intake helps our body burn more calories because digesting protein and then putting the proteins to use is actually a lot of “work” for our cells and organs, more work than digesting carbohydrates and fat. Having to do all this biological “work” ends up helping us burn more overall calories.
- Reduces Appetite: Increasing our protein intake increases chemical messengers that make us feel fuller, while also reducing a hormone that increases appetite. The net effect is reduced snacking and urges to overeat.
- Build/Maintain Muscle: When combined with weight-training exercises (required for supporting sustainable weight loss), additional protein helps enhance recovery by both rebuilding and maintaining muscle. Having more muscle mass increases our overall metabolism, which means our bodies burn more calories even at rest.
0.6g to 1g
The recommended protein amount per pound of body weight by experts for active adults wanting to build and maintain muscle. If you were 200 pounds, you would need 120g to 200g of protein daily spread out over several meals
- Protecting Older Adults: Emerging research has found that many older adults actually need more protein for better health and wellness. One published review analysed several similarly-designed protein feeding studies, and found that healthy older adults (average age: 71) needed more protein than younger adults to get the same muscle maintenance activity. The researchers recommended an average of 32g of protein per meal spread out over 3 meals to support muscle maintenance for older adults.
Another reason why older adults need more protein is because with age, the ability to process and make use of protein loses its edge. Increasing protein intake therefore helps older adults compensate for digestive inefficiencies that naturally come with the golden years. Furthermore, we naturally lose muscle mass as we age, so actively maintaining muscle mass through exercise and adequate protein intake helps preserve strength, mobility and independence among seniors. Examine your protein needs if you are middle-aged, and check in on elderly parents and grandparents to ensure they are eating enough protein.
Some Final Notes on Protein
With increasing grocery prices, you can consider reducing meat consumption (not eliminate it) and choosing more cost-effective protein sources like canned beans (chickpeas, kidney beans), canned fish, brown rice, whole eggs or egg whites. You can make fruit smoothies with whey or pea protein powder a few times a week, or add protein powder and nuts to oatmeal for a more filling breakfast. Google some creative, high-protein recipe ideas to add variety to your meals.
Remember to drink plenty of water throughout the day for good health, especially when eating protein-rich foods. If you are unsure about how much protein you should be eating, speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian. You can also experiment with different protein sources and quantities at your own pace to find what works best for you in terms of sustainable eating habits and how you look/feel/function.
NOT ALL PROTEINS ARE THE SAME
Did you know that not all proteins are equal?
Proteins are made up of substances called amino acids. In nature, there are a total of 20 amino acids. Of these 20, 9 are called “essential amino acids” (EAAs), meaning we have to get all 9 of these amino acids from our food – no exceptions. The remaining 11 are called “non-essential amino acids” (NEAAs), meaning our bodies can naturally make these 11 amino acids.
Animal meats, seafood, eggs, milk, peas and tofu contain all 9 EAAs, and are considered high-quality, “complete protein” sources. Certain plant-based protein sources (i.e. beans, wheat, flour) do not have all 9 EAAs, or have very little EAAs, so we call these protein sources “incomplete proteins.” If we only eat these incomplete sources, we will not get the same benefits we would get from eating complete proteins, unless we mix incomplete proteins with complete proteins (i.e. eat a bean salad with some chicken).
Even among complete protein sources, some are superior to others based on the quantity and mix of their EAA content. For example, whey protein powder (from milk or cheese) and beef are considered more superior complete protein sources than soy and pea because they contain more leucine, isoleucine and valine, which are 3 specific EAAs (called branched-chain amino acids – BCAAs) that do a lot of the heavy lifting in supporting muscle growth and maintenance.
Knowing these differences enable proper nutrition planning, like choosing the best protein to drink right after a workout to best support immediate recovery (whey protein is ideal in this instance over say eating 2 hard-boiled eggs after training), or for vegans, knowing which protein sources to choose so they get enough EAAs in their meals (i.e. adding tofu to a chickpea salad).
William Ha is a Toronto-based freelance writer and current food industry professional specializing nutrition, health foods and dietary supplements.