The Power of Protein

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How important is protein?

Protein is one powerful nutrient. It is part of every living cell, and it plays a major role in your body — from building your body tissues to making important hormones. An adequate protein intake in the diet is important across the life cycle, especially as we age. Keep reading to learn more about protein, including:

  • What Is Protein?
  • What Are the Different Types of Protein in the Diet?
  • Why Does the Body Need Protein?
  • Current Protein Intake Recommendations
  • Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)
  • Special Protein Needs
What Is Protein?

Proteins are one of the most amazing group of molecules in the human body.  They are complex combinations of smaller chemical compounds called amino acids.  These are like the bricks or building blocks of a building.

There are about 20 amino acids.  Some can be made in the body from other amino acids, or in other ways.  However, at least 8 or 10 of them must be obtained from our diet.  All of the amino acids contain oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen.  Many also contain sulfur.

Like building blocks, millions of these amino acids are chained together, stuck together, and folded over each other to form complicated shapes and structures to create millions of critical body components.

Proteins are associated with motion, the basic quality of animal life.  While plant life is more concerned with sugars and carbohydrates, animal life is more concerned with proteins.  (However, all life contains both proteins and carbohydrates.)

What Are the Different Types of Protein in the Diet?

There are different types of protein in our diet — complete, high-quality protein and incomplete protein. The “completeness” (or quality) of a protein is determined by its amino acid composition. High-quality protein sources are complete with all 9 essential amino acids. High-quality proteins come from animal sources (e.g. eggs, milk, meat, poultry, and fish) and foods made from soy (e.g. tofu and tempeh). About 75% of the protein we eat in our diets should be complete or high-quality protein. An incomplete protein source is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Most plant proteins (e.g. legumes and nuts) are incomplete proteins because they do not contain all the essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins can be combined (e.g. beans and rice, milk and cereal) to obtain protein of sufficient quality to be considered complete, high-quality protein.

Typically, good sources of high-quality protein include:
  • Meats, poultry, and fish
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Tofu
Here are examples of amounts of protein in various foods:
  • 3-ounce piece of meat contains about 21 grams of high-quality protein
  • 1 cup of milk contains about 8 grams of high-quality protein
  • 1 cup of dry beans contains about 16 grams of protein
Why Does the Body Need Protein?
As a nutrient, protein performs many functions in the body. An adequate dietary protein intake is important for building, maintaining and repairing body tissues. The body’s structural components, such as skin, muscles, bones, and organs, are made up in large part by protein. Many hormones and enzymes that function to regulate body processes and chemical reactions are made of protein. Protein is also used to make antibodies to fight disease. If you do not consume enough carbohydrate and fat, proteins can also supply your body with energy.
Current Protein Intake Recommendations
The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends that healthy adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day. This is equal to about 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. A protein intake at this level will help to keep the body from slowly breaking down its own tissues. See the chart below for the recommended amount of protein in grams per day for adult men and women.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Protein
Grams of protein needed each day
Women ages 19 to 70+ 46
Men ages 19 to 70+ 56
Special Protein Needs

Children. Adequate protein intake is very important for children, who are growing fast.  Vegetarian diets low in protein, or diets high in soy products instead of meat and eggs, lead to many problems for children such as growth problems, ADD, ADHD, infections and others.  Protein is the major scourge among poor children around the world.  Don’t copy the deficient diets of third world nations.

Pregnant and Nursing Women.  During pregnancy and more so during lactation, adequate protein intake is critical.  Otherwise, the baby’s nutrition and growth will be impaired.

ALL nursing mothers need adequate protein.  Please stay away from all vegetarian diet, and ideally follow a complete nutritional balancing program.  At the very least, always supplement the diet with a fish oil supplement and vitamin D (about 5000 iu daily) for the best brain development of your baby.  For much more on this subject, please read Breastfeeding on this website.

The Elderly.  Older people often suffer from protein deficiency because:

  1. Problems chewing.
  2. Digestive enzyme secretion diminishes with age.
  3. Poor appetite.

As a result, older people often do not like eating as much protein as they cannot digest it.  As a result, digestive enzymes are critical for most older people.  I much prefer ox bile and pancreatin to all the others.

Those with chronic illnesses such as cancer.  Protein digestion is severely impaired in cancer and to some degree in most chronic illness.  Proteolytic digestive enzymes are an important supplement for anyone with chronic illness.  In some cases, amino acid capsules are good for a while until protein digestion improves.

Body builders.  This is the one group that often overdoes on protein.  Their excessive protein intake may be hard on the kidneys and can unbalance body chemistry.

I am appalled at some of the diets recommended by trainers and others in the body building industry.  They are often too high in protein, deficient in essential fatty acids and very deficient in cooked vegetables that supply the essential alkaline reserve minerals better than any other foods.  Please avoid these type of diets.

Summary
Protein has many important roles in our bodies and is part of every tissue, including our organs, muscles, and skin. We need to make sure we eat enough high-quality protein in our diets, especially as we age, so that our bodies have the necessary amino acids to function properly. New research is showing that older adults may need more protein than current recommendations to help optimize their health and protect their lean muscle mass.

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