Walk into any vitamin and supplement shop and you’ll likely see canisters of protein supplements whose labels bear muscle bound, shirtless men flexing their biceps lining the shelves.
So is protein only for bodybuilders and serious exercise enthusiasts? No way. Every body, regardless of age and activity level, needs protein to function normally.
The power of protein
Tehzeeb Lalani, BS, Nutrition and Food Studies, a Mumbai-based nutritionist and proprietor of Scale Beyond Scale, explains that protein is a macronutrient, meaning the body needs a lot of it.
“Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 to 21 amino acids out of which nine are essential and obtained through foods; the remaining 10 and 11 are non-essential, which means the body can make it by itself,” she says, adding that each gram of protein contains about four calories.
Like all macronutrients, protein has “specific allocated functions,” according to Lalani. Some of these include muscle repair and recovery; the creation of important hormones such as insulin to control blood sugar and secretin to facilitate digestion; and the formation of antibodies to help ward off infection, illness, and disease.
Lalani indicates that many foods we consume everyday contain protein. And if your patients cannot consume enough via food, consider recommending protein supplements.
“Some common sources of protein are eggs, lentils, beans, meat, and protein supplements or powders. Some underrated sources include pumpkin seeds, quinoa, Greek yogurt, nut butters, such as peanut, cashew and almond, paneer, cottage cheese, tofu, hummus, and ricotta cheese,” she says. “Fortunately, most cultures eat meals in a way wherein protein is mostly always present. For instance, beans and rice commonly eaten as a staple food in Mexico or lentils and rice eaten in India would contain a complete profile of all 20 to 21 amino acids, thereby making the meal protein rich and complete.”
Karen Brennan, MSW, CNC, candidate for board certification in Holistic Nutrition, author of the e-book TruFoods Depression Free Nutrition Guide: How Food Supplements and Herbs Can Be Used to Lift Your Mood and owner of Tru Foods Nutrition Services, reports that age, weight, activity level, and current health status will govern the amount of protein your body needs.
But, in general, the non-athletic adult requires 0.8 grams per kg of body weight; performance athletes need up to 1.7 grams per kg.
Do you need more?
So how do you tell if your body is getting enough protein? Brennan says that a number of different signs could suggest the need to increase your protein consumption. “Ridges in the nails, especially deep ones, can indicate a protein deficiency,” she says. “And if the moon shape of a new, incoming nail is visible on some, but not all, nails, you might be protein-deficient.”
Brennan also cites food cravings, particularly for more carbohydrates, swelling in the feet and ankles, wounds that are slow to heal, loss of muscle tone, irritability, and frequent illness as signs of potentially slumping protein levels.
“Hair loss could mean you are protein deficient, but it could also be attributed to disrupted thyroid function,” she says. “And while there can be many root causes for brain fog, it can also be caused by blood sugar dysregulation, which is caused by too many carbs and sugar and too little protein to balance it out.”
Some people are more susceptible to protein deficiency, according to Brennan. “Those on chemotherapy or recovering from chemotherapy, athletes, and anyone recovering from illness, injury, or surgery requires higher protein levels,” she says. “A baby up to six months of age needs 2.2 grams per kg of body and at one to three years of age, the toddler would need 1.8 grams per kg of body weight. The aging also need more since they tend not to consume enough protein and digestion may be compromised due to lower amounts of stomach acid as we age.”
Brennan cautions that protein in combination with certain medications may produce unwanted and unpleasant side effects. “Those taking Allopurinol, a xanthine oxidase inhibitor used to prevent gout and to lower blood levels of uric acid, and certain people taking drugs for cancer and on a low protein diet may excrete less of the drug, resulting in a three-fold increase in the time it takes the drug to be removed from the body,” she says. “Oral corticosteroids can cause loss of body protein. Your doctor may recommend a high protein diet while you are on this medication. However if you have kidney disease you should not consume too much protein.”
Although protein performs many important functions in the body, be aware that too much can lead to weight gain, excessive amounts of yeast and cancer, according to Joseph M. Mercola, DO. And exercise doesn’t always eliminate excess protein.
Lalani says, “No matter how much you workout, excess protein does put a load on the kidneys and the body has to work extra hard to eliminate this protein from the body. This scenario is far from ideal. So instead of only eating egg whites, protein shakes and steaks, ensure that your meals are wholesome and have complex carbohydrates too.”