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Monday, 28 March 2011

What's It All About --Proteins?

I honestly don't know what all the fuss is about regarding high protein diets?!

So many 'experts' push 'high-protein' dietary regimes as a way to achieve BEST RESULTS in:

1. losing weight,
2. getting maximal fitness benefits,
and as
3. THE panacea for athletes and people who are training to be SURE they have optimal muscle protein synthesis and maintenance of lean body mass(LBM) WHILE effecting in having a lower body fat percentage or making sure the weight loss, if needing to lose weight, IS fat -- not muscle.

NOW, I totally AGREE with ALL of the above desired BEST RESULTS scenarios, BUT....
as an experienced nutritionist, I see NO reason to PUSH high-protein diets because most people, certainly, in the developed countries of the world, are ALREADY eating MORE THAN their requirements of protein. In other words, they are already on high-protein diets. What they often just need to do is to LOWER their intake of the OTHER macronutrients in their diets -- the carbohydrates and the fats -- ESPECIALLY the SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES(SUGARS) AND SATURATED FATS(which, of course, includes trans-fats) so that the PROPORTION of protein to carbohydrates and fats is better/best.

Let me try to put this in perspective for you by explaining a bit about PROTEIN REQUIREMENTS,SOURCES, and FUNCTIONS. Maybe, then, you will understand how all of the 'high-protein diet' hype translates to what you need to be buying, cooking, eating, and seeing on your plates each day. I'm sorry that this will turn out to be a sort of LESSON in proteins, but that's just the way it is if you really want to understand what it's all about.


Dietary proteins are one of the macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats are the other two) found in a wide variety of foods. The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids and there are about 20 amino acids, 9 of which are classified as ESSENTIAL -- that is --those that we HAVE to get from our diets DAILY as our bodies do not make them. Understand that this does NOT mean that these essential amino acids are more important than the NONESSENTIAL amino acids because the non-essential amino acids are very necessary for our bodies -- but our bodies can MAKE these amino acids. The terms 'NONESSENTIAL and ESSENTIAL' are very misleading, I know.

So, we MUST obtain ESSENTIAL amino acids from our foods. IF we don't get essential amino acids, we DO lose our ability to make the proteins we need for our bodies for their various PROTEIN FUNCTIONS:

1. Cell growth, repair, and maintenance -- blood; tissue -- not JUST muscle cells, but organs, and ALL body tissues, including bones. Proteins are needed for NEW growth -- such as a fetus and newborn body which has more than 10 trillion NEW body cells and in adults, new cells that are made after old cells die -- such as our red blood cells which live for 3-4 months and then need to be regenerated, the cells in our intestinal tract that need replacing every 3 to 6 days, and so on. Cells are damaged/broken down EVERY day from our normal,'HEALTHY' needs, such as activities of daily living, organ use, sun and weather damage,and exercise -- let alone damages from bruising, disease, or illness. So, we need to be sure we have long-term adequate protein nutrition, for sure, but also DAILY adequate protein intake for our short term needs.

2. Various Enzyme and Hormone reactions of the body -- Enzymes actually ARE proteins and are involved in all the various chemical reactions of the body -- in speeding up reactions, binding substances together or breaking them apart and transforming substances from one to another. Whereas many hormones are made up of lipids, there are several important hormones that ARE made up of amino acids, such as insulin, glucagon, and thyroid hormone. Hormones are the vital substances of our bodies that drive reactions and act as chemical messengers.

3. Proteins help to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance -- proteins attract fluids and act as conductors

4. Proteins maintain acid - base balance -- proteins act as buffers

5. Proteins help maintain a strong immune system -- Antibodies ARE proteins!

6. Proteins are also a source of energy providing 4 kcalories per gram, although the body PREFERS carbohydrate (also provides 4 kcals per gram) and fat sources (provides 9 kcals per gram) for energy so that protein can be spared for all of the other functions above. It's IMPORTANT to know that protein does NOT have a special way that it is STORED in the body for energy use -- it is found in the tissues, blood, organs, bones. FAT is stored as triglycerides and carbohydrate is stored as glycogen and is much more easily transformed into fat than protein! This is nature's way of pointing to the fact that diets that are exclusively based on protein, as the main source of energy, are actually a bit counter to how the body optimally functions.


So, how much protein should we eat? Although requirement recommendations vary -- depending on a person's age; overall state of wellness, trained condition of body, and nutritional status; usual activity levels, including exercise; any over-riding disease conditions; any acute increased needs, such as with burns or protein-losing enteropathy -- the recommendations, according to most experts are designated as:

Most adults need 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight
Non-vegetarian athletes need 1.2-1.7 grams per kilogram body weight
Vegetarian athletes need 1.3-1.8 grams per kilograms body weight

So, how does this translate to what you see on your plate and how much protein food you need to eat per day. Well, first, to calculate how many KILOGRAMS BODY WEIGHT you are, you must divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. The result is your weight in kilograms.

Next, multiply your recommended dosage of protein per kilogram, as stated,above. IF you ARE engaged in some sport REGULARLY (5-7 times a week for 1-hour or more sessions) AND at a moderately intense level, then you can choose the athletic category. Otherwise, you are at 0.8 gms per Kg per day.

Also, growing children need more -- I advise closer to 1.2 gms/Kg/day.

FURTHERMORE, based on the literature and my experience, OBESE and OVERWEIGHT people appear to lose weight better on a dietary intake that includes closer to 1.2-1.5 gms protein per day. NOW , AGAIN, let me reiterate, that most people are ALREADY taking in this amount AT LEAST, and often much more, so a person who needs to lose weight often doesn't have to go through hoops to increase their protein intake -- they simply have to work at DECREASING their carbs and fats, so that, in the end, they achieve the type of dietary intake that APPEARS TO EFFECT IN OPTIMAL FAT LOSS WHILE HELPING TO BUILD AND RETAIN MUSCLE TISSUE, METABOLIC EFFICIENCY, INCREASED IMMUNITY, BONE STRENGTH AND INTEGRITY, and OPTIMAL ORGAN FUNCTION especially if they are regularly exercising. If you look back at the FUNCTIONS OF PROTEIN that I have delineated above, it makes sense, doesn't it?! And, in the end, when trying to lose weight, you HAVE to make sure you have your overall DAILY ENERGY(KCALORIE) INTAKE lower than your daily ENERGY (KCALORIE) expenditure and even NEEDS to lose fat tissue so that the your storage fats (adipose tissue)is mobilized for energy, and eventually decreases. You DON'T want to eat SO much protein or IT will be used to provide you energy (kcalories) and the fat stores don't budge! You want to make sure, though, that the PROPORTION OF PROTEIN kcals from your dietary intake is on the high side COMPARED to your kcalories from carbs and fats. THIS WILL happen AUTOMATICALLY when you limit fatty and sugary foods -- JUNK FOODS -- the stuff you KNOW you shouldn't be eating daily -- TREATS! GOT THAT.

You DO NOT have to go on some uber high protein diet!

I KNOW I'm being somewhat repetitive, but I can't emphasize this point enough.

OK, now that we got that cleared up, let's get back to how recommended protein requirements translate to total amounts of protein per day and how to achieve these amounts from the foods that you eat.


First point to make about sources of protein are that there are TWO TYPES OF PROTEIN -- INCOMPLETE and COMPLETE.

COMPLETE PROTEINS are food sources that contain all 9 essential amino acids and are generally derived from animal food products such as meats, fish, poultry, eggs (especially the whites), and dairy products -- milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. Soybeans also contain all 9 essential amino acids as does quinoa.

INCOMPLETE PROTEINS do not contain all the essential amino acids. HOWEVER, incomplete protein foods can be COMBINED to make COMPLETE protein when you know HOW TO COMBINE foods so as to make the limiting amino acids in one food complement the amino acids limiting in the other foods. If this is done, then the QUALITY of the protein from these food sources are no LESS than complete proteins!

Here is some information to help you turn INCOMPLETE PROTEIN into COMPLETE PROTEIN by

If you mix legumes with grains, nuts and seeds such as rice with bean or lentils, and hummus (which is chickpeas and sesame already mixed), you get complete protein.

Likewise, eating grains with legumes, such as peanut butter on bread, barley and lentil soup, a corn tortilla with beans yields complete protein.

And lastly, vegetables, which of themselves are not complete protein, when combined with grains, nuts, and seeds such as spinach salad with pine nuts and beans, or broccoli and tofu with almonds -- provides a meat-free dish that is complete protein.


Most 3.5 oz servings of any meat, poultry, fish (bones excluded) contain about 24 gms
of protein

An 8 fl. oz of milk contains 8 gms protein
An 8 oz. portion of plain yogurt contains 13 gms protein
1 oz. cheese contains 6 gms protein
1 cup cottage cheese contains 31 gms protein

1/2 cup tofu contains 10 gms protein
3.3 oz. tempeh, cooked, contains 18 gms protein
1 cup soy milk contains 7 gms protein
3.5 oz. edamame contains 12.4 gms protein
3,5 oz cooked quinoa contains 14 gms protein

Most 1/2 cup servings of beans contain approx 8 gms protein

2 Tablespoons PB(Peanut Butter) contains 8 gms protein
1 0z. dry roasted peanuts contains 5 gms protein
1 oz. almonds contains 6 gms protein
1/3 cup sunflower seeds contains 7 gms protein
1 oz. pecan halves contains 5 gms protein

A medium slice of most breads contains approx 2 gms protein
1 cup of most cereals contains an average of 3 gms protein

1 cup of most vegetables contains approx 2 gms of protein

A piece of most fruits contains about 1 gm of protein

These are just ESTIMATES -- to get EXACT amounts per serving of various foods, check food labels, look up, or ask me! I'm VERY HAPPY to help you!

So, with all the information I've now given you, let's go through an example of finding out how much protein a person needs, how they can meet their requirement, and how easy or difficult it is:

Example: MJ is an active 55 y.o female. She weighs 148 lbs. She racewalks every day for about 45 minutes. In addition to her daily racewalk,she rides a stationery bike for 15 minutes and works out on a cross trainer for 15 minutes 4-5 times a week and often exceeds these times, too. She engages in planned and alternating resistance training 4-6 times a week. She is also trying to lose about 20 lb, so she really watches her total kcalorie intake, but she loves her carbohydrates -- pasta, bread, and homebaked cakes and pies. She's managed to keep off 60 lbs of the 80 lbs that she had gained in pregnancy 20 years ago, but the last 20 lbs is difficult and she's constantly fighting the battle to shed the 20 lbs against giving in to enjoying her carbs as carbs help her to feel 'satisfied'. How can getting her protein proportion RIGHT really help her feel satisfied while making sure she gets the right 'building blocks' for her body AND her particular nutritional needs?

I would say MJ would be wise to make sure she gets at least 1.2 gms protein per Kg per day. This translates into about 81 gms protein per day (148 divided by 2.2 = 67.27 Kg. 67.27 Kg x 1.2 = 80.72). I use 1.2 because even though MJ is NOT an athlete, she is working out enough to warrant increased needs and to get her out of the 'sedentary' classification whereby she would be fine getting 0.8 gms protein per day. BUT , ALSO, because MJ is trying to still lose that extra weight, it would also be good for her to get a higher proportion of her daily intake from protein for that reason, too! This way, as she gradually drops her weight, it will most likely be FAT tissue and not muscle and bone. At her age, THIS is very important. So, to make sure she gets 81 gms protein per day, I would recommend to MJ that she include 2 servings of low-fat dairy (16-20 gms),4 servings from the grain group (8 gms), 4 servings from the vegetable group (8 gms), 3 fruits servings (3 gms), and 2 to 3 servings of portion-controlled LEAN meats or, better yet from the non-meat sources of complete protein (which will absolutely provide her remaining 46 gms of protein EASILY if one 3.5 oz serving yields 24 gms from these sources), such as soy products, quinoa, or legumes combined with her grains. I would recommend she snack on nuts and seeds, but NO MORE than once a day -- she should better snack on fruit and her allowed dairy servings for her other 1 or 2 snacks. In fact, including some of the vegetarian-based sources of protein, like beans & rice, quinoa and edamame, etc -- she might feel fuller (higher fiber content) and thus not feel the need for so much bread and pasta! She absolutely MUST exert some discipline to avoid cakes, pies, and extra helpings of pasta and grains and I would advise her STRONGLY to avoid baking for awhile, even though I KNOW she enjoys it. You can't have everything in life!!! LOL!

Kidding aside, the point of this example is to demonstrate to you that even when putting the protein requirement at an UPPER level of recommended, it is quite easy to achieve plentiful and more-than-adequate protein in the diet. It is MUCH more difficult to get the PROPORTION RIGHT of protein- to carb to fat. By the way, MJ gets plenty of fat in her diet from the meat sources, and possibly the dairy and certainly the nuts and seeds, but she can also include a COUPLE portion-controlled servings of margarine or polyunsaturated oil-based salad dressings or use oil if needed for cooking. But, again, as she's trying to drop weight, she needs to use fats sparingly.

I hope this helps you a bit to understand protein. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, comments or want personalized advice.

Mary-Jo R. Overwater, MSc, MMSc, RD

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