The Power of Protein

the-power-of-proteinThe debate on which is better for you, plant or animal protein, shouldn’t matter unless you have dietary restrictions to consider, whether by choice or doctor ordered. Both offer great sources of protein, though a myth persists that plant proteins lack certain amino acids.

Ask someone what protein is and you’ll likely hear responses such as, “meat,” “chicken,” or simply “animals.” Now, these things certainly contain protein, but there is so much more to understand about the most complex of the three macro-nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), in order to maximize what it can do for you. Since 20 percent of the human body is made up of protein, it makes sense to comprehend it better.

So besides being a macro-nutrient, what exactly is protein? Proteins are long chains of amino acids that in some cases include other components like carbon,hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Every cell in our body contains proteins, which act as enzymes, hormone messengers, structural elements, immunoprotectors, buffers, transporters, among many other things. There are three types of amino acids: essential, nonessential, and conditional. Essential amino acids are ones that our bodies do not produce naturally, and therefore must come from the foods we eat. Nonessential amino acids, by contrast, are ones that our bodies will produce even if we don’t eat foods containing them. Conditional amino acids are also formed in the body, except possibly during times of sickness and stress (Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. Advanced Human Nutrition, 5th Ed. 2009; 179-182).

Most people know to eat protein after workouts, because the crucial role of protein is in building, maintaining, and repairing body tissue. And you’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t familiar with the iconic southpaw boxer, Rocky, consuming raw eggs (eggs are a great source of protein) before his training sessions. Risking salmonella infection is not recommended, however, and luckily there are many sources of protein other than raw eggs to choose from.

The debate on which is better for you, plant or animal protein, shouldn’t matter unless you have dietary restrictions to consider, whether by choice or doctor ordered. Both are great sources of protein, though a myth persists that plant proteins lack certain amino acids. This is not the case, although the amino acid profile of each plant varies. Consuming plants from each food group will ensure ingestion of all amino acids. Of course, animal protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids, so it may be easier to go this route. The reason why it’s best to get your protein from both, however, is that each offers certain benefits that the other does not. For instance, animal proteins contain few, if any, carbohydrates, giving you a high percentage of daily calories from protein. Therefore a diet high in protein can aid in weight loss. Animal proteins are often rich in zinc and heme iron, which your body absorbs easier than iron from plants. Plant proteins, on the other hand, are usually lower in cholesterol and bad saturated fats, which is more heart healthy (Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D., 2014).

If you don’t know how much protein to eat on a daily basis, the Zone Diet advocates a great way that incorporates general activity levels, something most people forget to do. First, you need to figure out your body fat percentage. Many scales do this for you, or a personal trainer can give you a good estimate using calipers. Once you know your body fat percentage, use it to determine how much of your total body weight is lean body mass by subtracting the weight of your fat from your total body weight. So a 200 pound man with 15 percent body fat will have 170 pounds of lean body mass.

Your lean body mass in pounds is going to determine your protein needs. Multiply this number by .5 if you live a sedentary lifestyle. Say you do light walking once a week, multiply by .6 to calculate how much protein (in grams) to eat every day. Multiply by .7 if you do 30 minutes of moderate walking three times a week, .8 if you’re active for one hour a day five times a week, .9 if you’re very active for two hours a day five times a week, and 1.0 if you engage in heavy weight training five days a week. Those considered obese (over 30% body fat for men and 40% for women) often don’t realize that this extra weight affects their daily protein needs. Multiply your lean body mass by .1 if you meet this standard. Protein is absolutely critical to maintaining your health, so don’t guess about how much you need.