Protein is one of the most important elements of a healthy diet; literally. The word protein derives its meaning from the Greek protos, meaning first, alluding to its significance in human nutrition. On a more molecular level, proteins are made up of amino acids that are the main building blocks of your body. They’re used to build muscles, tendons, organs, and skin, as well as enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters that serve many important functions. While your body can produce some of these essential amino acids on its own, you have to get others from your diet. Generally, animal protein provides all essential amino acids in the right ratio for you to make full use of them. This is because animal tissues are similar to your own tissues. But that doesn’t mean strictly plant-based diets lack protein. In fact, some vegan options pack a lot more protein than their meaty counterparts.
How much protein should you consume?
According to the Recommended Dietary Allowances suggested by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the ideal protein intake for men is sixty grams per day, while the same for women is fifty-five grams in a day or simply 0.8 to 1 gram per kilogram of your body weight. This is the same as almost 500 grams of cooked tofu, 400 grams of boiled soya beans or around 2 litres of whole milk. If you engage in vigorous physical activity like weight-lifting, you can add around twenty to twenty five additional grams after working out. According to research by Dr Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Department of Health Sciences, CUNY Lehman College, New York, USA, anything above 100 grams is believed to be oxidised for energy or transaminated to form alternative bodily compounds. In simple terms, it doesn’t get absorbed by your body.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that protein is more effective if you space it out over the day’s meals and snacks, rather than loading up at dinner or after working out like many of us do.
Quality over quantity
A protein-heavy diet is pretty much harmless as long as you’re eating the right kind of protein. According to research by Dr Tristan Chalvon-Demersay, United Medical Resources, Physiology of Nutrition and Eating Behaviour, Paris University, France, eating large amounts of animal protein is linked to weight gain and red meat, in particular, is linked to an increased risk of cancer as well as heart disease.
Another study by Dr Heli E K Virtanen, Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland, found that men who consumed a diet high in animal protein increased their risk of developing heart failure by thirty-three percent. An easy solution would be replacing animal protein with the much healthier plant protein varieties, as they can be easily digested and also contain additional nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Advantages of protein as an energy source
- As long as you don’t suffer from any kidney-related health issues, consuming a little over the recommended intake of plant-based protein is not known to cause any harm. It might not get absorbed to build muscle but the extra amount can very well be used as an energy source.
- Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, which means that calories from protein tend to keep you full longer than calories from carbohydrates. This can be very helpful in controlling calorie intake and managing your weight.
- As compared to carbohydrates, protein doesn’t cause sharp spikes in blood sugar, which reduces your risk of diabetes
- Protein intake can significantly boost your metabolism, or the rate at which your body burns calories.
Healthy ways to increase your protein intake
The Protein Summit reports in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that contrary to popular belief, it’s more likely that people are eating too little protein, not too much. Here are some healthy ways to increase your daily protein intake:
- For a protein-rich snack, eat a bowl of Greek yoghurt instead of consuming pre-packaged energy bars. They contain high amounts of sugar, even when the label says otherwise.
- Nuts like almonds or walnuts are great to have around because they can be added to many different foods or eaten on their own as a snack. Add nuts to your salad, breakfast cereal, oatmeal. Sky’s the limit.
- If you’re a fitness enthusiast and workout everyday, consider opting for healthy protein supplements like spirulina and nutritional yeast instead of sugar-heavy protein powders.
- From lentils to soya—legumes are an excellent source of protein. Beans are also full of fibre and can be cooked in many ways. Boil and stir fry them for lunch or bake them for dinner.
- Quinoa is considered a complete protein because it contains all the essential amino acids we need. Replace rice with this healthy seed for extra nutritional value. You can also swap rice for other protein-rich grains like amaranth.
- Need a break from nuts? Try super-seeds instead. Seeds like chia, flax and sesame are not only packed with large amounts of protein, but also contain Omega-3, iron, magnesium and antioxidants.