Prioritizing Protein for Health

Key Points:

  • Proteins and their building blocks are responsible for almost all of the work in our cells, and they are necessary for the structure, function and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.

  • Proteins are made from smaller building blocks called amino acids.

  • There are 9 “essential” amino acids that we have to get from our diet.

  • Protein needs vary greatly based on age, sex, health status and level of physical activity.

  • Eating protein and resistance exercise independently help stimulate muscle growth but they work even better when combined.

  • Maintaining muscle while aging is one of the most important things you can do to age well and maintain a healthy metabolism.

  • Eating protein with fat may be better than eating protein alone.

  • Protein is key when losing body fat is a goal.


Proteins are found in most every body tissue. They are responsible for most of the work in cells and they are necessary for the structure, function and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. This goes beyond making up muscle. The structure of your bones, organs, tendons, ligaments, skin, and nails are all made from proteins. Hormones are made from amino acids and transported on proteins. Antibodies that help us fight off illness are made from proteins. The enzymes that control our metabolism and the neurotransmitters that are responsible for thought, movement, mood, and sleep, are all made from proteins/amino acids. In other words, protein is a big deal.

Proteins are bigger molecules made from smaller building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that can be combined to make proteins. Nine of these amino acids are what are referred to as essential, meaning that the body cannot make them on its own, but needs to get them from the diet.

A person’s protein needs can vary widely depend on age, sex, health status and level of physical activity. The RDA, which is set at the bare minimum, is 0.8 gm per kilogram of body weight but remember, the goal of the RDA is to recommend what it takes to survive, not thrive. The International Protein Board recommends a minimum of 1.1 gram per kilogram of body weight for general health and recommends more as a person ages plus additional protein if a person exercises or is very active. For fitness, weight loss and healthy aging, expert recommendations range widely from a minimum of 1.1 grams per kilogram all the way up to 2.5 gram per kilogram. It is best to base these calculations off of a person’s ideal body weight or reference weight and not their actual body weight, especially if there is a significant amount of excess weight present.

Another important thing to note is that as we age, our ability to assimilate dietary protein into muscle tissue declines and thus protein needs increase over time in order to compensate for this. Maintaining muscle while aging is one of the most important things you can do to age well. There are two ways to stimulate muscle growth (aka muscle protein synthesis). The first is through eating protein and the second is through resistance exercise. Both stimulate the process of new muscle protein synthesis individually but are synergistic when protein consumption follows exercise. In other words, eating protein and resistance exercise independently help stimulate muscle growth but they work even better when combined! Additionally, there is evidence that protein consumed along with fat seems to work better in helping to stimulate muscle growth than consuming protein alone without the fat. When you think about it, this makes sense as most natural whole food sources of protein come with fat (think eggs, meat, dairy, nuts, etc).

When weight loss, or I prefer to say fat loss is the goal, protein is very important as it is not only essential for growing and maintaining muscle mass as we have just discussed (which improves metabolism) but it is also an extremely important player in helping people feel full and not overeat. There is a theory called the Protein Leverage Hypothesis. It describes a phenomenon that occurs in animals (with growing evidence that it exists in humans as well) where an animal will continue to eat until enough protein to meet its body’s need has been consumed. The animals will eat and eat, even overeating calories until enough protein is eaten. If high protein foods are given initially, the animal stops eating once their protein threshold is met and do not overeat. While more studies are needed on this in humans, it is worth noting that high protein diets have been shown to be more satiating in many studies.

Understanding the importance of and your individual protein needs are key in establishing a healthy nutrition plan.

What are your favorite ways to get your protein in?


Forever Yours in Health,

Emalee

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