The Protein Obsession

By Parul Kharod

Chances are that as soon you join a gym or start doing any regular physical activity, you will be advised to start drinking protein shakes. Fitness centers and places like GNC are filled with shelves full of various whey protein powders.

So what is protein and why do we need it? More importantly, how much do we really need?

What is protein?
Protein is the basic building block of the human body. Every cell in the human body contains protein. The basic structure of protein is a chain of amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids, but our body can make only eleven of them. The other 9 are called essential amino acids, which we need to get from food.

Amino acids are classified into three groups:
• Essential - Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and must be supplied by food. They do not need to be eaten at one meal. The balance over the whole day is more important.
• Nonessential - Nonessential amino acids are made by the body from essential amino acids or in the normal breakdown of proteins.
• Conditional - Conditional amino acids are needed in times of illness and stress.

Protein functions:
• enzymes and hormones that regulate bodily functions
• transport of nutrients, oxygen, and waste throughout the body
• muscle building and development
• structure and contracting capability of muscles
• growth, maintenance and repair of various tissues of the body, and tissues of the skin, hair, and nails

How much do we need?
The recommended daily protein allowance for most healthy adults is 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight. For a person who weighs 160 pounds (lbs.) that equates to approximately 60 g of protein each day. Protein needs will increase if you are pregnant or lactating. Protein needs also increase in case of injury or surgery and other cases where there is extra need for tissue repair such as severe burns or wounds. Roughly 10-15% of our calories should be coming from protein. Each gram of protein has 4 calories. Vegetarians and vegans are easily able to meet these requirements.

If you would like to calculate your own needs, use the interactive calculator at:

Good Sources of Protein
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts (peanuts, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews)
Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds, hulled, roasted)
Peanut butter or almond butter (natural)
Beans and Peas
Cooked beans (such as mung, black, kidney, pinto, or any other variety of beans)
Cooked peas (such as chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils, or split peas)
Sprouted mung, chana
Hummus or bean dips

Soy Foods
Soybeans – edamame or dry roasted
Soy milk non-GMO plain unsweetened

Whole grains
Amaranth, Barley, Buckwheat, Kamut, Oats, Quinoa, Sorghum (jowar), Wild Rice, and mostly all whole grains, including wheat and brown rice, contain protein. Amaranth and quinoa contain all the essential amino acids, making them as complete as an egg!

Not enough protein?
For our body to perform all the functions listed above, it is important to include a serving of protein at each meal. Lack of protein can cause growth failure, loss of muscle mass, decreased immunity, weakening of the heart and respiratory system, and death. However, such cases are seen only in areas of extreme poverty and hunger where there is severe protein malnutrition. For the most of us, there is no risk of not getting adequate amount of protein. A well-balanced diet provides what we need. Healthy people rarely need protein supplements. Vegetarians are able to get enough by eating a variety of plant proteins. Two to three servings of protein-rich foods will meet the daily needs of most adults.

Too much protein and the craze over high protein diets
It seems like every food company is trying to sell us more protein. What happens when we consume more protein than we need? When protein is digested, there are waste products in form of nitrogen and ammonia. The liver and the kidneys work extra hard to get rid of excess nitrogen and ammonia from our body. Protein digestion results in acidic ash which can cause the bones to lose calcium (yes, more milk is actually bad for the bones!). High protein diets also tend to be lower in fiber and higher in fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Numerous studies have reported the following health concerns and increased risks associated with low carbohydrate, high protein diets:
• Bad breath
• Cancer
• Constipation
• Diabetes
• Gall bladder issues
• Gout
• Heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and stroke
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome
• Kidney problems, including kidney stones
• Lack of energy
• Lack of focus/difficulty concentrating
• Osteoporosis

Myths and misconceptions
• Plant proteins are inferior or incomplete. This is a misconception. It is a very narrow focus on the specific nutrients of one food without seeing it in the context of an entire diet. We don't eat only one food. As long as there is variety in our diet, we can sufficiently meet our needs.
• Egg is the perfect complete protein and we need it in our diet. Eggs and other animal proteins are considered complete because they contain all the nine essential amino acids. But as mentioned before we don't eat just one food! We all eat a variety of foods, and as long as we get protein in different forms, our body knows how to combine them and make the “complete." Moreover, consuming eggs and animal proteins are proven to contribute to disease and other health problems.
• If you work out, you need more protein. Yes, it is a myth! It is not beneficial to consume large amounts of extra protein. Single amino acids that are taken as supplements, such as creatine, arginine, or ornithine, do not contribute to a muscle-building effect. Athletes training for Iron Man challenges or triathlons do need a little extra protein. Their requirements go up to 1.0 -1.2 g of protein per kilo of body weight. For the average person who goes to the gym 3 days a week, protein supplements are overkill! Furthermore, athletes training for races will eat more, and even if the percentage of calories from protein stays the same at the level of 10-15%, you will automatically consume more protein because you are consuming more calories.

To read more on protein myths:

So forget about those processed whey protein shakes and enjoy a big hot bowl of vegetables with brown rice and beans. Your body will thank you.