Next to water, protein makes up most of the weight of the human body. It’s in every one of our cells and without it life wouldn’t be possible. Yet, the significance of dietary protein is often limited to fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders.
Yes, protein is critical to maintaining and repairing lean muscle mass, even more so if you’re an athlete, elderly, or recovering from an injury. And, yes, protein is important for optimal recovery from exercise. But the benefits of protein go far beyond the aesthetic and are often ignored by misinformed health experts who prefer to focus such conversation on an overblown fear of “excess intake.” Here are just a few of those health benefits and the reasons why you should tune out the aforementioned practitioners:
- Improved Mood. Eating quality protein helps to boost our levels of serotonin and dopamine. These hormones make you feel happier, reduce anxiety, and initiate deep sleep. Adequate protein consumption can also help prevent the blood sugar swings that lead to moodiness and irritability.
- Better Brain Capacity. The amino acids in protein are involved in the production of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, which plays a key role in memory and learning. Amino acids also stimulate the brain to produce norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that promotes alertness and activity.
- A Healthier Heart. Protein helps the body build antioxidants. The most important of these may be glutathione. In a study involving heart disease patients, those with lower glutathione levels were more likely to have a heart attack. Protein also lowers blood pressure levels and can reduce LDL and triglycerides when replacing carbohydrates in the diet.
Now, let’s dispel some common myths surrounding protein intake:
No, protein DOES NOT harm the kidneys. This myth originated from research on patients with kidney disease. Because the kidneys are involved in metabolizing protein and because kidney disease patients have a hard time processing protein it was assumed that protein must harm the kidneys. But what does the research actually show? Multiple studies have now concluded that higher protein intakes are safe and do not have an adverse effect on kidney function.
And what about the idea that protein intake makes the body acidic, resulting in a leaching of calcium from the bones in an attempt to neutralize the acid? Proponents of this theory believe that too much protein causes the bones to become weak and brittle but in fact the opposite is true. Long-term studies actually show that protein consumption benefits bone health. Additional research has shown that people who eat more protein are better able to maintain bone mass as they age and are less likely to sustain fractures or suffer from osteoporosis.
Then there’s the notion that excess protein will be converted into body fat. Excess anything can be stored as body fat but those who believe protein is somehow uniquely fattening ignore a couple of important facts: First of all, protein is the most satiating macronutrient, meaning it increases feelings of fullness, often leading to reduced caloric intake. Protein also lowers your level of the “hunger hormone” – ghrelin – while increasing levels of a hormone – peptide YY that tells your brain that you’re full. A study on overweight men demonstrated that increasing protein to 25% of total calories led to a 60% reduction in cravings and decreased the desire to snack at night by half! Beyond that, higher protein intakes have been shown to dramatically increase metabolism and the number of calories burned. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF) and represents yet another area in which protein is superior to carbohydrates when it comes to weight management.
So, how much is enough? If 15% of your calories are coming from protein, you’re taking in enough to prevent a deficiency. That’s the recommendation you’ll hear from most nutrition organizations. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound, which translates to about 56 grams per day for most sedentary men and 46 grams per day for most sedentary women. Preventing deficiencies should certainly be the top priority but if you’re after optimal health, you should consider increasing your protein intake, especially if you suffer from low energy, muscle and joint pain, mood swings, or a slow metabolism.
I’ve seen the most impressive results in my clients when increasing daily protein consumption to about 30% of calories. This keeps metabolism up, blood sugar in check, and cravings at bay, minimizing the chances of junk food indulgence. The best approach seems to be smaller, more frequent “pulses” of protein throughout the day, especially since your body cannot store protein. Frequency seems to matter as much, if not more, than the total amount and variety is important. Opt for whole food sources whenever possible – fish, eggs, beef, poultry, dairy, beans, nuts – organic, if it’s in the budget. And one more thing: if there is a legitimate health concern regarding protein consumption it has to do with harsh cooking methods that cause meat and fish to brown or char. Such processes result in the formation of possible carcinogens. Simple solution: cook with liquid (i.e., braising, poaching, or steaming), slowly and at lower temperatures. Typical marinade ingredients like garlic, rosemary, and vinegar can further reduce the formation of carcinogens, as can the inclusion of vegetables (especially cruciferous) as part of the same meal.