Protein, Amino Acids, Whey protein, Protein shakes, and Protein-only diets–the “health and fitness” industry is buzzing with all of these and more words. But do you know why? Why is everyone suddenly downing “high protein smoothies” instead of other conventional breakfast? Why is a new protein powder/supplement brand being launched every other day? Why are protein shakes being touted as the miracle solution for weight loss and muscle gain?
To get to the basics–a protein is a building block of every tissue (which makes organs) in our body and is also integral in every single body process. A protein is further made of amino acids, the presence or absence of which determines whether a food protein is of a “high value” or not. So then, if the body can’t do without proteins, then surely it must be very efficient about storing proteins in large quantities? Incorrect. Here’s the crucial part–although protein is a building block of life and the body needs it to repair and maintain itself, there is no mechanism for storing protein in the body for future use. This makes it very important to consume adequate proteins in your diet on an everyday basis.
According to the WHO, a person needs about 10-35% of their daily calories from a protein source. The ICMR states that an average person with a sedentary lifestyle needs 40-60 grams of protein per day. It is not very difficult to get an average of 50 grams of protein per day if you consume a healthy, balanced diet. For vegetarians, a serving of upma with vegetables or idli with sambar and a glass of milk for breakfast; a serving of pulses or dal, two wholewheat rotis, one serving of subzi, one small bowl of yogurt and a salad for lunch; a misal for afternoon snack and kadhi khichadi and salad for dinner would approximately provide your daily protein requirement. For non-vegetarians, eggs, poultry and meat are rich sources of high value proteins.
If your first thought on reading that list of recommended foods was “OMG, all that food would so totally bust my diet,” you need to be very careful about what you are eating. A diet deficient in protein can lead to a false weight loss, wherein a person loses weight due to muscle break down, rather than by truly burning fat. Ever seen those people who shed 20 kilos in three months and are left with loose skin around the arms, waist and neck? Not eating enough protein can also put your organs and bones at risk–you may experience unexplained fatigue, slow wound healing and a compromised immune system.
So then, what if I have only protein rich foods morning, noon and night? That is the premise for a host of recent “magic” diets. However, one needs to be conscious about the fact that a lot of high protein foods from animal sources like red meats, cured meats, and loins are also high in saturated fat, which amounts to higher calories and a risk of higher cholesterol levels. Piling up on protein shakes, protein powders or protein supplements can also put a load on your kidneys in the long run. People with high protein intakes also experience ketosis where the amount of ketones in the body increases to toxic levels. The most important fact which mostly goes unnoticed is that higher proteins also amount to higher calories; plus, the body has a unique way of converting every macronutrient (including protein) to FAT! Excess proteins give higher calories and also high urea and ammonia levels in the body, which if not regulated can become harmful.
What do I eat, then? Opt for lean animal protein sources like eggs, chicken and fish or pulses, beans, dals and dairy products along with a healthy dose of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Stay away from processed foods including protein supplements and powders and eat fresh, local and healthy. Not to forget, that daily brisk walk never harmed anyone!