Hello all! I hope you all have your wisdom brains on this week, as today I'm delving into the often dark and murky world of protein! This is to help clear up some of the inconsistencies that crop up so often when people discuss protein, without people either not knowing exactly what roles protein fulfil, how much you should have, how much is dangerous or when to eat protein after exercise, for example.
I'm hoping to answer all of these questions today, although its worth checking out my last blog post for a discussion of the best protein for after exercise and when to have them!
Ok, so let's clarify what protein actually IS before we start!
Protein is the main building block of the body, making up about 25% of the body's total mass. The name is derived from the ancient Greek word "protos", meaning "first", because it was considered the first building block of the body for many years.
Proteins have many super essential jobs in the body, including repair of tissues, movement of muscles, antibody creation, enzyme creation, hormones, creation of tissues both soft and connective and innumerable others. You wouldn't be here without protein and without a constant and good quality supply of it, there wouldn't be much left of you; just a ragtag assembly of floppy fats, gallons of spilled water and disorganised carbohydrates!
There are two different groups of proteins; essential and non-essential amino acids. This is also our first confusing concept, as people often see adverts mentioning amino acids and think these are wholly different things. Amino acids are simply another name for proteins, just put in there to make advertising guys seem like superscience buffs!
Anyway, there are 8* essential amino acids and 12 non-essential ones. The human body cannot create the 8 essential ones on its own; you need to get these from your diet. However, the other 12 non-essential ones CAN be create by your body as long as it has ample supplies of the 8 essential aminos and is working relatively well. A protein source that contains all of the essential amino acids is called a complete protein.
There are often debates about how to get these proteins successfully; some meat eaters say that a true protein balance can only be achieved by eating meat, whilst others argue that you can get all 20 from vegan sources entirely. What certainly is true is that almost all foods have proteins in them, just in differing amounts. Some have such small amounts that they are virtually insignificant, whilst others have excessive amounts of one or more. My own personal belief is that is harder to get the full range from vegetarian sources, but still possible. It involves being more selective and aware with your choice of foods and combining foods together, such as eating Brazil nuts and pinto beans in the same day to encourage a greater release of different kinds of proteins. Vegetarian options that are available as are counted as whole proteins include spirulina, hemp seed, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
We often hear despairing news about excessive protein intake leading to terrifying sounding conditions such as colon cancer, heart disease, poorly kidneys, high body acid levels and poor bone health! This is typical Daily Mail-esque scare mongering and makes people a bit nervous about over-eating when it comes to protein.
The reason these links have been made is that often, a diet high in protein (especially for the carnivorous amongst us) can be very low in fruit and vegetables and therefore the vitamins and minerals that come along with them naturally. Instead of suffering from excessive protein intake (which is near impossible to do), they are suffering from poor nutrition in other areas, being malnourished when it comes to other essential dietary needs. The big thing to remember, especially for those involve din sports or physical training, is that your body needs lots of protein but that this will be ineffective without vitamins, minerals, essentials fats and other things to help digest, synthesise and funnel protein correctly. To avoid any problems here, eat the right amount of protein AND a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts and other goodies.
I would say that for your average Joe, this calculator is quite useful for working out a base amounts of protein per day. It allows for several different types of body size, lifestyle and other factors and gives a good minimum value of protein. Ultimately, you need to try out the amount of protein you are taking in and see if it is right for you. If you feel you have too much and are feeling sluggish, tired and find it hard to "go", you might be eating too much. It could of course be that you are not eating enough fruit and veg, as mentioned above!
A more common problem is a lack of all the proteins. One way to see if you are protein deficient is to check against these potential mental risks of protein deficiency:
- Depression / anxiety
- Irritability, intolerance and / or moodiness
- Decrease in mental alertness, comprehension and concentration
- Thoughts focussed on eating, weight and hunger
- Self-absorption, decrease in wider interests
- Pre-occupation with your own body and heightened judgement of others
Having one or more of these does not necessarily mean that you do suffer from protein deficiency but it might be an indicator. Getting a serum alubumin diagnostic test performed by your physician is the ultimate indicator and is the most trustworthy way to tell if this is the case or not.
I hope this has been useful for you and that is solves any difficult issues that you might have had. Please feel free to comment below and ask any questions, and I will get back to you! The more controversial, the better!
*Some sources say that there are 9 essential amino acids, but the WHO (World Health Organisation) usually lists it is 8, so we will go with the slightly less controversial one for now.