by Kirsten Falcone, RN
Hilbert College Wellness Center
Protein has played a great part in our fast-paced culture lately. There is an increasing demand for convenient products that offer results quickly. An abundance of protein drinks, bars, and other products on the market promise consumers a stronger, more attractive physique if used regularly. Historically, protein has been understood to be part of a balanced diet. But, did you know that protein can be both good and bad for you? The following is an introduction to whet your appetite.
What is protein? Proteins are complex strings of amino acid molecules found in the cells of everything living. The varying shapes of proteins determine the purpose or function involved. Our bodies use 20 amino acids strung together like beads in different arrangements for nearly every function. Nine of these amino acids must be acquired from food or supplements, while the body is able to manufacture the rest. We think of protein as being essential for muscle tissue, but it is actually used in every bodily tissue, including blood and bones.
Who needs protein? Everyone. Every cell in your body has protein in it. In many poorer countries around the world, there is a shortage of protein in people’s diets. However, in the United States, it is rare for anyone to be protein-deficient. Most American diets comprise up to twice the amount of protein needed.
Why do I need protein? Every cell in your body is protein-based, so when a cell breaks down, it needs to be replaced with protein. Growth and repair of cells is part of the job of proteins. Proteins also act as hormones (chemical messengers in the body), and enzymes (substances that speed up cell processes). Other duties of proteins include the maintenance of fluid and electrolyte levels, the transportation of nutrients, the preservation of acid-base balance, the support of a strong immune system and production of antibodies, and as an energy source (usually after fats and carbohydrates have been depleted).
When should I eat protein? An adequate supply of protein should be eaten daily.
Where can I get protein? Most Americans acquire enough protein from diet alone. In fact, as already stated above, it is estimated that Americans consume up to twice the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) every day! Protein can be found in meats, dairy products, eggs, and some plant sources, such as beans, whole grains, nuts and soy products. Beans and rice have long been known as a poor man’s substitute for “complete protein,” since, when eaten together, they (like meat) provide all of the amino acids the body needs. Animal proteins have all nine of the essential amino acids our bodies need, but almost all plant food sources are deficient in one or more. You can eat the beans and the rice at different meals during the day (contrary to what nutritionists used to believe).
How much protein do I need? On average, the body needs 0.36 gram of protein per pound (or 0.8 gram per kilogram) per day. Therefore, a sedentary man weighing 190 pounds will need 68 grams of protein per day, and a sedentary woman weighing 150 pounds will need 54 grams per day. Active people, pregnant and nursing women, and children and adolescents need more, due to the requirement for more protein during growth and development.
To give you an idea of the amount of protein in food, a three-ounce serving of broiled chicken breast has 28 grams of protein, a cup of skim milk has 9 grams, two tablespoons of peanut butter have 8 grams, an egg has 6 grams, and (for you Buffalonians) according to Livestrong.com, chicken wings each have between five and nine grams of protein.
Some consumers are attracted to the idea of building their muscles by using protein products, and so they will drink a protein shake after a workout, for instance. Others appreciate the convenience and flexibility it gives them, and they believe they are improving their health by doing so. Therefore, protein shakes have become quite popular, and there is an expectation that these shakes will be a beneficial addition to a nutritious diet and exercise routine. However, there are pros and cons involved.
Pros of protein shakes:
- They could help vegans and seniors acquire enough protein.
- They may benefit athletes, after training (but only one drink to two per day could be considered beneficial).
- They may help reduce high blood pressure.
- Soy protein can reduce cholesterol levels and prostate cancer growth.
- Whey proteins help in weight maintenance, strengthening immunity, anti-oxidant action, cardiovascular health, and lowering blood glucose.
- They may help increase lean muscle bulk and strength.
Cons of protein shakes:
- They are expensive, costing around $45 or more for one container. Each container typically holds 50 or more servings.
- They add calories to your diet. One scoop of protein powder (mixed with milk) added to your post-exercise routine will set you back about 230 calories!
- They are unnecessary. Most athletes already consume more than twice the amount of protein in their diets than the RDA.
- You have to work out to build muscles. Building muscle happens from regular strength training, not just consuming protein.
Health-related cons of protein shakes, or too much protein:
- They may contribute to heart disease (if the protein comes from animal sources, because it is associated with higher cholesterol levels).
- They could cause bone loss and osteoporosis. Amino acids found in animal sources make the blood more acidic, causing calcium to be pulled out of the bones in order to buffer the acid.
- They exacerbate kidney disease by increasing the workload of the kidneys when filtering protein during digestion. (Diabetics who have kidney disease should be wary of consuming too much protein.)
- Diarrhea is a side effect of ingesting too much protein.
- Dehydration can be caused by not drinking enough water with protein powders.
- They are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so anything could be in them, including heavy metal toxins. (See below.)
According to “Consumer Reports,” in 2010 arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury were found in many samples. This is alarming because those metals can have toxic effects on several organs in the body! “Federal regulations do not generally require that protein drinks and other dietary supplements be tested before they are sold to ensure that they are safe, effective, and free of contaminants, as the rules require of prescription drugs,” states Consumer Reports’ Web site (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/04/protein-drinks/index.htm).
In conclusion, there is no quick fix to make you healthier. A healthy lifestyle consists of many things, including balanced nutrition from food, regular exercise, sleep, hydration, socialization, and more. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The takeaway: It’s probably okay to use protein powder or ingest a high-protein meal in moderation, but too much protein can be too much of a good thing.
For more information on protein, visit these Web sites:
MedlinePlus.gov, general protein information:
USDA.gov, general protein information:
WebMD.com, Choosing a protein shake:
WebMD.com, Do you need protein powders?:
MindBodyGreen.com, Why you really shouldn’t use protein powders:
LiveStrong.com, Does protein powder do anything bad to your body?:
ConsumerReports.org, Protein drink information:
Kaplan University, Protein supplements: