Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Protein Conundrum

Some questions that I receive often are, " Should I take protein?", or " Does protein really work?"  The former question doesn't really make sense because you eat protein everyday in a variety of foods and it is necessary for life, so yes you should "take" it.  The latter question also does not make sense because protein is not some magic pill that you take to lose weight or gain muscle.  Because I hear these questions quite often I decided to go ahead and write an article on protein.  So lets begin....
  Protein is one of the main macronutrients that we receive from the foods that we eat.  The other two are fats and carbohydrates.  You need all three for health and proper functioning and all three can be utilized as a fuel source for the body, though the body does prefer certain macronutrients for specific tasks.  For now, we will just look at the main roles of protein.  Protein plays a vital role in tissue synthesis, maintenance, and repair.  So eating enough protein will help your body recover after a workout and also aid in maintaining your muscle mass.  That is one of the main reasons that you should eat protein but there are other reasons as well.  Typically, high protein foods are low in sugar(carbs) and therefore cause a decreased insulin response when eaten.  Controlling your insulin will help in controlling your weight over the long run.  High protein foods also have a high thermic effect.  When you consume food it takes a certain amount of energy to break down and digest that food.  Proteins, compared to fats and carbs, are harder to breakdown and therefore burn more calories in the process.  Now that you know the benefits of protein lets look at the types.
  Protein can be classified as either complete or incomplete.  The protein number you see on the wrapper of a granola bar (incomplete) is not the same as the protein you get from a piece of chicken (complete).  Without getting into a lot of details you want to base your diet around complete sources of protein.  This includes meat, fish, dairy, and protein powders (either whey or casein).  The powders are not necessary they just make it easier to get the proper amount of protein without eating an entire chicken.  But what is the proper amount of protein?
  Most texts will say that the human body need 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 g/lb.) of bodyweight for normal functioning.  That is assuming complete sources and little, or no, exercise.  Many fitness and strength coaches advise 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.  So I would say a good rule of thumb is to shoot for between 0.5 and 1.0 grams per pound.  Closer to 0.5 if you are trying to lose weight or just maintain, and closer to 1.0 if you are trying to build muscle or you are participating in intense exercise. Now for these numbers to be of any use you need to keep track of what you consume.  Below are some estimates of the amount of protein in common foods.

1 oz. of meat (poultry, beef, etc.) - 10 grams
1 oz. of cheese - 7 grams
1 whole egg - 6 grams
1 cup milk - 9 grams
1 scoop protein powder - 20 grams(typically)

  Just remember that you should always eat a variety of foods and you should not omit any one of the macronutrients.  Protein is very important but it is still only a piece of the puzzle.  Hopefully this information will help guide you in your diet journey.  Until next time...

 Amerson Fitness