Why is eating protein important?

Protein is an integral part of a healthy and balanced diet. Our cells require protein for most functional components. Your hair and nails are predominantly made from protein. Chemical reactions, hormones and enzymes in the body require protein at some stage, and help in repairing and building tissues at a cellular level. Protein is the most important building block for our muscles, skin, bones, cartilage and even our blood. As you can see, protein is important for more than just muscle growth. We also use it for nutrient transport, formation of antibodies, and maintaining bodily fluid balance and pH values. The amino acids that make up proteins cannot be made in the body and must be obtain through our diet.

The reason we need to continually “re-stock” our protein levels, is that our body cannot ‘store’ protein like it does with fats and carbohydrates. Therefore we need to have certain levels to meet the body’s requirements. This doesn’t mean we need to eat protein all day long, but it is important to make sure you are getting enough for your individual requirements.

Factors that can affect protein requirements:

  • Body composition goals
  • Exercise levels
  • Age
  • Disease/Illness

Whether you want to lose body fat or gain muscle, eating protein combined with resistance training will influence your outcome. You will need a higher level of protein to maintain or add muscle mass (depending on your goal). During fat loss, protein is also valued for its satiating qualities.

Athletes and those who exercise at a medium to high level of intensity require a higher intake of protein compared to those that are sedentary. Your body uses fats and carbohydrates for fuel first, but can draw from protein once these initial fuel sources have been depleted. Keeping protein intake high avoids muscle breakdown and wastage.

Older adults require higher protein intake than their youth due to actively losing muscle and bone at a faster rate. Similar to athletes, older adults should keep their intake high to avoid muscle wastage.

Individuals suffering from an injury, chronic illness or disease, should look for a higher intake to preserve muscle mass due to a more sedentary lifestyle and lower calorie intake.

Rules for increasing your protein intake:

  1. Spread protein out over the course of the day to enable the body to have a ready supply source.
  2. Eat the HIGHEST quality proteins. Animal proteins contain the highest amount of essential amino acids (which means they can only come from our foods), as opposed to plant-based proteins. Plant-based proteins lack sufficient quantities of the essential protein leucine, the most powerful amino acid for protein synthesis.
  3. Choose whole foods over processed proteins. Whole foods (chicken, salmon, beef, legumes) are packed with vitamins and minerals, as well as quality amino acids. Packaged protein (protein bars, breads, cereals etc) are often filled with high carbohydrates, sugars and other nasty ingredients.
  4. Always eat fibrous vegetables with your protein. Animal protein can trigger some gastrointestinal inflammation, therefore it is best to consume with fibrous vegetables to improve the digestion and counter the inflammation (cucumbers, celery, capsicum, leafy greens, etc)
  5. Add a weights routine to your lifestyle. Resistance training is another trigger for protein synthesis. Studies have been shown that combining a strength training program with adequate levels of protein intake, show a large increase of strength and muscle mass.

Depending on your goal and lifestyle factors, nutritionists recommend between 1.2-2.2grams per kilo of body weight, per day. If you are more sedentary, you are looking at the lower range, where as more active individuals would look to the higher end.

Example of finding your protein requirement:

If my body weight is 70kg, and I train 4-5 times a week, my aim is to eat a minimum of 1.6g/kg a day.

70kg x 1.6g = 112g of protein a day.

The average person has 3-4 meals a day. 112g of protein spaced out over 4 meals would equal to 28g of protein per meal.

Roughly, a 100g chicken breast equals about 25-30g of protein.

It is important to remember that no two individuals are the same. Your protein requirement will differ from the person next to you. You can use the above as a guide, but for a more precise indication, it is best to consult with your dietician or nutritionist.

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