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protein power

Have you ever wondered why eating food rich in protein is good for you? High protein, low carbohydrate diets have certainly received a lot of press regarding their potential for weight loss, and a strong perception exists that in order to increase muscle mass you need to consume a lot of protein foods but what about the actual health benefits?

Our bodies are mainly made up of water (approximately 65%) but did you know that the second major ingredient that makes up your body at 25% is protein. This significant macronutrient contributes to the formation of skin, hair, nails, eyes and the internal organs, especially the heart muscle and brain. Our immune systems also require protein in order to function effectively, as do our oxygen carrying red blood cells and essential hormones such as insulin and thyroid that regulate our metabolism.

Proteins are made up of individual amino acids, twenty five of which are found in a wide variety of foods. Different amino acids combine in order to form proteins that go on to make cells and organs. Out of the twenty five amino acids, eight are known as essential, as they cannot be made inside the body, like the other seventeen, so we need to receive them through our food in order for our body to function.

Protein from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs are rich in all eight essential amino acids and are called complete proteins. Due to the prevalence of these foods in the western diet, protein deficiency is rare and in fact excess can exist which may result in strain on the kidneys and liver, also a depletion in calcium.

Despite many people considering plant sources inferior to animal products in terms of there protein content, the plant world offers a wide range of options that are lower in fat and easily assimilated by the body, making them very valuable. A team of Harvard scientists studying vegetarian diets concluded that “It’s difficult to obtain a mixed vegetable diet which will produce an appreciable loss of body protein”

Vegetarian foods such as legumes, grains, nuts and seeds do not individually contain all essential amino acids like animal products, so are known as incomplete proteins. It’s for this reason that it has been advised to combine plant foods, in order to make the protein content complete. A classic example of a complete protein vegetarian meal, is the Indian dish of lentil Dahl and rice. Whilst combining legumes, nuts and seeds at each meal is ideal, it is not considered necessary. As long as these foods are eaten throughout the day, the body will store the amino acids and combine them when needed.

How much protein you eat largely depends on the individual, however as a general guide an average adult woman may need approximately 45grams per day whilst a man up to 55grams. During pregnancy, breastfeeding and convalescence needs are higher. This translates to around two serves of beans, lentils, quinoa or other vegetable protein consumed daily, or one small serving of meat, fish or cheese, or one egg.

Protein content of vegetarian foods

Food Serving size Grams per serve
Tempeh 1 cup 41
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 18
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 15
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 15
Tofu, firm 1/2 cup 11
Quinoa, cooked 1/2 cup 9
Amaranth 1 cup 7
Soy milk, 1 cup 7
Almonds 1/4 cup 8
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 6
Whole wheat bread 2 slices 5
Cashews 1/4 cup 5
Brown rice, cooked 1 cup 5

As for the belief that you can only increase muscle mass through high protein diets, studies show that weight-trainers who don’t eat extra protein still gain muscle at the same rate as weight-trainers who supplement their diets with protein through either food or powder. It’s also interesting to note that a high protein diet shows no more appreciable weight loss than other carbohydrate rich diets, when studied over a period of one year.

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