Protein is the body's nutritional powerhouse, a critical need for both adults and children at every stage. But are we getting enough of this essential nutrient
The human body is the most complex, hi-tech machine in the world. In its simplest avatar, imagine it to be a giant furnace, which constantly needs to burn food as fuel in order to keep it in optimal working condition. While we are careful enough to load only the highest quality of fuel in our cars, we're often not as considerate to our own bodies. We tend to follow fad diets, skip meals, always eat on the run or munch on junk food that has little or no nutritional value. It isn't surprising then that a majority of us experience these undesirable changes—severe hair loss, brittle nails, lack of energy, wounds that take a longer time to heal, a sluggish metabolism that causes us to gain weight more easily, despite the fact that we haven't increased our food intake in any way. Often, we put down these changes to the natural aging process and until it becomes so severe that it disrupts our normal lives, we don't give it a second thought. If these problems have been plaguing you lately, you may be happy to learn that it can be easily reversed, provided you pay close attention to your diet. Are you getting enough protein?
How protein packs a punch
“Our bodies need three vital macronutrients to survive. These are carbohydrates, proteins and fats,” says Shweta Dewaan, chief dietician at Bensups Hospital, New Delhi, who also runs the Slimage Diet Clinic (www.slimage.in). We also need micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, but these are required in lesser amounts. Think of the micronutrients like make-up that you apply. They're what you need to look beautiful, but it's the macronutrients that are going to determine your health and that are absolutely vital. Ideally, for optimal health, your intake of carbohydrates, proteins and fats should be balanced. However, in reality, this seldom happens. In fact, 90% of what the average Indian eats consists solely of carbohydrates and fats! We're obviously getting less protein and this can lead to greater medical problems. More than half of the patients we treat today (for obesity and metabolic syndrome) have followed a diet that's severely lacking in protein.”
Why is this so crucial that it can determine our wellbeing? For several reasons, experts feel. “Proteins are the building blocks of muscles, bones, hormones, skin cells and tissues,” says Vinita Aran, Senior Diet and Obesity Consultant at Apollo Clinic, Mumbai. “It is responsible for the regeneration of our body cells. That's why it's so important for growing children and lactating women. In adults, it helps heal wounds and recover more rapidly from injury, prevents hair loss and weakness.”
If you have been exercising regularly, but not been losing weight, a lack of protein may be to blame. After you exercise, your muscles are worn out; protein helps re-build the muscle tissue. More muscle in the body helps burn more calories and this also gives you the strength and energy to work out more vigorously in your next session as well. “This is why weight loss is so much faster when there is adequate protein in the diet,” says Aran. “High protein diets are also considered better for better diabetic control and dyslipidemia. But it should be used with caution in people with renal problems.”
Protein for weight loss
Instead of counting calories in our foods as so many diets compel us to do, experts now believe that we should be using our mathematical skills to find out if we're getting enough protein instead! “A normal person requires 1 gm of protein for every kilo of body weight” says Shweta Dewaan. (See table for protein sources for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets) “So if you're sixty kilos, you need 60 gms of protein every day. However, if want to lose weight, then you need to eat more protein (1.5 gms for every kilo). This is because the body tends to burn carbohydrates first, then proteins and finally fats.” When our diet consists of an overdose of carbohydrates and fats, exercising is not as effective in weight loss, since we'll only be burning carbohydrates and won't be exercising long enough to burn fats. “If we increase our intake of protein, our intake of carbs will automatically decrease and we tend to burn proteins quickly and the fats more easily, resulting in weight loss,” says Deewan.
When to have it
Ideally, protein should never be taken when you're starving or very hungry. “This is because the body, in starvation mode, tends to convert protein into carbohydrates, thus defeating the purpose” says Dewaan. “The best way to increase your intake of protein would be to have small frequent meals throughout the day. “As absorption of protein by the body takes 1.5 to 2 hours, it is best to complete your food two hours before bedtime. If you sleep while your body is busy absorbing protein, it will hinder absorption, converting it to carbohydrates again.”
Vegetarian vs non-veg sources
Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians can get their protein requirements from food, but vegetarians may find it difficult to get enough, since the sources of protein in plant foods are limited. In such cases, vegetarians are advised to take protein shakes and supplements like whey powder in addition to protein rich foods that they can eat. “Traditional Indian meals include cereal-pulse combinations that are easily absorbed by the body, like dal-rice, idli sambhar, chole puri. All this improves the overall quality of protein for vegetarian intake,” says Aran.
Calculate your protein needs based on your body weight. Ensure that you take in adequate amounts of protein everyday, both to fuel weight loss and promote growth.