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Updated: February 26, 2012 12:05 IST

Protein power

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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 ( 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.

Article helps me to know importance of proteins in our daily diet.Information given in this article is not adequate. Still I feel it will help me to improve my daily diet.

from:  Ashish Pune
Posted on: Feb 19, 2012 at 10:41 IST

Hello, I am the author of this piece. Thanks to everyone for your
comments/suggestions. Deeply appreciated. The reason I didn't mention the
protein content in Indian foods is because it's very difficult to regulate this. For
instance, the sambhar made in my house may use more pulses than the one made
in yours. Everything varies, including the size of idlis, the kind of dosa batter
made. There is no one standard and it makes it very difficult to specify with any
degree of accuracy, so I stuck with foods that are in use everyday, though these
can't be strictly classified as Indian. Our dietician did however say that we needed
1gm of protein for every kilo of body weight as per Indian standards.This has been
quoted in the article. All the information in the tabulated column was from several
registered dieticians including the ones quoted in the article. Given the space
constraints, I tried to give the whole picture. Thanks again for the feedback!

from:  kamala
Posted on: Feb 18, 2012 at 19:55 IST

As per US dietary guidelines, a US citizen needs 40gm of protein per day. The author should have mentioned the dietary guidelines for Indians. Most Indians get protein from pulses/lentils and milk products and whole grains. The ideal diet should be mixture of everything but in moderation and moderation is very subjective, it will come with experience and observation along with some general knowledge from a visit to good doctor's office. Along with Protein, Fiber content in food is also important.

from:  prasbad
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 22:14 IST

Excellent article.Proteins are amino acids. Amino acids are life. All
amino acids have to be fed to the body. Another important mineral
which helps in the metabolism of protein is zinc. Zinc is trace
mineral which is need in very small quantity. Magnesium is another
mineral which helps in the secretion of harmones viz insulin, thyroid
etc. People with metabolic diseases should ensure they have adequate
zinc and magnesium in their diet. South Indians tend to eat lot of
rice which is just starch. Milk should be totally avoided by people
with metabolic diseases. Milk has lactase enzyme which causes
absorption problems in the stomach. Eat green vegetables on a daily
basis along with protein.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 21:13 IST

The article highlights the need for proper nutritional balance in our diet. Hair-loss, brittle nails and lack of energy are present in almost all age-groups. Basically today cholesterol is considered for all ills, particularly, for cardiac problems and obesity. But protein deficiency in our daily diet is seldom understood in the right perspective. It will be good if The Hindu enlightens the readers by such articles on our health and daily diet needs.

from:  G.Naryanaswamy
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 20:24 IST

The article , I think was restricted because of space constraints - There has been lots of myth about Protein consumption, The article by this link is factual and is an eyeopener, especially if you are a diabetic.

from:  Arun Swaminathan
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 16:11 IST

I wish anyone who writes articles on the nutritional value of foods will
mention whether the values given are for cooked or uncooked foods. There
is no point giving values for uncooked food unless it is normally eaten
uncooked. Has anyone gone into a restaurant and taken samples from the
menu as served and determined their nutritional content? What is the nutritional value of one idli, dosa or chapati(cooked ones please)?

from:  Ram
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 13:51 IST

Why bastardize food so as to remove fat? Are we really sure removing the fat actually improves the food? What about fat soluble vitamins? The funny thing is that saturated fat has never been shown to cause health problems in a clinical study, unless the researcher deliberately added trans-fats as saturated fats. In 2010 a position paper was published by the top nutritional experts saying that there is no evidence against saturated fat.
Another thing. Vegetarian foods have about 10% protein. This protein is sufficient for an active person. Not so for a sedentary person, and definitely not enough for a person intending to lose weight. Yes there are whole food methods to increase protein content, eg cheese and paneer. It might be tempting to increase protein by including soy, but whether it is good for us or not is controversial, so I tend to avoid it. That being said a scoop of very good quality whey protein will be very helpful for weight loss for sedentary people.

from:  anand srivastava
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 12:10 IST

Carbohydrate is not an essential nutrient as mentioned. Our body can convert fat into energy.

from:  M Siraj
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 12:07 IST

It needs to be pointed out that all the foods mentioned in the table(except tofu) contains twice as much fat as protein. You need to take about four times (by weight) of tofu as these other sources to get the same amount of protein, but even that contains only half as much fat. So if you want to keep your calories down, tofu is a better source of proteins. But because tofu is not so concentrated as nuts or meat, you need to take a larger bulk of tofu. In the table with the article,the unit for peanuts should be tbsp and not tsp.

from:  P. Zachariah
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 12:04 IST

Protein deficiency is an absolute fact particularly for vegetarian. No indian meal makes a complete balanced diet unless one look for eating the smart food. A person with health awareness tries to eat balanced diet which includes 50% carbohydrate, 25 % of protein and 25 % of fats, vitamins and minerals. One need to take atleast two small size of oranges to provide necessary vitamin c daily. Vit C cannot be stored and produced within body and needs to be outsourced. Given this importance food supplements are essential. A fact is that the Goitre decease was completely eradicated in US sometime in 1935 by administrating vitamins and minerals (iodine). It happened only after 1990 in India when govt ordered the salt manufacturers to dope necessary amount of Iodine to prevent goitre and now this has been proven useful. Therefore all forms of dieterary supplements are high useful and not industry driven.

from:  suriya
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 11:54 IST

it is most important to educate how to calculate to arrive at the grams how much to eat. please advise the method for arriving at the quantity of food intake to reach the level of grams required.

from:  h.s.iyer
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 11:18 IST

The article is really nice and very informative. I will be very thankful if you can focus more on the food items which have more amount of proteins(other than mentioned) for vegetarians, it will help us to remember whenever we eat food.
Thanks once again.

from:  Jitendra Kumar M
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 09:56 IST

The whole "protein deficiency" myth however, was spread by food supplement industries. Anybody who gets substantial and balanced food, like the regular Indian whole meals, gets enough protein. Unless our bodies are subjected to stress and damage, like those of a sportsperson or bodybuilder, we do not need any more protein other than found in regular meals. In fact, it has been proven beyond doubt that excessive proteins, especially animal proteins in the diet can cause extremely dangerous illnesses. Vegetarian diet has easily absorbed protein, as rightly pointed out. However, weak nails and skin are mostly caused by deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals, not proteins. If you eat well, you will not need to unduly focus on the fear of being protein deficient. The mere presence of certain percentage of protein in a certain food is no guarantee that the body will absorb all of it, either! So let's not go crazy. Let's just eat well and stay active and we'll be okay.

from:  B S Kumar
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 09:43 IST

Stimulating Info.; While giving any data it is requested that UNITS used are to clearly specified w.r.t common usgage like 10gm or 100gms OR 100ml etc so that common persons may like to ADOPT the info in their day-2-day life. For example 100ml tonned milk protein, etc.
There appears NEED to provide data in appropriate volumes/weights that a commoner uses in daily life rather than data suitable for 'journal" publication. This way one can raise interest in Science subject among students at all levels who read newspaper!

from:  Dr.B.S.Sudhindra
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 09:31 IST

I hope the younger generation, converted by junk food, is reading. I have a gripe with the attached Table's title which says "Common Foods" but lists Tofu, Cheese and Almonds. For the sake of the "common man", you should have included the protein content of Idli's, Medhu Vadai and such common foods. Kamala, though you have taken care to highlight the gaps, the summary Table seems to have forgotten your audience. I hope the editors will have a keener eye on such matters !

from:  Kumar
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 09:08 IST

This article is written based on information available in US nutrition literature. Most pulses (paruppu or dhal) have 20 to 30 % protein. A combination of milk and pulses (remember dhal and rotti or saadham and sambhar?) is adequate to provide the required protein. Two other important points about protein: 1. the nitrogen and sulfur of the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are usually recycled by our body by incorporating them into the carbohydrates to remake amino acids. 2. excess protein consumption (often happens with eating too much meat) leads to removal of minerals from bone to convert the acids produced by the degradation of amino acids to salt forms. Therefore, caution must be exercised while emphasizing the importance of protein intake in diet.

from:  K. Subramaniam
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 08:35 IST

Very informative. It was good to learn about the order in which the body
consumes carbohydrates,proteins and fats! It also helped to learn that
it is not helpful to consume proteins when body is starving.

from:  Sudhir Iyer
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 07:11 IST

Protein content in grams, provided in the chart, is incorrect in most
cases. For example, 1 Egg White has a maximum of 4 grams of protein [in
an extra large egg].

from:  Vasu
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 06:40 IST

We,diabetics, are advised to be wary about the protein intake. I would appreciate if a Diabetologist counsels on the protein in-take, as a sequel to this article , we shall benefit by very well.

from:  Chandramohan
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 05:00 IST

I agree with Sidharth that the table is dubious. Why are no protein values given for dal, the most common vegetarian protein source in India?

from:  SS
Posted on: Feb 17, 2012 at 00:28 IST

I would like to emphasize Sidharth's point. The values in the table
are dubious. In any case, people should ideally look at the fat,
carb and protein content in the foods they choose rather than just
protein. For example, yoghurt has several good nutrients, but is
also very high in fat and hence should be consumed moderately. The
article could suggest a more wholistic approach of keeping tabs on
daily nutrient intake and adjusting the diet accordingly. Also
symptoms like brittle hair, hair loss etc.... can be due to a ton of
reasons. Unhealthy diet (not just inadequate protein intake) is just
one possible reason.

from:  Manu N
Posted on: Feb 16, 2012 at 23:19 IST

You did not include sprouts the power house of proteins. Coconut ,
pulses etc please update. promote vegetarianism.

from:  sirisha
Posted on: Feb 16, 2012 at 21:55 IST

protein content in One egg white is not 6g, its about 3g. Whole egg has that 6g protein. The nutrition values given in the table are dubious.

from:  sidharth
Posted on: Feb 16, 2012 at 21:21 IST

An informative article. Useful especially in this fast world where fast foods take precedence and nutrition the backseat. It would have been better if the table included protein content of Pulses which we normally consume. Usually pulses (Dhal) contains 20 to 25% of protein. To say vegetarian sources of protein are limited is not correct. We have several variety of pulses, nuts, beans etc rich in protein. By the way too much protein tends to increase dopamine levels and lower serotonin levels in the brain leading to irritability especially in women aggravating PMS symptoms. (Refer to study at Harvard University on this). Persons susceptible to psychotic problems should not consume high quantity of protein in pure form. Protein mixed with complex carbohydrate is ideal (Like whole wheat Chapathi) as the release of protein is sustained . If correct cooking methods are described it would have been more useful. Sprouting of pulses is important in improving the protein content and quality.

from:  N Kumar
Posted on: Feb 16, 2012 at 21:08 IST

Good note, but can give us more info about the diet which we should follow in our busy life.

from:  Saroja
Posted on: Feb 16, 2012 at 20:52 IST

Informative and educative.

from:  kirubakaran
Posted on: Feb 16, 2012 at 19:48 IST
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