Contributed by: Rachana Arya
Over the years, protein is one nutrient that has taken center stage. This ‘hyped’ nutrient has garnered a lot of attention recently, with protein balls, bars, and boosted protein versions of essential food ranging from cereals to soup dominating grocery shelves.
The phrase “protein” is widely used by those who desire to lose weight, grow muscle, reduce or increase their meat intake, or address general health concerns. Despite its widespread use, there is a lot of misinformation about its role in our diet.
Protein gets its name from the Greek word ‘proteios‘, which meaning “first place.” It is one of the most significant macronutrients that are essential for our overall health. Protein-rich foods are broken down into amino acids in the stomach and absorbed in the small intestine, after which the liver determines which amino acids the body requires. The remainder is excreted via urine.
But before discussing—and debunking—myths surrounding protein, it is important to double-check whether we do or don’t know what protein is. So, let’s take a look at some of the prevalent misconceptions about protein from a dietary aspect.
Myth #1: Vegetarian equals limited protein-rich food choices
It’s a myth that high-quality protein can only be found in animal products and that vegetarians and vegans will suffer from protein deficiency. Plant-based protein sources can be more than sufficient. While animal products like meat and eggs are highly protein-dense, vegetarians do have a lot of options when it comes to protein.
There are many high-quality plant-based protein sources available, from legumes to walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, quinoa, tofu, flax seeds, and soy-based products. In fact, some plant proteins, such as soybeans, are actually as high in protein as animal proteins. Incorporating one or more of these foods into one’s diet will go a long way towards satisfying one’s daily protein needs. So, if you’re worried about getting enough protein on a meatless diet, you really shouldn’t.
Myth#2: There’s no such thing as “too much protein”
We’ve all heard the adage that everything in excess is bad for health. In the case of protein intake, it may hold true. Everything should be in moderation—even protein. For most healthy people, a diet that is too high in protein generally isn’t harmful. However, when followed for an extended time, the protein-loading may cause several health problems. Protein is essential for our bodies, but too much of it can be hazardous as well.
While protein isn’t hazardous in and of itself, many protein supplements are heavy in carbs (carbohydrates), which can cause bloating, gas, and stomach pain. Additionally, a diet fortified with excessive protein may increase the risk of heart disease or worsen kidney function especially if you have an underlying kidney or liver problem. Dehydration, weight gain, constipation, diarrhea, and renal impairment are other common risk factors.
Myth #3: Protein supplements are great alternatives to complete protein foods
A common misconception today is that protein supplements have the ability to meet our daily protein requirements. While protein supplements are excellent sources of protein, yet there’s a reason that they are referred to as supplements.
Although they’re a convenient way to get protein, they are not substitutes for the protein that our bodies obtain from normal food sources. Most people can get enough protein from their usual meals by consuming protein-rich foods including eggs, yogurt, lentils, meat, fish, soy, and other foods.
Myth #4: Protein needs do not change with age
Experts agree that while adequate—but not excessive—protein is important for bone health in children and adolescents, the protein need increases with age and illness. Compared with younger adults, older adults require 50% more daily protein/kilogram intake for maintaining the balance and mobility needed to continue to live independently. In older years, the risk of sarcopenia – the loss of muscle mass, strength, and function – is higher.
Additionally, the recommended amount of protein also increases if an adult is malnourished due to an acute or chronic disease. That said, it is important to note that higher protein intake may pose a risk to older people if they suffer from some type of kidney function impairment. As with any health and nutrition change, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider about your protein needs and intake as you age.
The essential amino acids in protein are the building blocks of life and key nutrients for muscle health. Remember to make protein a priority at each meal to keep your strength, energy, and overall health. Eating more protein than needed, however, is completely wasteful as the excess protein is excreted through urine.
In closing, if you are consuming too much protein, besides undesirable side effects, you are effectively flushing your money down the toilet. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends dietary allowance of protein for an average Indian adult as 0.8 to 1 gm per kg body weight. That is all you need. No more. No supplements are needed.
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