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February 18, 2006

The Truth about Protein

Fm0691_1 You will always hear everybody talk about the importance of Protein after your Weight Loss Surgery. But why is it so important?

Protein, like carbohydrate and fat, is one of the three macronutrients that make up the human diet. Protein, composed of chains of amino acids, is the building material for cell structures in the body such as muscle, connective tissue, skin, hair, and nails. Protein also performs many vital functions in the body, helping form antibodies, enzymes, and hormones. Protein makes cell growth, maintenance, and repair possible – all at four calories per gram!

Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is a "macronutrient," meaning that the body needs relatively large amounts of it. Vitamins and minerals, which are needed in only small quantities, are called "micronutrients." But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply.

Of the 20 amino acids necessary for health in humans, 11 are naturally occurring in the body (“non-essential” amino acids), and 9 must be consumed through food sources (“essential” amino acids). Protein from animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry and dairy products are “complete” proteins, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids.

With the exception of soybeans, protein from plant sources is considered incomplete, meaning that one or more of the essential amino acids is missing. For this reason, it is wise to pair complementary plant source foods so the body can absorb and use the protein contained in them. The pairings below are examples of complete plant source proteins.

  • Legumes + Seeds (peas and sesame seeds in a stir fry)
  • Legumes + Nuts (black beans and walnuts on a salad)
  • Legumes + Dairy (bean and cheese burrito)
  • Grains + Legumes (lentil soup and whole grain bread)
  • Grains + Dairy (cereal and milk)

These foods do not have to be consumed together to be beneficial. As long as these combinations occur regularly in the diet, all 9 essential amino acids will be present.

Protein supplement powders and bars are available from many sources. Whey protein, derived from milk, is widely available and very efficiently absorbed by the body. Egg protein, derived from eggs, is another high quality protein source packed with naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. Soy protein is a great alternative, also providing isoflavones which may help keep certain cancers at bay. Rice proteins are an excellent option, especially for vegetarians or those allergic to milk products.

Health Benefits

In the United States, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein consumption in healthy adults is about 15% of total calorie intake, or 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Under these guidelines, a 200lb man should consume 80 grams of protein per day, and a 135lb woman should consume 54 grams.

How Much Protein Is Enough?

Extra protein does NOT build more muscle. In fact, the only way to build muscle is through exercise. Bodies need a modest amount of protein to function well. Extra protein doesn't give you extra strength.

When people eat lots of protein but few carbohydrates, their metabolisms change into a state called ketosis. Ketosis means the body converts from burning carbs for fuel to burning its own fat. When fat is broken down, small bits of carbon called ketones are released into the bloodstream as energy sources. Ketosis, which also occurs in diabetes, tends to suppress appetite, causing people to eat less, and it also increases the body's elimination of fluids through urine, resulting in a loss of water weight.

A Word of Caution

The body produces ammonia when it breaks down protein. No one knows the long-term risks of higher levels of ammonia in the body.

There is evidence to suggest that people who eat high-protein diets typically excrete excess calcium in their urine, so, too much calcium loss could lead to osteoporosis down the road.

From where to get it?

  • Fish: Fish offers heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and, in general, less fat than meat.
  • Poultry: You can eliminate most of the saturated fat by removing the skin.
  • Beans: Beans contain more protein than any other vegetable protein. Plus, they're loaded with fiber that helps you feel full for hours.
  • Nuts: One ounce of almonds gives you 6 grams of protein, nearly as much protein as one ounce of broiled ribeye steak.
  • Whole grains: A slice of whole wheat bread gives you 3 grams of protein, plus valuable fiber.

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