The Quick 411 on the Benefits of Eating Protein
A quick intro if you aren’t a nutrition pro:
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients that makes up the food we eat. (The other two are fat and carbohydrate.)
Protein itself is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for most stuff in our bodies. They’re like Legos that can be broken down and reassembled in different ways.
Unlike extra fat (which we can store very easily on our bums and bellies), we don’t store lots of extra amino acids. Protein is always getting used, recycled, and sometimes excreted.
If we don’t get enough protein, our body will start to plunder it from parts that we need, such as our muscles.
So we have to constantly replenish protein by eating it.
Protein for losing fat?
Eating protein helps with losing fat, for a few reasons.
1. When you eat more protein, you tend to feel fuller longer. Protein stimulates the release of satiety (stop-eating) hormones in the gut. So when you eat protein, you naturally tend to eat less, without feeling hungry.
(You can test this theory if you want. Go and try to eat an entire plain skinless chicken, or a few pounds of lean fish.)
2. Protein makes your body work to digest it. Not all nutrients take the same energy to digest. Fat and carbohydrates are pretty easy for your body to digest and absorb, but protein takes more energy to digest and absorb.
If you eat 100 calories of protein, you’ll only use about 70 calories of it. (This thermic, or heat-producing, effect of protein is why you sometimes get the “meat sweats” after a big protein-heavy meal.)
3. Protein also helps you hang on to lean mass while you’re losing fat. When you’re in a significant energy deficit (i.e. eating less than you burn), your body tries to throw out everything — fat, muscle, bone, hormones, etc. — all the stuff you need. It doesn’t tend to throw out just fat and keep muscle… unless you eat lots of protein.
Why might you eat MORE protein?
Since we need protein to grow, maintain, and repair our tissues, hormones and immune system, there are times we need more protein.
The standard RDA of 0.8 g/kg is great if you’re sedentary and not building or repairing your tissue.
But you may need more protein if you are:
- physically active, either through workouts or your job
- injured or sick
- not absorbing protein normally
- pregnant / breastfeeding
- younger (and growing)
- older (and potentially losing lean mass)
Higher protein diets can also:
- lower blood pressure;
- improve glucose regulation;
- improve blood cholesterol; and
- improve other indicators of cardiometabolic health.
A new study in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) looks not only at protein intake, but where people got their protein from.
This study took over 35 years to do (starting in the 1980s).
What they found:
Eating more animal protein was associated with a higher risk of death… if you were also doing something else that was a risk factor.
- being overweight
- not exercising
- drinking alcohol
- history of high blood pressure
- low intake of whole grains, fiber, and fruits and vegetables
Eating more plant protein was found to be associated with lower risk of early death.
What does this mean?
You might think at first glance that you should eat less animal protein, since this study seems to say that animal protein is bad for you.
But there’s more to it.
If you’re doing everything else “right”, then eating more animal protein doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Likely, it’s not the animal protein on its own but a lot of lifestyle things that come with eating more animal protein.
Quality vs Quantity?
Most people think about how much protein, but they don’t think all that much about the quality of the protein they’re eating.
There are huge differences in the chemical makeup of a given protein source, and how valuable that protein is nutritionally.
The higher a protein’s quality, the more easily it can give your body the amino acids it needs to grow, repair and maintain your body.
The two big factors that make a protein high or low quality are:
- How easy is it to digest?
- How much do you digest — and absorb and use?
Amino acid composition:
- What amino acids is it made of?
A high-quality protein has a good ratio of essential amino acids, and allows our body to use them effectively.
Amino acid composition is more important than digestibility.
You can have way more protein than you need, but if the protein you’re eating is low in an important amino acid (known as the limiting amino acid), it causes a bottleneck that stops everything else from working (or at least slows things down).
High-quality proteins have more limiting amino acids, which means the bottleneck is lessened and our bodies can use that protein source better.
Note: If contemplating a high-protein diet, understand the basics in addition to contacting your trusted medical and research sources — which, as always, does not include random people of the Internets.
[courtesy of Precision Nutrition]