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The Power of Protein

The Power of Protein

Protein is an integral part of our diet and while the recommended daily intake is 10-35% of your total caloric intake, the slightest changes in the amount of protein you consume can have immense effects on your body’s function. Proteins are composed of multiple amino acids that when joined together create unique and distinct structures to serve various functions throughout the body. Proteins are most notably known for their importance in muscle growth, but their functions reach far beyond the musculoskeletal system. They can serve as antibodies in our immune system, messengers that regulate our cells growth cycles, transporters for small molecules in our circulatory system, structural components for movement and support, and enzymes for almost every chemical reaction in our body.

 

To perform these complex functions and develop the proper proteins for survival, our body uses 20 different amino acids and joins them together in unique sequences that dictate the proteins functional outcome. For example, a protein with an amino acid sequence of “ABCD” will have a different function than that of “BACD”. With over a thousand unique proteins required for our body to function properly, it’s no wonder protein intake is essential for survival.

 

So how do we ensure we have enough amino acids to produce the necessary proteins for optimal function, performance, and survival? While some amino acids can be made by the body, 9 of them are categorized as essential, meaning they must be obtained from our diet. Protein quality is the measure of the ability of a certain food to provide the nine essential amino acids in proportions that are similar to those required for the synthesis of human proteins. Foods with some of the highest protein quality include poultry, fish, eggs, quinoa, and soy. Although many individual foods do not contain the complete amount of essential proteins, the combination of diverse, whole foods in your diet can amount to the necessary requirements for both essential and nonessential proteins.  

 

When determining your caloric and protein intake, it’s important to consider your activity level, age, and fitness goals. To calculate your caloric intake, multiply your body weight by 11, then multiply again by your activity level. Below you can find the activity multiplier that matches your lifestyle (Be honest with yourself here!).

 

Activity Multiplier:

            Sedentary (daily living activities only): 1.25

            Active (150 min moderate activity): 1.32

            Optimal Activity (150 minutes vigorous activity): 1.42

            Athlete (Very Active Training): 1.55

            College/Pro/Endurance Athlete: 1.85

            Triathlon/Marathon: 2.0

 

Let’s work through an example to better understand this.

 

John weighs 160 pounds and runs for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, at 75% of his heart rate max. What should his caloric intake be to maintain his weight?

 

If John performs vigorous exercise for 150 minutes each week his activity multiplier would be 1.42. By multiplying his activity level by his weight and then by 11, we reach a total daily caloric intake of 2,500 calories.

 

            160lb x 11 x 1.42 = 2,499.2

 

Once you have determined your caloric intake, you can then determine how many of those calories should come from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein should account for 10-35% of your diet, fat for 20-35%, and carbohydrates 45-65%. Your age and goals will determine where you fall within these ranges.

 

For weight loss, a decreased caloric intake and an increased protein intake should be achieved. A pound of fat is composed of 3,500 calories. This means that to safely achieve fat loss, our caloric intake should be reduced by 3,500 calories each week. It is important to keep in mind though that the reduction of calories should occur over the course of 1 week. Losing more than 1 pound per week poses health risks and is associated with an increased chance of “rebounding” and regaining even more than the fat originally lost (slow and steady wins the race here!). This obstacle can be overcome by reducing your caloric intake by 500 each day. To aid in achieving this caloric goal, the diet should consist of an increased protein content. This is because protein has a thermic effect, meaning your body requires more energy to digest and absorb it, ultimately increasing metabolism by 20%. Furthermore, protein has a satiating effect, making you feel fuller longer. Looking back at our example: if John wants to lose 1 pound in a week, he would need to reduce his daily caloric intake by 500 calories, therefore consuming roughly 2,000 calories each day. To help achieve this weight loss, his protein consumption would need to increase to an upper range of 25-35% of his caloric intake, meaning 500-700 of his calories should come from protein.

 

For those looking to build muscle and increase their number on the scale, an increased caloric intake and decreased protein consumption should be achieved. Similar to a pound of fat, a pound of muscle also contains 3,500 calories. This means your caloric intake should be increased by 500 calories each day. Protein is important for muscle growth, but also leads to an increased satiating effect, making it harder to consume an increased amount of food. This challenge is solved by maintaining a protein intake between 20-30%, consuming protein along with carbohydrates within one hour of exercise to increase absorption rates, and by consuming protein, fat, and carbohydrates in a liquid form to pack more calories and protein into one meal.   

 

Lastly, our age has a significant impact on our body’s maintenance of muscle mass. This emphasizes the importance of diet in the elderly community. Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass, occurs as we age. This can lead to a functional decline in our ability to perform daily activities. Through aerobic exercise, resistance training, and an increased protein intake, we can maintain our independence and quality of life as we age.

 

Protein plays a powerful role in effecting our muscle mass, but it’s important to keep in mind that too much of it can pose risks to our health. Ketogenic diets may actually lead to a loss of muscle mass. The body can adapt to a high protein, low carbohydrate content and become so good at using protein for fuel, that it begins to oxidize and break down your own muscle for energy. Furthermore, high protein diets promote water loss due to the increased work our kidneys perform to release the excess nitrogen found in amino acids. Protein intake beyond 3g/kg/day may be associated with kidney damage, hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in the blood), and dehydration. It’s important to maintain a balanced diet, because each macronutrient plays an important role in maintaining our body’s health. Before making any serious changes to your diet, consult a doctor to ensure you are maintaining a safe approach to your health.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taylor Donald

B.S. Biochemistry, Exercise Physiology

University of Miami