Recently, we have seen the percentage of protein in Canadian diets increase by 10% for children and teenagers, and half a percent for adults. However, is the uptick in protein consumption something to be concerned about?
Our diets are complex things and there is often contradictory information surrounding what is necessary to keep us healthy. The main macronutrients—carbohydrates, fats and proteins—seem particularly subject to a wide variation in advice. For many years, fats have been demonized, and most recently, carbohydrates have also been the subject of a witch hunt.
Proteins also remain somewhat misunderstood. Bodybuilders and proponents of the Atkins diet have promoted higher proportions of proteins for a while (and some encourage the use of nutrient supplements that are high in protein). But, it is only recently that this has begun to hit mainstream consciousness.
What do we need protein for?
Protein is one of three macronutrients for our body. Fat, carbohydrates and protein all have their own individual roles, however, all three can also be metabolized to produce energy for respiration. Your body’s preferred nutrient for respiration is carbohydrates; fat is used for storage, protection, coatings for nerves and cell membranes; and protein is used mainly to help repair and build body tissue.
Proteins are made of amino acids and when we digest food containing proteins, we break them down into these amino acids. It is these chemicals that our body uses as building blocks to produce new enzymes and tissue. A healthy and balanced diet will contain not just a range of macro and micronutrients, but also a wide range of proteins.
Two ways to get your daily dose of protein
Aside from health and fitness supplements, proteins can be found in a wide range of foods. In order to ensure that a diet contains all the amino acids needed, it is important to consume a variety of different protein sources. Most people know that animal-based products—such as meat, fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs—are all high in protein, but each subcategory also contains different kinds of protein.
Less well known are the plant-based sources; legumes such as peas, beans, soy, and lentils, or nuts and seeds. Not every source of protein will contain high levels but they will contain different amino acids. Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, are excellent supplements to consider adding to your diet.
Possible health benefits
High levels of protein are necessary in your daily basic diet in order to build muscle mass. Bodybuilders literally tear their muscle fibers apart, and with the right levels of protein before and after exercise, these tears can be repaired with additional fibers leading to an increase in muscle mass.
Not everyone wants to build up their muscles, yet protein remains of great importance. In order to develop properly, your body will need a wide range of amino acids to use as building blocks. Muscle growth also does not have to mean bodybuilding. There are health benefits to increasing your musculature slightly, especially your core muscles. Likewise, if you train a lot, you can be at risk for injuries such as sprains or sports hernias. Having strong muscles to stabilize the joints and building core strength can help prevent these injuries.
Growth and repair are not the only functions for protein in your diet, either. Every single chemical reaction within your body is regulated and catalyzed, by enzymes. Enzymes are specialized proteins with unique shapes that make life possible. Everything from your digestion, to your immune system and even your thoughts are made possible by enzymes. In order to build all the enzymes in your body you need a wide range of amino acids, and for these, you need to have a diverse range of proteins in your diet.
Proteins are not just for those who pump iron or want to lose weight the Atkins way; they are the overlooked star of your diet!