By: Kylee Van Horn, RDN
You’ve probably heard it in the media one too many times—protein, protein, protein! While protein may seem overhyped to some, the reality is that for certain populations, protein is a critical part of their diet. Not meeting protein needs can affect their ability to be at optimal health and performance. Most often, I meet with patients that are not meeting their protein needs and fit into the following populations: endurance athletes, plant-based, over the age of 65, cancer, and surgical patients.
Sources and Uses:
Protein itself comes from a variety of foods including: fish, poultry, red meat, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, and some grains. Most people associate protein with gaining muscle mass, but it has many other important functions. Without sufficient protein intake, injury and fall risk can go up as muscle helps to stabilize the body during movement. In addition, it can help with neurotransmitter production, which can affect our mood if we don’t get enough. And for those attempting to lose weight—protein takes much longer to digest than carbohydrates and helps keep the blood sugar more stable, promoting fullness and better energy levels.
Factors affecting protein metabolism:
The reality is, protein intake can vary depending on a person’s condition or goals. No matter the goal, there are a number of factors that can affect dietary protein metabolism in the body including: meal composition, the amount of protein ingested at one time, and actual protein composition of the food consumed.
There is inconclusive evidence as to whether there is an optimal amount of protein that you should intake at one time, however, one thing that is clear: Splitting up protein intake throughout the day can maximize muscle protein synthesis and most effectively maintain muscle mass. Thinking of your meal pattern throughout the day and breaking it up into little boxes, then fitting an equal amount of protein into those boxes can help you try to meet your daily protein goals.
The type of protein consumed can also make a difference in how well our bodies utilize it. Essential amino acids are amino acids that are not made in our bodies and we must consume from food sources. Many animal-based sources of proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all of the amino acids that our bodies need. Plant based proteins often do not contain or are low in some of these amino acids (in particular, methionine, tryptophan, lysine, and isoleucine). Therefore, it is important for plant-based eaters to be conscious that they are consuming a variety of plant based proteins throughout their day. It was once believed that plant based eaters should use a technique called food combining at each meal to get all of their essential amino acids. We now know this is not true as long as the all of the amino acids are consumed in some amount throughout the day.
Protein needs vary depending on different populations, but breaking up protein intake throughout the day can help maximize protein absorption and maintenance of muscle mass. Plant-based sources of protein are absorbed at a slightly lower rate than animal-based sources of protein so increased intake of protein for vegetarians and vegans is recommended.
Your doctor or dietitian can help you with more specific protein recommendations if necessary. Come see us at Midvalley Family Practice!