Protein is a crucial element in the body responsible for building and repairing muscles, tendons, organs and skin. Proteins are also used to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and various molecules that serve important functions.
The amino acids found in protein are the building blocks of all living things without which life as we know it would not be possible.
Protein is such an essential nutrient that your brain has developed specific mechanisms to increase or decrease your desire for it depending on your needs. These mechanisms are challenging to override through willpower alone and most people naturally eat the right amount of protein for their specific requirements.
Generally you should be eating as much protein as you crave, however, certain situations benefit from an increase in protein intake, either temporarily or as part of a more long term nutrition plan.
- Fat loss
Traditional calorie-restricted dieting will definitely reduce body weight, but it also causes the loss of lean muscle mass. Simple calorie reduction in an effort to lose weight often leads to one becoming ‘skinny-fat’.
There is much research to suggest that a diet higher in protein is effective for fat loss. Protein is also more satiating than both fat and carbohydrate, which means you will feel more satisfied after eating it resulting in you naturally eating less.
A protein intake at approximately 30% of calories seems to be optimal for fat loss. It both boosts the metabolic rate and causes a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake.
- Increasing muscle mass
Protein is the nutrient required to build and rebuild muscle. Engaging in activities that are performed to build muscle shifts your body’s response to protein synthesis. Resistance training raises your anabolic ceiling and higher protein intakes will thus yield greater muscle mass and strength gains. This response increases with greater protein availability.
Resistance training also makes you more efficient at using protein so that you can maintain your muscle mass with less protein. If maintenance is your goal, the extra protein becomes unnecessary.
Similarly, endurance training requires higher protein intake to reduce the lean mass losses associated with negative calorie balances, whether they stem from lower calorie intakes or higher expenditures.
It is important to eat enough protein if you want to gain and/or maintain muscle. Suggested intakes range from 0.7 g – 1 g per pound of lean mass (1.5 – 2.2 grams per kg) but are dependent on factors including age, sex, activity levels and goals.
- Balancing blood sugar
Diets higher in protein have been shown to support blood sugar control and have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar markers. Furthermore, following a high-protein diet can lead to beneficial changes in a wide range of metabolic, cardiovascular and inflammatory markers, from cholesterol and triglycerides to C-reactive protein.
Stress hormones are catabolic meaning they increase the breakdown of muscle and tissue protein. Acute stressors (such as a heavy work out) use this positively and the catabolic effect is necessary to begin rebuilding and repairing the tissue, making you stronger, faster, fitter and more able. The problem occurs when the stress becomes chronic, perpetually raising your stress hormones and creating a consistently catabolic state. When you are chronically stressed, the tissues in your body begin breaking down. The tissue breakdown is caused in part by collagen proteins being used up faster than they are replaced. It becomes especially important to eat proteins that contain collagen in these trying times.
Although eating more protein can support the prevention of muscle and tissue wastage it is always highly recommended to create lifestyle strategies to cope with and lessen chronic, daily stressors.
Traumatic damage to your tissues requires more protein to make the necessary repairs and recovery.
After surgery, protein intake is probably the most crucial aspect your nutrition and subsequent recovery. Many doctors even recommend that surgical patients take whey protein isolate post-operatively for a few days.
To further support recovery from injury, trauma, illness or surgery, increase your gelatin/collagen intake. These are the primary proteins used to rebuild new skin and connective tissue and gelatin is also a good source of arginine, another recovery promoting amino acid.
- Getting older
As you age, your body becomes less efficient at processing protein. To maintain nitrogen balance or prevent too much muscle wasting, you will require more protein as you get older independent of your activity level. With correct protein nutrition it becomes possible for the elderly to build muscle and improve bone mineral density through resistance training.
- Meat cravings
Junk food cravings are often signs of nutrient deficiencies. Real food cravings are your body signalling you truly need a specific vitamin, mineral or nutrient. If you find yourself craving meat, eat some. Try choosing cuts and preparations rich in gelatin and glycine such as bones, connective tissues, oxtail, neck and shanks or preparations such as bone broth.
Although generally intuitive, adjusting protein intake to your specific needs is sometimes necessary to mitigate tissue wastage and support extra growth and repair. The source and type of protein you choose to consume may also play important an important role in the quality of nourishment you receive. As with all things nutrition, it is important to listen to your body and identify your needs and goals