What do Greek yogurt, quinoa, and chia seeds have all been deemed by clever marketers as “superfoods” due to their high protein content.
Protein is associated with power and strength – body builders and athletes seem to zero in on this macronutrient.
Does protein live up to it’s hype, though, or is it another overinflated trend?
Protein is the one of three major macronutrients along with carbohydrate and fat.
Protein has four calories per gram and is made of links of small molecules called amino acids.
Out of the 20 types of amino acids, the human body can only make 11. The other nine are called “essential” amino acids because we can’t make them or make enough of them, and therefore need to get them through food.
Protein in our diet is broken down into amino acids for many functions, from the DNA that defines who you are to the physical body you’re in. Protein is needed for growth, repair, movement, and upkeep.
Some proteins help with communication between your cells, like hormones and neurotransmitters. Other proteins are used in your immune and digestive systems.
With so many important roles, proteins do get worn out and need to be replaced. The Institute of Medicine’s acceptable macronutrient distribution range for protein is 10 to 35 per cent of daily calories, about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for the average, healthy person.
Food sources of protein are of either animal or plant origin.
Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are sometimes known as “complete” proteins because they contain all the essential amino acids we need.
Legumes, nuts, seeds, some grains, and tofu or soy products are high sources in the plant category. While many plants have protein, not all of them have enough of each essential amino acid.
This brings up the common question: are vegetarians and vegans protein deficient due to the “lower quality” protein they eat?
It’s a myth that vegetarians and vegans must go to extreme lengths to fill their protein requirements, or that they must carefully combine protein sources.
According to dietitians Jeff Novick, MS, and Reed Mangels, PhD, the human body stores amino acids for about a day and can use amino acids from different meals to create proteins for itself.
By eating a variety of foods, vegetarians and vegans can easily meet their protein needs.
Did you know that per Dietitians of Canada, plant protein as part of a healthy dietary pattern may have beneficial effects on blood pressure and cholesterol levels?
Another subject of interest surrounding protein are high protein, low carbohydrate diets for weight loss. Some prefer this diet because by cutting out carbs, they avoid quite a few unhealthy foods.
High protein diets may also be higher in fat, making it harder to eat large quantities due to feeling full quickly.
Compared to high carbohydrate diets with the same number of calories and fat, research summarized in meta-analyses and systematic reviews concludes that both types of diets lead to similar results in obese and overweight individuals over a one-year period.
Dietitians of Canada maintains that weight loss is based on calorie deficits rather than cutting out certain nutrients.
You may have wondered about all the protein powders and power bars out there. Are they necessary for someone who wants to gain muscle?
If you work out or play a sport, you may have higher protein needs, and these protein supplements can be a good choice if you’re short on time, have the budget, or can’t stomach anything besides liquids.
However, you could also choose to eat food high in protein – there’s been no difference found in their effectiveness, according to PEN Nutrition.
Eating more protein doesn’t lead to bigger muscles, either.
Eat Right Ontario reminds the public that too much protein from either food or supplements can lead to weight gain because of the excess of calories it provides.
Protein, like carbohydrate and fat, is just another macronutrient that humans have been consuming since the dawn of time.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating Greek yogurt, quinoa, or chia seeds, protein is by no means a miracle nutrient.
– Joyce Chang is a graduate of the dietetics program at McGill University and has experience in clinical and community nutrition in hospitals and schools (firstname.lastname@example.org).