Protein – what’s the big deal? by Nancy N. George, M Ed, RD, LD, Blanchard Valley Health System Dietitian
If you look at items in the grocery store, it seems that all of the packages emphasize how much protein the food contains. Why the emphasis now? High protein, low carbohydrate diets are growing in popularity due to an international protein summit held in 2016 that explored nutritional research related to protein. After presenters made recommendations, food manufacturers picked up on their focus.
Protein is a nutrient that our bodies need, and it has many more functions in the body than just muscle building. Protein is involved in healthy blood cell production including the cells that fight diseases. It also helps with the production of collagen and bones, enzymes and hormones and especially the proteins that regulate fluid balance.
Proteins are made from building blocks called amino acids, some of which our bodies can make, and some that we have to get from our food supply. Eating foods with complete proteins allows for your body to build needed structures easily. As we get older, our bodies may not be as efficient in building and repairing, as when we were younger.
Inadequate protein intake long-term is almost always associated with anemia, inadequate growth, edema, muscle weakness and sarcopenia (muscle loss) – in other words, protein malnutrition.
School age children need 19-52 grams of protein per day. These needs can be met easily with the school lunch plus two other meals a day. Cow’s milk is a great source of protein with eight grams per cup but almond, cashew and rice beverages only have one gram per cup.
Healthy adults need .8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight, according to the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). How can you calculate that for yourself? Take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 to get kilograms to get roughly the amount of protein in grams that your body needs per day. You can find grams of protein per serving on the nutrition facts labels of your favorite foods.
Adults with chronic diseases (hypertension, heart failure, kidney disease and cancers) will need more protein – up to one and a half times as much. Even relatively healthy seniors (age 75 and older) need more protein to help maintain healthy muscles and tissues. Your heart is a muscle, so good protein sources are crucial for keeping your heart healthy.
So, do we need to use protein supplements? In general, the answer is “no.” Almost all of us can get the protein we need from our foods, even if we don’t eat meat or consume milk. Starchy foods, grains, nuts, legumes and vegetables are all good sources of protein (only fats and fruits do not have much protein). If eating normal foods is becoming difficult, then ask your health care provider or dietitian for recommendations about oral nutrition supplements.