You want to lose weight? Eat more protein. Want to put on muscle? Eat more protein. Want to cure cancer? Eat more protein. (That last one may be a slight exaggeration). But now-a-days it seems like protein has become the miracle, cure-all macronutrient. All the while, carbohydrates and fats are taking their turns being slandered and criticized. But before we talk about protein, let’s talk about macronutrients.
Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. They are the nutrients that provide calories; all of our foods contain one or a combination of these nutrients. Each has different functions in our body, and the amount we need varies based on anthropometrics (height, weight, gender, etc.) and our specific goals. Before fats made us fat and carbohydrates become “enemy #1”, protein was something only body builders thought about. But as the diet industry grew, every one become more interested in protein and wondered about it could help them reach their goals. Now, protein is attached to most major diets and is used as a selling point on food labels up and down the grocery aisles.
So, what exactly is protein? And why does everyone love it? Protein is a macronutrient made up of many amino acids; if we think of amino acids as single Legos, protein would be the final product built with those Legos. Protein is used to build, replace and repair muscle tissue in the body. That does not just include skeletal muscle – it’s used for all types of muscle in the body from your skin, to your heart, to your digestive tract. Protein is also a major part of the immune system; it is used to build and activate the different specialized cells of the immune system.
Why does protein get its health halo? The main reason we love protein is for its satiating effect. Our body has to do more work to digest protein, and thus requires more calories to digest it. This process takes a little longer and keeps us fuller longer, thus controlling and suppressing our appetite (a plus for those trying to lose weight). When we add protein to meals, it mixes with the rest of the foods in that meal and overall digestion is slowed – again keeping us fuller and more satisfied for a longer period of time.
As mentioned previously, protein’s main role is to help repair and rebuild muscle. For those who exercising regularly, eating protein after workout is important to help repair damage from the workout. But, simply eating protein alone will not build bigger muscles or make you stronger. Strength and an increase in muscle mass comes as an adaption to strength training. We exercise (whether that’s lifting weights or running or doing push-ups) which leads to tearing and damage in the muscle tissue. Then our body rebuilds the muscle stronger so that it can withstand the damage the next time. Most importantly, protein does NOT want to be used as an energy source – that is what carbohydrates are for. Carbohydrates fuel our workouts; they also provide energy post-workout so that our body can rebuild and strengthen our muscles.
Interested in how to incorporate protein in your nutrition game-plan? Or do you want to make sure you’re getting enough protein to support your goals? Schedule a nutrition consult today!