What did you eat for breakfast today? Some cereal with a little milk and some fruit, like raisins or bananas? How was your lunch today? Pasta with sauce? Perhaps rice? I’m sure supper was protein heavy with some meat, chicken or fish main dish. Maybe we have it all wrong! We are inundated with all kinds of promotions and ads promoting protein intake; usually in the form of protein shakes, protein powders, whey protein, protein bars and other protein supplements. Protein is one of the three main categories of essential nutrients, the others being carbohydrates and fats. Protein accounts for about 16 percent of a person’s total body weight. That is because connective tissues, skin, hair and muscle are all made up of protein. Protein also plays a crucial role in the majority of our body’s fluids and all of its cells. Even some of the important chemicals found within the body are partially made with protein and some of these include DNA, neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes. Let’s take a look at the 6 main jobs that protein does for us.
- Builds Muscles, Bones and Other Body Parts
- Increases Immunity
- Balances pH Value
- Transports Nutrients
- It helps us lose weight through Satiation and High Thermal Effect
- Forms Enzymes
This is why it is important that all of our meals have some protein incorporated. But with all of the importance and the hype around protein, that doesn’t mean in our current way of eating we get the protein aspect right. Researchers are now finding that we’re eating too much protein and at the wrong times. According to this research, we should be eating more high-quality protein and we probably should be eating more of it earlier in the day—more with breakfast and a little less at supper time. Nobody needs special protein supplements or shakes—you can get all the protein you need through quality foods rich in proteins.
Nutrition experts recommend that protein account for 10%–35% of all the calories we eat daily. A paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, on average, men and women up to age 70 get about 15% of total calories from protein. While that is within the 10%–35% recommendation, the author of the paper suggests boosting the minimum to 25%, “given the positive benefits of higher protein intake on satiety and other physiologic functions” (Fulgoni 2008). The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) states that you need 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. So, a 145-pound person (65.9 kg) would need 52.7 grams of protein a day. This is the minimum to prevent deficiency, and studies have shown that there is a higher need for athletic people.
While the body has the capacity to store carbohydrate and fat, there is no such storage for protein, which is why it must be consumed daily. When too much protein is consumed, it is either used as an inefficient source of energy or converted to fat. Excessive protein consumption, whether from food sources or by liquid or powder supplements, may cause dehydration, as well as negative impact on the kidneys and bones.
Not only has finding the optimal amount of protein occupied the nutrition community, but WHEN we should be eating our protein has also been extensively researched.
Nutrition researchers have found that most Western diets are protein heavy at the evening meal—breakfast is typically carbohydrate-rich and protein-poor, while the evening meal is often much higher in protein and calories (Mamerow et al. 2014).
The National Institutes of Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data on protein consumption in the U.S. demonstrates that men typically consume about 15 g of protein at breakfast, while women consume about 10 g (Rains et al. 2013). It’s also important to note that only about 40% of Americans actually eat breakfast. Thus, not only are many Americans consuming low-protein breakfasts, but the majority are not consuming any protein at all. And there is increasing evidence of a causal link between breakfast-skipping and obesity.
This intake is unbalanced and doesn’t quite give the hard-working muscles what they need. “Unlike with fat or carbohydrate, the body has limited capacity to store excess dietary protein/amino acids from a single meal and use them to stimulate muscle growth at a later time,” says Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a leading protein researcher. “In other words, your large salmon dinner tonight is probably not going to influence muscle growth at lunch tomorrow.”
His research and that of other experts suggest it is best to distribute protein intake evenly throughout the day, starting with breakfast. Protein at breakfast gives your muscles their first chance to rebuild after you’ve slept. It’s a good idea to aim for around 20 g of protein if you’re younger or 30–40 g if you’re older, to give your muscle its best chance to rebuild, since these doses of protein are at the top end of what your muscles need.”
Heather Leidy, PhD is a researcher at University of Missouri. Her group recently completed a 12-week trial study comparing the effect of eating a normal-protein vs. a high-protein breakfast in those who had habitually skipped the morning meal (Leidy et al. 2015). This study proved that those who added a high-protein breakfast containing 35 g of protein every day for 12 weeks prevented gains in body fat compared with those who continued to skip breakfast.
What type of Protein?
Protein is made up of amino acids, some of which are considered “essential” because our bodies cannot make them and must be obtained from food. However, that doesn’t mean that all of our protein choices must come from foods that have all of the essential amino acids. Instead, be aware of what foods contain protein and choose a variety of them each day.
ANIMAL–DERIVED PROTEINS Animal protein foods include fish, chicken, turkey, meat (from cow, lamb, or goat), milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs. These are considered high-quality proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids.
PLANT-BASED PROTEINS Most plant-based proteins are missing at least one essential amino acid and are therefore considered “incomplete” proteins. Exceptions include soy, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat, which contain all of the essential amino acids. Other plant-based proteins, including vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, are incomplete but when eaten during the same day (i.e., beans and rice) all the essential amino acids are available to the body.
We never want to go “high protein” or leave out our other food groups to consume more protein, however, getting enough or the right kind of protein and eating them at the right times will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”