Proteins perform so many functions in the body including muscle contraction, blood-clotting, vision support, facilitation of chemical reactions, defence against infection and form the basic structure of your bones, skin and hair!
And yet we still find protein deficiency in growing adolescents and highly active individuals, particularly women (Lemon, P.W.R.. 2000).
So let’s break down what proteins are made of, their digestibility, the best way to meet protein needs and the effects of protein malnutrition.
Amino acids form the basis for all proteins. A sequence of atoms containing carbo, hydrogen, oxygen AND nitrogen. There are 9 essential amino acids and 11 non-essential.
What that actually means is the 9 essential ones need to be eaten as they can’t be made by the body or not in sufficient amounts.
This is easy to do if you eat animal products.
A popular documentary on Netflix pronounced the virtues and proficiency of undertaking a vegan diet to achieve your nutrition adequacy. While virtuous and entirely possible, it did leave some information out.
Absorption of protein from animal products generally sits between 95-99%. Whereas absorption from protein in non-animal products can sit as low as 70% absorption, meaning you need to consume much more food, to get a similar amount of protein (Crowe et al, 2019).
If you don’t eat much meat or eat it at all. You can improve protein absorption by making sure to have a good variety of legumes and grains each day as they help compensate for the lack of amino acids in each other.
So how do you know if you’ve eaten enough protein?
Males require approx 0.84g per kg of body weight and females 0.75g per kg of body weight each day. Or for your average weight male and female 2 chicken breasts per day will easily meet that need if not exercising heavily.
So after all this positive talk about achieving protein needs for health… what happens if you don’t?
Well overconsumption isn’t great and links to heart disease and colon cancer have been widely reported on in news publications. However under consumption seems to be less commonly understood by the general public.
Under consumption can lead to reduced infection protection, muscle loss and difficulty managing weight fluctuations. It is more often seen as a problem in children and adolescents as their bodies need a minimum amount to continue tissue growth in a more ongoing method.
As always, if you are unsure. Start by using a food tracking app that tells you the macronutrient break down. Ideally your protein intake is between 15-35% of your diet and reaches approximately 0.84g/kg of body weight for men or 0.75g/kg of bodyweight for women (you may need to use a calculator).
And if you’re still note sure, check with your doctor and maybe reach out to an accredited dietitian.
Lemon, P. W. R.. (2000). Beyond the Zone: Protein Needs of Active Individuals. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 19(sup5), 513S–521S. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2000.10718974
Whitney, Rolfes, S. R., Crowe, T., & Walsh, A. (2019). Understanding nutrition (4th Australian & New Zealand edition.). Cengage Learning Australia Pty Ltd.