Protein is one of three primary macronutrients we need to have, the other two being carbohydrates and fat. Macronutrients are chemical compounds that provide us with most of our energy. Proteins consist of amino acids and are essential for building bones and muscles. Apart from providing us energy, proteins play a vital role in metabolic reactions, immune responses and cellular repair.
Interestingly, although proteins provide the same energy density as carbohydrates, our bodies cannot store proteins in the same way it stores carbohydrates and fats. This means we need to consume protein daily.
Every cell is made up of protein and understanding your macro requirements is, therefore, vital to your recovery and performance. Protein doesn’t just help in muscle gain; it helps in muscle metabolism, both for gaining lean muscle and also for cutting one’s body fat percentage.
How much protein do we need?
There are differing opinions about just how much protein a person requires. There are many factors such as age, sex, body weight, activity levels and health conditions that influence the amount of energy one needs. The thumb rule is anything between 1.5 to 2.2 gms of protein per kg of body weight if you’re looking to gain lean muscle mass.
Athletes, body builders and those who undertake strengthening exercises daily will however need more protein than what is prescribed as an average recommendation. For high endurance or strength, an athlete’s protein needs are much higher — almost 3.5 gm of protein per kg of body weight.
The more you train, the thirstier your muscles are for protein. That doesn’t mean you need to start drinking protein shakes or consume supplements. Most people can get their daily requirement of protein from a healthy and balanced diet which provides essential nutrients.
What are the good sources of protein?
Proteins can be imbibed from both plants and animals. Many plants provide protein in the form of fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, whole grains and cereals. However, since certain plant proteins do not contain all essential amino acids, it is important to know which amino acids these foods provide, especially if you do not eat meat or dairy. It is then important to eat a variety of plant protein to ensure you ingest all nine amino acids.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, quinoa and soybeans are all a source of complete protein. This means they provide all nine essential amino acids.
If you can fulfil half your protein requirement from animal sources, then the rest of your protein intake can be procured from plant sources without having to figure which is a complete plant protein. One advantage of consuming plant proteins is they are lower in saturated fats as compared to animal proteins. Plant proteins are thus a much healthier option.
Women typically need as much protein as men
It has been traditionally believed that men require more protein than women. This notion is not entirely true. Women have a greater ability to metabolise protein which is enhanced post puberty. But if they happen to be athletes, they need as much protein as men since they have to cope with stress during their luteal cycle – the phase that begins after ovulation. In most women, this phase lasts 12-14 days. It goes without saying that this period is one of energy crisis which is best managed with quality proteins.
Even for women who lead a sedentary lifestyle, energy requirements for the week prior to the menstrual cycle is equivalent to energy needed to perform eight hours of construction work a day. If there’s a shortage of protein, muscle protein breaks down and neurotransmitters get altered. Blood sugar levels drop leading to severe sugar cravings which is then more often than not, pacified with an intake of chips, chocolate, burgers, fries. This triggers an unhealthy pattern that eventually triggers hormonal imbalances like PCOD and leptin resistance.
Women athletes now are realising the importance of stepping up their protein game, alongside their micro requirements of calcium, iron, zinc and folate. It is advisable for women to get in touch with a nutritionist for a proper calorific evaluation in order to be able to cope with the stress of daily life.
Most women tend to neglect their food intake as they have dual responsibilities of home and profession. But it is high time they pay attention to what is on their plate and eat in peace. All else can wait but this facet must be prioritised.