The Power of Protein
To maintain muscle, spread protein intake throughout the day
By Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN
Protein is a hot nutrient right now—and rightly so. Along with carbohydrates and fat, protein is one of the three big nutrients, aka macronutrients, that your body needs. Protein plays a powerful role in your health, particularly for your muscles. Preserving muscle strength and proper function is contingent upon eating enough protein every day, especially as we age.
Health experts discussed the latest scientific findings on protein at the recent BlogHer Conference, #BlogHerFood15, in Chicago. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) sponsored a protein information session and cooking demo that focused on ways to get creative in the kitchen with both animal and plant proteins.
More than half of Americans (54 percent) are trying to consume more protein, according to the 2015 IFIC Food & Health Survey. This is good news, as research reveals that we need to keep our muscles well fueled with protein.
“One of the issues as we age is preserving independence and preventing injuries,” explains Jared Dickinson, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University. “Protein is vital, as it makes up our muscles and stimulates them to grow.”
Our muscles thrive on getting the nine essential amino acids from protein-rich foods. Science shows that our muscles respond best when protein intake is spread out during the day—at each meal—to stimulate muscles adequately, versus protein loading at one time in the day.
“Ideally, 25 to 30 grams of protein at each of your three meals works the best,” Dickinson says. That’s about 4½ ounces of lean meat, such as lean cuts of beef like tenderloin or sirloin, pork, turkey, chicken breast or fresh fish like salmon, tuna or halibut. If you choose plant-based proteins, aim to get a combination of soy, beans, nuts and whole grains in adequate amounts throughout the day to ensure that you are giving your body the essential amino acids it needs.
Unfortunately, the typical American eating pattern doesn’t support optimal protein usage. Eating a lower protein breakfast and lunch and then a protein-packed dinner does not benefit muscles as much as distributing the protein throughout the day.
“The average American breakfast has about 12 grams of protein, which isn’t enough to stimulate repair and replacement of muscle proteins. For adults, meals must have at least 30 grams of protein to stimulate building essential muscle protein,” explains Donald K. Layman, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois. With age, our muscles are not as sensitive to protein intake. Therefore, children, teens and younger adults can get away with lower amounts of protein per meal.
Because of the role of protein in supporting muscle health, protein is important for weight management, he says.
“Most research studies that carefully control calories find that higher protein diets produce greater loss of body fat and body weight than high carbohydrate diets,” Layman says. Eating adequate protein has a greater thermic effect, meaning it takes more calories to burn protein than carbohydrates or fat. “If you eat 100 calories of carbohydrates, you lose 5 calories. But for 100 calories of protein, you lose 15 to 20 calories because of the additional metabolic roles of protein,” Layman says.
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