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Protein - a macronutrient so often overlooked

Amino acids are the building blocks from which proteins are made. They supply the raw materials for repairing damaged muscle tissue, cell division, making enzymes, building new connective tissue & making hormones and neurotransmitters.


The word "protein" was coined in 1828 from the Greek meaning, "to come first" as evidence of the importance of this substance for the function and replacement of the body's cells.

Amino acids are the building blocks from which proteins are made. There are 22 so far identified and they can be linked together to form more than 50,000 different proteins. The body continuously breaks down the proteins eaten into amino-acid complexes and free amino acids, which it then recombines to form whatever proteins it needs to maintain itself. Amino acids supply the raw materials for maintaining the genetic code (DNA), repairing damaged muscle tissue, for cell division, making enzymes, building new connective tissue and making hormones and neurotransmitters.

Eight of the amino acids are regarded as"essential"

Eight of the amino acids have traditionally been regarded as "essential" because the body is unable to manufacture them for itself, and they therefore have to be taken in through the food we eat. Not all protein foods contain the same balance of amino acids. Protein foods of animal origin are regarded as "complete" protein because they contain ALL the amino acids in an approximately ideal balance. Eggs in particular provide protein that is biologically complete. Vegetable sources vary in their balance of amino acids.

In today's diets, research has found more and more of us are consuming far too much carbohydrate and too little protein. For nutritionist and dieticians alike, this is posing a real concern - especially as new research shows that some of our major health risks may be initiated by such diets.

So what are these concerns?

Firstly, too many calories consumed from carbohydrate sources causes hormonal fluctuations, which can contribute to conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, lack of energy, fat gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Secondly, for a healthier and longer disease-free life, we now know that maintaining a "positive" or active muscle mass is essential.

Muscle mass is considered by experts as our No.1 biological marker for aging.

To maintain an active muscle mass and to stay anabolic (building of healthy cells), we need to consume more calories from low fat protein sources and less from starch based carbohydrates.

Typically, lean-body cell mass, but especially muscle mass, declines with age. From young adulthood to middle age, the average person looses 3kg of lean body mass per decade. This rate of loss accelerates after the age of 45.

Our lean muscle is a very important functional tissue. The following functions of muscle demonstrate why it is essential for many actions and processes in the body:

Our Muscle Mass and Glucose disposal

The ability to control our blood glucose level is dependant on muscle mass, because 80% of circulating glucose is typically stored in the muscle as glycogen. With low muscle mass, blood glucose clearance is delayed, resulting in blood sugar problems.

Our Muscle Mass and Organ reserve

Muscle is a major reservoir of body glutamine stores. This glutamine store is called upon to repair and fuel many other tissues. The immune system is dependant on adequate glutamine reserves for optimal function. The integrity of the tissue in the gastrointestinal tract relies heavily on the amount of glutamine that is available. Low muscle mass, therefore, leads to a reduction in organ reserves and limited function under stressful situations.

Our Muscle Mass and our Metabolic rate

Muscle is a key determinant of metabolic rate. A higher metabolic rate will typically result in more kilojoules consumed per day and greater control over body fat mass. To achieve long-term weight control, muscle mass must be adequate. A progressive reduction in basal metabolic rate is a recognised characteristic of the aging process and diminishing muscle mass may be largely responsible for this.

Our Muscle Mass and Mobility

The ability to exercise, to maintain basic physical activity and to avoid frequent falls is an important consideration in the aging process. Adequate muscle mass and function is vital for proper mobility and is required for normal daily activities and to maintain balance and required strength.

So how do we maintain our muscle mass?

To maintain muscle mass, you need to be proactive to undertake regular (2-3 times a week) resistance or strength training exercises. These include lifting weights, rowing and/or using rubber or elastic bands, with specific exercises or movements, to induce a muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance and size of the muscle.

Looking at it simply – A body builder builds muscle, by doing a repetitive exercise, with a heavy weight, that literally tears and damages the muscle.  Straight afterwards, they consume protein, the building block that literally repairs the damaged muscle.  As the muscle repairs, it gets bigger. 

I am not talking about turning into the incredible hulk, but what I want to remind you is For your good health, sustained energy levels and longevity generally, having a positive or active muscle mass is vital, as your muscle mass, is YOUR # 1 biological marker for aging. 

It’s important to get a thorough health check before starting any new exercise program, but the results of undertaking it should be well worth it. 

When properly performed, strength training can provide significant functional benefits and improvement in your overall health and well-being. 

This includes for helping with:

Increasing bone, muscle, tendon and ligament strength and toughness, for improved joint function, reduced potential for injury, for increased bone density, increased metabolism, increased fitness levels, improved cardiac function, and improved cholesterol or lipoprotein lipid profiles, including an elevation in HDL or “good” cholesterol.

So how much protein do we need each day?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That means someone who weighs 100kg needs 80 grams of actual protein per day.  So this 80 grams needs to be divided into 3 main meals and 2 snacks (ideally), to work out how much you need per meal. 

It’s important to remember that when we are taking about protein & the amount you need to consume, we are not talking about the weighed amount of protein (the meat, eggs etc) but the amount of actual protein that protein food provides you with. 

So as an example, these foods and amounts provide approximately 20 grams of actual protein:
3 large eggs, 100 grams of tinned tuna or lean beef, 80 grams lamb, venison or chicken breast.

What if you don’t like meat?

A lot of people find that to eat the required amount of protein each day is quite a difficult task, especially those who do not eat a lot of meat.  Whether you don’t like the taste of meat, cant digest it properly are a vegetarian or a vegan, there are protein options available to help to consume enough protein. 

Smoothies are all the rage, with the Nutribullet and other blenders heavily advertised as the new and easy way to get easy to absorb nutrients from the food you are eating. 

It’s all well and good putting fruit, veggies and a few nuts into the blender and thinking you are getting all the protein you need for that meal, but think again.  50 grams of almonds provides approximately 6-7 grams of protein, so nowhere close to the requirement of closer to 20 grams per main meal. 

Protein powder is an easy and very convenient way to add more protein into your diet and a perfect addition to smoothies. 

Most protein powder is whey based, but we also have rice, soy (not recommended) and our vegan protein powder sourced from golden pea.  Being a dairy producer, most whey protein from New Zealand manufacturers is from NZ whey, but this should always be checked out to make sure it is. 

Most protein powders provide around 15-20 grams of actual protein per 25-30 grams of powder.  They come in flavoured and unflavoured, except for the rice protein, which is plain.  Most protein powder can be cooked and this does not denature it.  For a quick protein hit, without the blender, we stir our “serve” into some yoghurt and stir it up.  Oh my gosh! Delicious and mousse like!

You can also get protein bars.  Again, these come from different sources – whey and soy and use different sweeteners (something to look out for).  These are a convenient way to add more protein to your diet and some can be used as a meal replacement, if you missed a meal. They taste pretty yummy, but most are chocolate coated.  As a general rule, the protein content is 20 grams, with around 30 grams of carbohydrate per bar (unless they are low carbohydrate)

Make sure you know how much you’re getting

If you don’t read the label properly your likely to be tricked with false advertising, so this is what to look out for. 

Check the weight of the entire item.  Find the Nutritional information panel on the back. Look at the serving size. Work out how much of the item this information relates to (so the entire packet, or are there 4 serves in the 1 pack) If the item weighs 100 grams and the serving size is 100 grams, they are talking about the entire package.  Look down the list for protein, then how much per serving?

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The Naturopathic Team
Ideal Health

Disclaimer: The health information presented here has been written for the New Zealand health consumer. It is of a general nature and is only intended to provide a summary of the subjects covered and is intended to be used for educational and general information purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice or as a means to diagnose, treat, cure or prescribe for any particular condition or disease. You assume all responsibility for the treatment which may be undertaken as a result of the information on this site, or treatment recommended by any other party. While all care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information, no responsibility or liability is accepted, and no person should act in reliance on any statement contained in the information provided. All health ailments should be treated by a qualified health professional.

If you need help or advice, please email our naturopathic team with your health question.  Please allow 48 hours for a response.

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