It seems as though every topic related to nutrition is controversial, and protein is no exception. This humble macronutrient has been getting a lot of attention lately with the rise in popularity of high protein diets and debate over exactly how much protein our bodies require for health. You’ve probably heard from someone or read somewhere that a high protein diet is the key to weight loss, or the flip side that eating a diet too high in protein is bad for your kidneys. And let’s not forget the classic debate over vegetarian and vegan diets: limiting or completely avoiding meats and animal products is good for us and the environment vs. does this type of diet provide adequate protein?
Having recently attended the Canadian Nutrition Society’s conference all about the current research on protein nutrition throughout the life cycle, I listened to researchers share their work on topics ranging from specific amino acid requirements (leucine was getting some major love!) to metabolic diseases and sports nutrition. Some of what they presented was above my current undergraduate level of knowledge, but I came away with some important take-home messages.
1. We need more!
All eight speakers agreed that current recommendations for protein intake are on the low side (1). Now, before you start downing the protein shakes and bars, it’s important to bring up the fact that most Canadians already consume more protein than they need according to the RDA of 0.8 g/kg per day. The common theme between the speakers, was, however, that the RDA may not be adequate. The issue of high protein diets and kidney health was also addressed, but there was no cause for concern over higher protein diets having a negative effect on kidney health in otherwise healthy individuals (2). However, those with diabetes or other conditions affecting kidney function should be cautious.
2. Protein quality and availability matters.
Now that we know that we should be adding more protein to our plates, the question becomes what kind? Meats are the obvious choice, and also the most available to our bodies, meaning that we are able to absorb more of the protein in meat than in plant sources of protein like beans and soy (3). When it comes to vegetarian and vegan diets, the concept of complementary proteins and protein pairing isn’t a new one, however, even if time and care is taken in making sure complete proteins are consumed at every meal, it is important to consider the reduced availability these vegetarian protein sources provide to our bodies. Theoretically you could meet your protein requirement by eating peanut butter sandwiches, but how much energy would you have to consume in peanut butter sandwiches in order to get the same amount of protein as a chicken breast? Too much.
3. Timing of consumption has an affect on appetite control.
This was perhaps my favourite topic of the day. There has been some fascinating research on the effects of protein quality and timing of consumption on appetite control and weight management. The data suggest that there is something special about eating protein in the morning that’s different from eating protein in the afternoon or evening. Research has pointed towards a higher satiety factor when a high protein meal is consumed in the morning, which may help to reduce sugar and carbohydrate cravings later in the day and improve overall diet quality. Since most people typically consume their lowest protein meal of the day for breakfast (I’m looking at you cereal), there is a clearly defined opportunity for change and the potential to apply science to everyday life. So, not only do we have another vote in favour of not skipping breakfast, but we have new information which tells us to load up on protein rich foods first thing in the morning to set ourselves up for food-success for the rest of the day (4).
And a final note for the lovers of protein shakes. Yes, they may be convenient. Yes, you might think they will help with post-workout gains (in muscle form). But if weight loss or weight maintenance are among your goals, it might be best to ease up. Why? Because although protein is known for its hunger satisfying abilities, drinking your protein reduces the satiety factor, causing you to eat more later in the day (5).
Although it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the hype and overloaded with information, going back to basics is oftentimes a good idea. Milk has been a popular choice for growing children due to its high protein, calcium, and vitamin D content; nutrients which are important for the growth of healthy bodies. Yogurt is another great choice due to all its heathy bacterial cultures that work wonders in our gut. However, somewhere along the lines (likely in the middle of our cultural fat phobia) dairy got a bit of a bad wrap for its saturated fat content, and it seemed as if people forgot about all the good things it had to offer. Repeat after me: Everything in moderation.