Pump Up Your Protein

Maintain a balanced nutrition plan by knowing how to get enough protein.

By Kelly James-Enger

If you want to lose fat or have been trying to eat more healthfully, chances are you're watching the amount of fat you consume. For years dieters counted total calories, slashing the amount they took in. In recent years, though, many weight-loss programs have centered on reducing fat. The drawback is when you focus only on fat grams, you may over-emphasize carbohydrates and ignore your protein needs in the process.

Protein isn't just for bodybuilders—women need it as much as men do. Why is protein such an important component of a healthy eating plan? How much do you need? And how can you make sure you're getting enough of this critical nutrient?

Read on for the reasons why protein may be the missing link in your nutritional plan.

Protein packs a punch

Think protein is only used to build bulging muscles? Think again, says registered dietitian Suzanne Gerard Eberle, author of Endurance Sports Nutrition (Human Kinetics, 2000.) "Protein serves as the building blocks for all kinds of things in our bodies—very important things like hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters in the brain, and your immune system," Eberle says. "We usually think of it as being used to build and repair and maintain body tissues [like muscle], but behind the scenes it's involved in every cell of the body."

Protein is also used to create red blood cells and it helps keep your hair, skin and fingernails healthy. It's responsible for helping produce antibodies, which fight off bacteria, viruses and germs, and helps keep your immune system running strong. Studies show that people low on protein are more likely to get sick than people who eat enough of this nutrient.

Protein supplies just 5 percent of our energy needs. "From an exercise standpoint it's not a prime energy source," says Suzanne Steen, R.D., the director of sports nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Your body wants to uses carbohydrates as fuel. It can use protein if it has to but prefers carbs."

When you work out your body relies primarily on carbohydrates, which become glucose or blood sugar, to fuel your muscles. Protein plays a bigger role post-exercise as it's critical for muscle maintenance, repair and growth. It's made up of amino acids; those amino acids along with carbohydrates, lipids and water are all components of muscle tissue.

Too much of a good thing

If protein's important, then what's wrong with the popular high-protein diets that claim to help millions shed pounds? Plenty. First of all, these plans strictly limit carbohydrates, which provide the glucose that your body and brain run on. Second, most of these plans are too low in calories, which means your body may destroy muscle tissue in an effort to fuel itself.

"When you don't eat enough calories you start to use protein as fuel, which is not what you want to do," Eberle says. "The misconception is that we burn protein for energy like we do carbohydrates and fat. But the only time we do that is in late stages of prolonged exercise, like in a marathon or ultra-run—in a state where your muscle glycogen levels are falling off." At that stage, your body will begin converting some of the amino acids in protein into glucose.

You pay a high price for this conversion. Your body doesn't store protein separately the way it stores carbs as glycogen and fat as body fat. Instead, protein is found in your lean muscle. If your body has to resort to using protein for fuel, you'll lose muscle in the process—which will hamper your overall fat loss efforts and lower your metabolism.

But then why do people lose weight so quickly on these plans? It's not because they're high in protein. It's because they limit carbohydrates, which require your body to access its glycogen, or stored glucose, for energy. On a high-protein, low-carb diet, your glycogen stores are depleted—not due to intensive exercise but because you're not eating enough carbohydrates to fuel your body. As you lose glycogen, you also lose water—it takes 3 grams of water to store a gram of glycogen. That's why people lose so much "weight" immediately on a high-protein plan—as the body's glycogen stores are depleted, you also lose a lot of water.

If you continue to deny your body carbs, you'll enter a state called ketosis where you may begin breaking down muscle tissue along with stored fat for energy. This process produces ketones, which are excreted through your kidneys. You may notice that you're urinating more frequently and you have funky, fruity-smelling breath. Studies also suggest that high-protein, low-carb diets may contribute to osteoporosis as they cause people to excrete more calcium in their urine. They can also lead to dehydration and may be linked with kidney disease.

Don't be swayed by carb-bashers—your body needs carbohydrates to function at its peak. "In the end, sugar [glucose] is exactly what we run on," Eberle says. "It's the high-octane fuel for your brain, and your nervous system. And any type of exercise that is moderate to high intensity requires carbohydrates. That's the fuel that's used." Diet plans that limit carbs can only work temporarily—once you rebuild your glycogen stores, you'll put the water weight back on. And in the meantime, you'll notice that your workouts seem more difficult, or that you don't have the energy you used to.

Where do you get your protein?

Protein is made up more than 50 amino acids, 22 of which are necessary for health. Nine of these 22 cannot be manufactured by your body and must be obtained from dietary sources; they're sometimes called "essential" amino acids. Animal sources of protein—things like meat, chicken and fish—are considered "complete" proteins because they contain all nine of these essential amino acids. However, with the exception of soy, which contains all nine amino acids, other plant proteins like nuts, beans and other legumes do not contain all of the essential amino acids. As a result, dietitians used to worry that vegetarians might not consume enough protein. The popular theory was that you should eat "complementary" proteins—such as beans and cheese or rice and beans—together to get a complete protein of all nine of the essential amino acids.

But now experts say that you needn't combine plant proteins. "The old guidelines were that you needed to eat those complementary proteins at the same meal or within a short amount of time, but now we know that's not necessary," Eberle explains. "We maintain a pool of amino acids in our body. If you eat a wide variety of plant proteins throughout the day, you should be covered as long as you eat enough calories."

Good sources of protein include lean meat, poultry and fish. Soy foods such as tofu and tempeh, beans, low-fat dairy foods, eggs, peanut butter and nuts are also excellent sources of this nutrient. Make sure you're including plenty of protein in your diet, especially when you're working out regularly. "Exercising women tend to shortchange themselves. These foods are often considered fattening," Eberle says. "Or they think it's healthier if they eliminate meat, but then they don't do a very good job of picking up other protein sources."

How much do you need?

The United States Recommended Daily Allowance for protein for adult women is 1 gram per kilogram or about .4 grams per pound of body weight. (A kilogram is 2.2 pounds.) If you're exercising, though, you need more—usually between .5 to .6 grams per kilogram, or up to .7 to 1.6 grams per pound or more if you're trying to gain muscle. In general, .5 to .6 grams per pound is a good range for an active woman, but many women simplify the math even more by trying to consume about 1 gram of protein per pound.

However, it's not as simple as taking in enough protein—you have to make sure you're eating sufficient calories overall, as well. "Protein needs are tied very tightly to calorie needs," Steen says. "If you're not taking in enough calories your body is going to use the energy coming in as protein to burn for energy. It's not going to have enough to use it for muscle building or repair or other functions in the body. That's why those low-calorie diets can get you into trouble."

If you're exercising regularly but you're not seeing improvements or feeling stronger, it may be that you're not getting enough protein, enough total calories or both. "If your body is using that protein for energy because it's not getting enough calories from carbs, you won't see the gains you want to," Steen warns. As result, your metabolism will also slow down to try to conserve energy, which is counterproductive if you're trying to lose fat.

While you may have focused more on limiting fat, make sure you incorporate sufficient protein into your daily diet. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are all essential for your health and nutrition. "The bottom line when it comes to protein is that it's essential," Eberle says. "Each of these macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates and fat—have a role in the body and one cannot step in and fill in for the other. You need all three."

When is a carb not a carb?

Low-carb candies. Low-carb bread. Even low-carb beer. Chances are you've seen some of these items at your local grocery store. People who restrict their carbohydrates on high-protein diets often carefully count every carb gram. Because of that, there have been a host of manufacturers capitalizing on this to produce low-carbohydrate versions of a variety of foods. Some companies have excluded ingredients such as glycerin, fiber and hydrogenated starch hydrolysate from the total carbohydrate on the labeling, reasoning that these ingredients don't affect your blood-sugar levels the way other carbs do, and so should be excluded as "carbohydrates" on package labeling.

A coalition of these companies approached the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food labeling, in 2001 and asked that the agency modify its labeling requirements to reflect "effective carbohydrate count" rather than total carbohydrate count. The FDA has disagreed, saying there's not enough scientific evidence to justify treating carbohydrates like glycerin differently than sugars and starches.

Currently, the FDA defines "total carbohydrate" as what's left after subtracted the weight of crude protein, total fat, moisture and ash from the total weight of the food. As a result, companies may have to change their labeling to comply with this standard—so what used to be "low-carb" may no longer be so.

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