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Protein – Too Much, Too Little or Just Right

proteinJacquie Eubanks RN BSN



If only we could choose the perfect amount of daily protein as easily as Goldilocks determined which porridge, chair and bed were “just right” for her. The research on the optimal amount of protein required for good health support and maintenance is ongoing. Some of us are concerned that we don’t get enough protein, while others worry about getting too much. The popularity of protein shakes and supplements is not limited to athletes looking to increase lean muscle mass, and shows that people are becoming aware that protein plays a vital role in our health management.

However, while many may look to protein simply for weight management and muscle support, proteins serve a variety of purposes, not the least of which is providing crucial life sustaining support for bodily functions. It is proteins that are responsible for a cell or organism’s unique characteristics, including the DNA and RNA responsible for our genetic code. Protein molecules are involved in virtually all cell functions, with each protein having a specific role. Some provide structural support or are involved in movement, while others defend against germs.

  • Antibodies – Specialized proteins travel through the bloodstream and aid the immune system in identifying, immobilizing or defending against pathogens.
  • Movement – Contractile proteins are responsible for muscle contraction and movement.
  • Enzymes – All enzymes are proteins. Enzymes facilitate all biochemical reactions, such as digestion.
  • Hormones – Hormonal proteins, such as insulin, regulate glucose metabolism and stimulate muscle growth by enhancing protein synthesis and facilitating the movement of glucose into cells.
  • Structure – Structural proteins, such as keratin, strengthen hair and nails, while collagen and elastin provide support for connective tissues, including tendons and ligaments.
  • Transport – Carrier proteins include hemoglobin, which transports oxygen, and other transport proteins that bind to minerals and distribute them around the body.  
  • Cellular repair – Proteins repair trauma to muscle tissue whether from athletics or injury, increasing muscle fiber and activating muscle growth. Specific proteins help cells repair DNA damage and help prevent damaged cells from replicating before damage is repaired, a critical function in preventing tumor growth and accelerated aging.

AskTheNurseProteins are made up of long molecules called polypeptides. Polypeptides are made up of thousands of complex combinations of smaller chemical compounds we know as amino acids, which link together to form chains. The sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s unique 3-dimensional structure and its specific function. A large percentage of our cells, muscles and tissue is made up of amino acids. While there may be thousands of amino acids, scientists have identified 20 that are vital for health, including 10 essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained through daily diet or supplementation. The amino acid pool, available free amino acids in the body, is vital for achieving a balanced metabolism. Failure to obtain all amino acids in the correct combination limits protein production and may weaken metabolism.

So, how much protein is too much, how much is too little and how much is “just right?” The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight, approximately 56 grams for the average sedentary man and 46 grams for the average sedentary woman. The RDA recommendation is the specific amount you need to prevent illness, but not necessarily the proper amount needed to support optimal health. Getting the minimum RDA of protein would supply about 10% of the day’s total caloric intake for a relatively active adult. By contrast, most Americans consume about 16% of their calories in plant and animal proteins.

Still, according to a special supplement to the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), “16% is anything but excessive.” While people in general think we consume too much protein, this research says we eat too little. Protein needs vary for individuals according to activity level, age, muscle mass, current state of health and physique goals, such as body building or weight loss. Physically active people, nursing mothers, seniors and those recovering from injuries require a higher protein intake. Endurance athletes or those looking to gain a significant amount of muscle mass, such as body builders, often increase their protein intake by 50% over the RDA for sedentary people.

Based on the research as reported in the AJCN article, 15 – 25% of total daily calories or up to twice the amount of RDA recommended protein is safe and within the proper range to support optimal health and body composition. This amount is more in line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation that proteins should comprise 10 – 35% of total daily calories and should include more plant proteins, such as beans, legumes or quinoa. Protein intake of 25 -35% may aid weight loss as it may provide an increased feeling of satiety, resulting in decreased overall caloric intake. It appears that protein intake of about 30% may be “just right” for many people who want to lose weight, while maintaining muscle mass.

Protein deficiency is essentially an amino acid deficiency that prohibits the synthesis of a variety of proteins, which can cause muscle loss, fatigue, depression, anxiety and low libido. Excessive amounts of protein may promote the use of amino acids as fuel rather than building material and can overburden the kidneys, which are responsible for excess protein excretion and may cause vomiting or loss of appetite. Some think that consuming very large amounts of protein will increase muscle mass, but only physical activity can increase muscle mass and strength. Protein consumption post exercise optimizes glycogen storage and promotes muscle growth, repair and restoration.

Increase your daily protein the easy way with these high quality protein formulas:

Beyond Whey - PowderBeyond Whey® by Natura Health Products – This very high quality powdered formula features Proserum®, a proprietary non-denatured whey protein concentrate that provides a perfectly balanced blend of amino acids and peptides in support of lean muscle development and optimal digestion. Provides 6 g of protein per serving. Gluten and soy free. Contains dairy.  Learn More

PaleoMeal-DF VanillaPaleoMeal®-DF (Dairy Free) Vanilla by Designs for Health – This plant-derived pea protein powdered formula is designed to promote an optimal intake of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and digestive enzymes necessary to support overall health and wellness. Peatein™ contains the full array of amino acids and includes high levels of branched chain amino acids. This easy to digest, natural vegan formula provides 17 g of protein per serving. Gluten and dairy free, Non-GMO hypoallergenic formulation. Also available in Chocolate or Berry flavor.  Learn More

Physicians' Protein Pure Vegetarian FormulaPhysicians’ Protein Pure Vegetarian Formula by Integrative Therapeutics – This formula combines high-purity pea protein and organic hemp seed to create a premium quality vegetarian protein complex that provides the full array of amino acids.   15 g of protein per serving. Soy, dairy and wheat free, Non-GMO vegetarian formula.  Learn More

Ultra Protein Plus Natural Chocolate Almond Flavor (57053)Ultra Protein Plus Natural Chocolate Almond Flavor by Douglas Laboratories® – This nutritionally fortified yellow pea protein powdered vegan formula provides 18 g of protein per serving along with essential nutrients and prebiotics. Gluten soy and dairy free, vegan formula. Also available in Natural Vanilla Bean flavor.  Learn More

Proteins. http://www.geogene.com/biology-basics.html
How much protein do you need every day? http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
Polypeptide Chain: Definition, Structure & Synthesis. http://study.com/academy/lesson/polypeptide-chain-definition-structure-synthesis.html
The Chemistry of Amino Acids. http://www.biology.arizona.edu/biochemistry/problem_sets/aa/aa.html
How do muscles grow? http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/musclesgrowLK.html
A Protein’s Role in Helping Cells Repair DNA Damage. http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2012/11/13777.html
DNA damage as the primary cause of aging. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7031747
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf


Protein – A Little Goes A Long Way

ProteinBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

The word protein comes from the Greek word proteios, meaning “the first quality.”  Protein is one of the three types of macronutrients required by the human body as an essential energy source.  Adequate protein intake, along with fats and carbohydrates, is necessary for good health.  Proteins provide the framework for every cell in the body by combining with nucleic acids to form nucleoproteins, found in the nucleus of your cells.  A steady supply of proteins are needed to build and rebuild organs, tissues, muscles, antibodies, hormones and enzymes.  Proteins are vital for metabolism and are necessary for maintaining normal growth, muscle mass, and immune, heart and respiratory functions. 

Proteins are large biological compounds consisting of amino acids strung together in a single file chain.  When we consider how much dietary protein we need daily, we really need to think about which amino acids are required.  Of the 21 amino acids coded for by the DNA of our cells, the human body synthesizes only 12 of them.  The remaining 9 essential amino acids must be consumed through our diet.  (See article “What Are Amino Acids and Why Do We Need Them?“)  Basically, dietary amino acids are a non-negotiable requirement necessary to sustain the basic processes of life.  Our bodies have a  biological need for specific amino acids in specific proportions as the body has no way to store them. 

An individual’s daily protein requirement depends on several factors including:

  • Age – A growing child will require more protein than an adult in their golden years.
  • Gender – Men typically require more protein than women, except those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Weight –  A larger individual will require more protein than a smaller person.  Weight matters when determining protein requirements.
  • Muscular exertion – A person who does physical labor will require more protein than someone with a sedentary job.
  • Muscle mass – Heavily muscled persons, such as body builders, need more protein than a more lithe person, such as a dancer or runner.   
  • Health condition – People who are recovering from an illness or medical procedure may need more protein. 

Most adults in the United States get more than enough protein to meet their needs but could benefit from getting their protein from better food sources.  Protein sources are categorized by the number of essential amino acids they provide:

  • Complete proteins, also called high quality proteins, contain all of the essential amino acids.  Animal based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products are considered complete protein sources and generally score highly on the amino acid profile.  However, these sources also tend to be higher in saturated fat.  Soybean products such as tofu and soy milk are complete proteins. 
  • Incomplete proteins are low in one or more of the essential amino acids.  Vegetable proteins, such as those found in nuts, seeds and legumes,  are typically incomplete, but they are also a perfectly good source of protein. 
  • Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that, when combined, provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids.  Complementary vegetable proteins together make a single complete protein source.  For example,  a cheese sandwich on whole grain bread or rice eaten with beans will help to achieve the essential amino acid profile. 

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends that 10 – 35% of our daily calories come from protein.  This translates to approximately 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men.  This can easily be accomplished with 2 – 3 servings of protein-rich foods per day.  Protein servings should be about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand or about 3 -4 ounces.  Protein needs can change with your activity levels and weight management goals.  To calculate your individual RDA of protein:

  • Divide your weight by 2.2 to convert from pounds to kilograms
  • Multiply the total number of kilos by .08
  • The result is your recommended total grams of protein per day

As always, balance is the key.  A varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean proteins is considered optimal. 

Protein Supplements:

New Zealand H.P. Whey Powder 92% by Vital Nutrients – This high protein whey powder is produced in New Zealand from cows that graze on pesticide-free natural grass pastures and is minimally processed to retain the utmost physiologic activity and benefit.  Available in natural,  raw cocoa, and natural vanilla flavors. 

VegaLite by Thorne Research –  VegaLite is a non-whey, vegetable-based protein powder that is low in sugar, calories, and fat.  VegaLite is ideal for vegans and vegetarians, dairy-sensitive individuals, and for anyone requiring additional protein in their daily diet.   Contains a pea and rice protein blend.  Available in vanilla and chocolate.

Rice Protein Concentrate by Biotics Research –  A natural flavored, hypoallergenic source of supplemental protein containing a full complement of amino acids.