Protein–It’s Not Just Muscle Food

Article by Dr. Paul Kennedy
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There was a time when protein recommendations were ridiculously low. Few eating plans or diets called for a protein intake of more than 15%. Newer suggested requirements are far more sensible and the recommended intake, depending upon circumstances, can vary from 15% to 35% of total calorie intake. Newer research has, indeed, indicated that protein requirements may actually increase not only with circumstance (exercise level and adherence, body composition, training regimens, etc.) but also with age. Why? Here are some reasons.

It makes sense that IF we lose muscle mass as we age (in many cases due to inactivity and lack of regular strength training) we require LESS protein but it is also possible that MORE dietary protein may assist in maintaining muscle mass irrespective of exercise level and adherence. And it’s not just the contribution that protein plays in the growth and/or maintenance of muscle that makes it such an important nutrient whether we are young, middle-aged or somewhat older. For example, protein is important to the health of the skeletal system. In combination with sufficient dietary calcium and vitamin D, bone health (and this includes the teeth) can be significantly enhanced —and the earlier the better in terms of age. In addition, the body’s immune system appears to perform better when protein is consumed at proper levels. This can mean less illness and better recovery from illness.

Another more subtle contribution that dietary protein makes to health is what is known as the ”satiety” factor. In other words, foods that are higher in protein generally make us feel more full and, therefore, we have a tendency to eat a lower quantity of food at each sitting and, therefore, fewer total calories and better long-term weight management. The caveat to this factor is that some sources of dietary protein may also have a tendency to be high in fats and, more importantly, saturated fats so it is essential that these types of fats are kept to a minimum. In addition, some recent research has shown that diets with higher levels of protein (about 25% of total calories) from low-fat protein sources produced a reduction in both blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

So don’t just think of protein as a muscle food. It is a far more versatile nutrient than we generally give it credit for. And with a little meal planning, finding low-fat sources of dietary protein is not all that difficult. Foods such as skinless chicken, fish, lean pork and beef prepared properly (and in reasonable portion sizes!) as well as beans, rice and many other whole grains can make up a protein rich eating plan that is low in fat and good tasting at the same time. In this way, these types of higher protein foods can become a regular part of an eating plan for life. And that’s the real definition of one’s diet-what you eat ALL the time!

I’m Dr. Paul Kennedy and that’s the ”Be Fit, Stay Fit” Topic of the Month for July 2009. Good luck with YOUR program. I KNOW you can do it!

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