5 Reasons We Need More Protein in our Diet

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By Amy Osmond Cook

Don’t look now, but if you’re older than 50, you’re losing muscle every day; the main reason for this loss is inadequate protein. “The average senior is consuming only 16 percent of daily calories as protein,” said Lauri Wright, Ph.D, RD, LD, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida. “This is compared with the current recommended range of 10 percent to 35 percent.” As a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Wright believes there is room for improvement. “We need to educate seniors, especially women, about the importance of protein in maintaining health and function.”


But why does protein matter so much to older adults? Protein is a chain of organic compounds called amino acids. Muscles, tissue, bone, skin, and blood all are made of protein, so when your body needs to repair or build new cells, it relies on protein to get the job done. Keep in mind; not all protein sources are created equal. We don’t need to load up on mountains of protein every day, but we do need to add protein from healthy sources every day. Before you belly up to the buffet on bottomless steak night, let’s look at other sources of protein and their benefits.


1.Protein controls weight gain.

Before you toss out your pasta and fill the freezer with a half of cow and some shredded cheese, realize that excessive protein intake isn’t necessary for weight control. Health experts suggest adults add 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight to their daily diet.


“Divide your protein so you're eating almost a third of it at each meal and a little for a snack,” wrote Janet Renee, MS, RD., Healthy sources of protein include fish, nuts, low-fat dairy, tofu, beans and other legumes, eggs, and lean cuts of meat and poultry. These foods are also packed with essential vitamins and minerals.


“Protein is important because it helps you feel fuller longer,” wrote registered dietician Trinh Le, MPH, R.D., “Having protein around slows down digestion making us more satisfied and less likely to go back for seconds.” Le added that pairing protein with carbohydrate-rich foods slows down the absorption of sugar from your stomach into your bloodstream; This may help keep your blood sugar from skyrocketing and ward off future cravings.


2. Protein is brain food.

“The brain and its long spidery neurons are essentially made of fat, but they communicate with each other via proteins that we eat,” wrote contributor Willow Lawson. “The hormones and enzymes that cause chemical changes and control all body processes are made of proteins.”

Gaining a better understanding of the role protein plays in brain development has a profound affect on Dr. JoQueta Handy and her work with autistic children. “A diet rich in protein helps brain function, brain growth and it improves a young person’s ability to concentrate and retain new information,” said Handy. Her background as a Naturopath practitioner shifts her focus to encouraging the body’s ability to maintain optimal health. Try adding chicken, turkey, or pea protein powder to your diet to maintain healthy protein levels and optimal cognitive function.


3. Lowers blood pressure

In a study published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “recent evidence suggests that an increased intake of protein, particularly plant protein, may lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.” Experts suggest yogurt and eggs to build up protein.


4. A high-protein diet may help control diabetes.

For years, people living with diabetes have been trying to control symptoms with medication. Unfortunately, patients often experience disappointing results. “In some cases, medication compounds symptoms,” said Candice Hall, D.C., a doctor with Next Integrative Health. “ A drug for every disease or symptom often only masks the problem and allows for the underlying causes to remain untreated.”


As an expert in teaching diabetics how to reverse their condition, Hall balances the use of medications with a customized treatment program designed to address the root causes. “We tend to spend much more time with our patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease,” said Hall. And that includes adjusting diet.


In an article by health writer Samantha Olson, new research presented at the 2015 European Association for the Study of Diabetes meeting found that “a protein-laden diet regimen may help Type 2 diabetes patients improve their blood sugar levels.” Studies concluded that “eating foods that digest slowly and take longer to reach the bloodstream, like fiber and protein, cause insulin to release gradually, helping the body maintain healthy glucose levels.”


5. Protein builds essential muscle mass.

Studies show that about forty-five percent of older adults in the U.S. experience muscle loss as they age. “Every muscle in your body is made up of protein. But as you get older, your body requires more protein to build the same amount of muscle because the body is less efficient at processing protein,” wrote researchers at Abbott. They suggest eating protein-rich foods like fish, quinoa, and beans.


While research on the benefits of protein in battling common diseases continues, one thing is clear — we need protein in our diet. By adding a serving of protein to our menu, we can control weight, improve brain function, control blood pressure and heart function, prevent disease, and build essential muscle mass. So break out the burgers! Here’s to our health.