Let’s talk about protein. It’s by far the most well-known nutrient and sits all over our supermarket shelves - in powders and bars, cereals, yoghurts, and nutritionally complete meals conveniently bottled and ready to drink.
Anyway, the PT in your first-ever gym introduction will almost certainly question you on whether you’re getting enough of it, and because it’s so tied into gym culture people will, of course, always associate it with muscle building.
The curse of being the most talked-about macro is that protein is also, arguably, the most misunderstood (especially among nutrition novices). Yes, it is vitally important for the growth and maintenance of muscle mass. But that doesn’t mean you can sit on your sofa chugging shakes and expect to evolve into Arnie overnight. You gotta pump the iron too. And make sure the rest of your diet is in tip-top shape. And have one in a million genetics (if you’re going to get to Mr Universe levels). Oh yes, the fitness struggle is real.
Plus, protein isn’t a one-trick pony; it’s a whole field of stallions. Which leads us nicely onto the crux of this article – shifting the narrative and highlighting all the benefits that come from getting enough protein in your diet… beyond building muscle. Let us explain.
First up, and probably protein’s second biggest benefit on the human body, is bone health.
Several epidemiologic studies show greater protein intake to be beneficial to bone health in adults. Randomized controlled trials also show that protein's positive effect on bone health is made greater by increasing your calcium intake.
You might think that protein’s role on bone health could also help reduce your risk of broken bones, although the relation between dietary protein and fracture risk is unclear.
There are a number of other reasons why protein may positively impact bone health, such as increasing calcium absorption, and suppressing parathyroid hormone (too much PTH causes calcium levels in your blood to rise too high, which can lead to health problems such as bone thinning).
High protein diets have gained both support and criticism from the nutrition community when recommended as a dietary strategy to treat obesity.
While its role might be over-exaggerated by some – leading to countless ‘weight loss’ products basing their claims on a high protein content – there are a number of studies that point to protein playing a helpful role in reducing appetite.
There is convincing evidence that a higher protein intake increases thermogenesis and satiety compared to diets of lower protein content.
Studies have found that protein reduces levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, while also boosting your peptide YY levels, a hormone that makes you feel full. Win-win.
A study from University of Washington School of Medicine, even found increasing protein intake from 15% to 30% of calories made overweight women eat 441 fewer calories each day without intentionally restricting their eating.
A number of studies suggest an increased intake of protein, particularly plant protein, may lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
A 2021 study of 12,000 people in China showed that adults who ate protein from four or more sources had a 66% lower risk of developing high blood pressure than those who ate protein from less than two sources. The study also found moderation was key, with those who had the least and the most protein having the highest risk of developing high blood pressure.
Protein and its role in muscle maintenance can play a significant role in healthy ageing, especially when it comes to sarcopenia - the scientific term for muscle loss as we age.
But recent studies have also associated protein intake with lower odds of developing cognitive decline later in life. A Harvard study following more than 77,000 men and women over 20 years, found for every 5% of calories that came from plant protein instead of carbohydrates, there was a 26% lower risk for developing dementia, while substituting animal protein led to an 11% lower risk.
Protein is essential for tissue repair and wound healing. It provides the building blocks necessary for the formation of new skin cells and the repair of damaged tissues.
It’s thought that including enough protein in your diet can speed up the healing process, and a number of protein therapies have been tested on people – with positive results – to accelerate skin tissue healing for chronic wounds.
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