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Protein facts

Choosing your protein source is as important as how much dietary protein you consume.


MOST OF us worry about whether we are getting enough protein in our daily diet. Some weightlifters and bodybuilders still believe that unless you chomp through a pound of flesh daily you cannot build big muscles. All those stories about Dara Singh in his prime drinking litres of milk and eating a few chickens every day surely have something to do with this mindset. In the minds of many people, a nutritious diet is a "high protein" diet, and diet gurus like the late-lamented Atkins make protein seem like an appetite-suppressing slimming tool.

So how much protein do you really need in your food? Unlike carbohydrate and fat, the body cannot really store dietary protein. However, it needs a minimum amount of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) daily to prevent breakdown of tissue proteins, and this adds up to about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a man weighing 70 kilograms will need no less and no more than 70 grams of high quality protein to maintain health.

But surely weight lifters and bodybuilders need lots of protein to build those bulky muscles? Yes, bodybuilders and weightlifters need more dietary protein than the average Johnnie, but not more than 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kg body weight. Even the most hardcore, steroid-abusing, iron-pumping body will have little use for more than 2 gms/kg/day. The extra protein is simply converted into fat, which is an additional burden because meat contains a lot of fat anyway.

We all know that plant protein, with the exception of soy protein, lacks some essential amino acids, and that a mixture of plant foods (e.g. Chapattis and beans) make up for mutual deficiencies in essential amino acids, but in practice very few of us plan our daily meals this way. It is probably more practical to have a 50 gm slice of chicken or fish everyday.

Eating excess protein weakens the bones, and excreting the products of protein metabolism requires a lot of water and places great demands on the kidneys. People suffering from severe loss of renal function, usually due to chronic hypertension and diabetes, need to drastically cut down on dietary protein. Choose your protein carefully. Most adult Indians lack the enzymes to digest milk unless it is fermented into curd. Besides, milk contains very low quantities of protein, and you have to drink it by the quart to get 70 grams' worth. Red meat is rich in complete protein, no doubt, but it also contains lots of saturated fat. If you must include a non-vegetarian diet, stick with egg whites, chicken, fish or very lean cuts of red meat, and cook with as little oil as possible.

R.M

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