Protein. To some, the be-all and end-all of the dieter
’s world; to others, the necessary element for muscle gains.
Protein. To some, the be-all and end-all of the dieter’s world; to others, the necessary element for muscle gains.

But what is protein? Protein is an organic substance containing carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. Each protein molecule is made up of amino acids.

There are twenty different amino acids found in the body – eleven of which can be manufactured naturally. The other nine are “essential” and must be consumed through our diets. Essential proteins (like essential fats) are necessary for proper bodily function.

Proteins are the body’s primary building material. The brain, muscles, skin, hair and connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) are all made up mostly of protein.

Furthermore, protein is required for production of the enzymes and hormones that regulate body processes such as water balance and are also critical to the antibodies that fight illnesses.

However, contrary to popular belief, protein is not used as a main source of energy unless insufficient amounts of carbohydrates and fats are consumed.

Proteins are divided into two categories – complete and incomplete. Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids and can be found in meat, fish, poultry and dairy products.

Incomplete proteins do not contain all the essential amino acids. One food might be high in one of these amino acids and another food might be low in it. Good sources of these proteins are vegetables, grains and nuts.

However, if these foods are eaten in certain combinations, it is possible to create a complete protein, since they will compliment each other. Some examples of this would be a peanut butter sandwich, rice and beans, macaroni and cheese and cereal with milk.

As I discussed in my last article (on carbohydrates), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Food Guide Pyramid” offers recommendations on how many servings pf protein sources per day. For the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans (also known as legumes), eggs and nuts group, two to three servings per day are suggested.

Again, as with the carbohydrates, a serving is a very specific amount, i.e. 2 to 3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish, a cup of cooked beans, one egg or two tablespoons of peanut butter.

Also in the protein department is the dairy group. A serving of these would be one-cup (8 ounces) milk or yogurt or 1 to 2 ounces of cheese. The recommendation here is also two to three servings per day.

The problem with many sources of protein, however, is that they are often accompanied by high levels of fat – some good and some bad. For example, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich has high levels of fat, but it’s the “good” fat.

On the other hand, a nice juicy steak is very high in protein, but also high in saturated fat. This makes much of the protein we consume much higher in calories, which can, in turn, lead to weight gain. The key is to choose the foods that have a lower fat content. Remember, protein has four calories per gram, while fat contains nine calories per gram.

It is indisputable that protein is a necessary part of a healthy diet. However, it should be noted that prolonged, unbalanced diets (such as high-protein diets) that include limited foods or food groups or eliminate entire foods groups (such as carbohydrates) can lead to nutritional deficiencies. A healthy diet is the balanced diet.

Karen Frost is the Wellness Director for Gold’s Gym of Morgan Hill. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Physical Education from New York University and is certified by the American Council on Exercise as a Personal Trainer and a Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant.

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