My Twitter timeline is full of protein pundits, quick to point out the lack of protein in a meal picture innocently tweeted by someone. I wonder if it is the tech bro culture that comes with the peer pressure that if you are not consuming enough protein, you are somehow a lesser mortal.
In any industry or social circle, peer pressure often influences dietary and lifestyle choices. It is not uncommon to find that professionals who prioritise physical fitness and wellness may adopt high-protein diets as part of their overall health regimen.
A 2017 survey shows that 73% of Indians are deficient in protein while above 90% are unaware of the daily requirement of protein. So it's good to know what your daily protein requirements are and make a rough estimate of how much protein you consume in a day.
What does protein do for the human body?
Eating protein keeps us feeling full for longer, offering more satiety than carbs or fats.
Protein is essential for muscle building, repair and maintenance. Having adequate protein helps muscle recovery after exercise and reduces exercise-induced muscle damage.
Quality protein in the diet improves body composition when combined with resistance training, by reducing body fat percentage and preserving or building lean muscle mass.
The thermic effect of food is the calories burnt to digest, absorb and metabolize the food we eat. Protein has a higher thermic effect than the other macros, causing a marginally higher metabolic rate.
Plant vs animal protein: What’s better for you?
There is always an ongoing war between advocates of plant-based and animal-based protein. The choice depends on various factors such as personal preferences, dietary restrictions, ethical considerations and overall health goals.
From a nutritional angle, plant-based protein sources are typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol compared to animal-based sources. They also contain fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, which have additional health benefits. The fiber from plant-based protein sources supports digestive health and reduces the risk of certain diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In contrast, animal-based protein has zero dietary fiber. Plant-based foods with a few exceptions provide incomplete proteins (all essential amino acids are not present) but that is not a problem as these foods when combined and eaten (such as dal-rice or idli-dosa) provide all essential amino acids.
Animal-based protein — such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products — are sources of essential amino acids in adequate proportions, making them complete protein sources. This is beneficial for individuals with higher protein needs, so they can eat more protein for fewer calories.
Animal-based proteins are rich sources of micronutrients like vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients play an important role in various bodily functions and require special attention in plant-based diets to ensure adequate intake through alternative sources or supplements.
Looking at the sustainability angle and India’s greenhouse gas emissions, 74% is from energy and 14% from agriculture. In agriculture, the biggest component of greenhouse gasses is livestock which in the context of India, more than half is dairy. Getting your protein (at least partly) from plant-based sources is definitely more sustainable in the long run.
Protein guidelines to remember
- The daily requirement of protein as per the Short Report of Nutrient Requirements of Indians (2020) published by ICMR-National Institute of Nutrients is 0.8g/kg body weight. For vegetarians and vegans consuming cereal-based diets with low-quality protein, the report states that protein requirements are 1 g/kg per day. It is good to aim for a minimum of 1g/kg body weight - i.e. 60 grams dietary protein per day for someone who weighs 60 kilograms.
- Protein requirements could be higher if you are into heavy muscle-building workouts or are a sportsperson.
- Get your protein from a variety of dietary sources so that you also get the required dietary fiber and other important nutrients.
- Read nutritional labels to know about the protein content in various packaged foods. It is also important to read the nutritional labels of protein supplements and bars which may have additives like sugar, artificial sweeteners, anabolic steroids, heavy metals, pesticides and aflatoxins, high fructose corn syrup etc.
- It is not advisable to drastically increase the protein composition of your diet. Do it gradually and consult a physician or nutritionist if required.
- Protein metabolism requires adequate hydration for optimal digestion and absorption. Make sure to drink enough water throughout the day to support protein utilization and overall health.
- While protein is important, it is equally important to have a balanced diet. Complex carbs and healthy fats also have an important role to play in the optimum functioning of our body.
Top protein-rich foods to include in your meals and snacks
(These are approximate values)
Protein in the office and on the go
- Store toasted nuts and seeds in sealed bags or airtight jars for a protein-rich snack. If you are used to being stuck in traffic jams in Bengaluru, it makes sense to keep one such jar in the car.
- Cheese cubes are not ideal as they are high fat and are highly processed but it is still better than eating bhujia or biscuits which have no protein. Each cube has around 5g of protein and unlike potato chips that ‘no one can eat just one’, you can’t possibly eat more than 2-3 cheese cubes at one go.
- When on the go, protein bars with clean and transparent nutrition labels can serve as a reliable source of protein. These bars offer convenience and can be a beneficial option for fulfilling your protein requirements while travelling or during busy periods.
- Greek yogurt can be stored in your workplace refrigerator to add a protein boost to your lunchbox.
- If you travel often on business and have long stays in hotels, strike up a rapport with the chefs who will be happy to make you simple protein-rich meals such as grilled chicken or tofu or paneer along with veggies with rice, quinoa or as a wrap.
To conclude, eat at least 1g/body weight of protein in a day, spread across meals, from a variety of sources as a part of a healthy balanced diet and active lifestyle and you will do good in the protein department.