Thursday, December 10, 2015

Protein Basics


This article was originally published in Parent Circle magazine, June 2013. I've reproduced it here as first written. The only thing that I would alter is the dairy advice. Research now shows that organic fresh dairy products are the best form in which to consume this food group. Raw, unpasteurized (heated breastmilk too loses half of it's nutritional value) organic milk is best especially for children...if you choose to give dairy. I've previously written on Plant vs Animal Protein  ...please read both for a full perspective on Protein.

     Discovered in the 1800's by a chemist named Mulder, Proteins are still the most researched biological molecules even today. The human body contains around 50, 000 different proteins, each with their unique, critical functions to perform. 

     Proteins are made up of building blocks called 'Amino Acids'. There are 20 different amino acids present in human proteins and of these, 9 are called essential. When you hear this term applied to any nutrient, it means that the body is not capable of deriving or producing this compound itself. 'Essential' means that the particular nutrient needs to be derived from food.

     Amino acids are made up of 4 basic elements  Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen. These are linked together in different ways and with side elements or molecules to give each acid their unique character and function. Amino acids are also the products of protein digestion by our gut. They are absorbed into the blood stream and form an 'amino acid pool' which is like a bank account from which the body withdraws what it needs to reconstruct different types of proteins. 

     Once proteins from food are absorbed, they don't last very long in the body.... some 3 to  5 hours. This is why we need to keep consuming different protein containing foods on a daily basis, replenishing this stock. The body functions wonderfully to utilize these amino acids within this short time. If there is an additional demand, say due to moderate physical activity, the body steps up protein production and increases it's storage in our muscles. Building of muscle mass (lean body mass) is a desirable process.

     Proteins figure in every bodily process...from formation of skin, hair and nails to making sure each cell in your body receives a supply of oxygen to lifting your little finger. They make up hormones, enzymes, genetic material, blood, bone marrow and the list goes on. They are especially critical in phases of life where growth takes place - childhood, adolescence, pregnancy and lactation. As we age, we lose more protein, therefore we need to focus even more on consumption to replenish our protein stores. 

     Infancy, childhood and adolescence are high-growth phases during which protein plays a huge role. If there is any consistent deficit in dietary protein intake at these times, the consequences can last a lifetime!

If your child's diet falls short of the first element, the following could result:

- Fatigue
- Decreased muscle mass and in severe cases - muscle wasting
- Failure to thrive, poor growth
- Irritability
- Changes in nails, skin and hair colour
- Anemia
- Frequent severe infections due to lowered immunity
- Constipation
- Slow healing of wounds
- Sleep problems

     In extreme protein deficiency, the respiratory system and heart muscles are weakened - this is seen mostly in children from impoverished families.

FOOD SOURCES can be of 2 types – Animal and Plant.....

     There is a scoring for protein called Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). Based on this, protein derived from animal sources scores higher than those from plants. Therefore, it was inferred that animal protein is of higher quality. This information has been so widely spread but is not true.

     Protein from animal sources (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and it's products) has been linked to increased risk for many disorders. Increased animal protein consumption acidifies the blood necessitating withdrawal of calcium and other salts from your bones to neutralize it. This process leads to loss of bone mass and increased risk of osteoporosis as well as erosion of teeth. There are studies now highlighting the influence of animal protein isolates on activating cancer cells. It is also associated with lowered age of puberty in girls. Excessive animal protein intake is a burden on the kidneys which have to excrete it and could damage these organs.

     But we need to view protein more as a 'food package'. Proteins do not naturally occur in isolation. Most sources of animal proteins also give you saturated fat / cholesterol, almost no fibre and not too many vitamins. So increasing your protein intake from animal sources increases your risk for cancer, diabetes and heart disease among others.

      Have you ever been asked, as a vegetarian, how you get enough protein? The meat and dairy industries in the US are said to have links with politicians responsible for food related policy making and are a powerful lobby in Washington. These industries, perceiving vegetarianism to be a threat in the seventies, spread rumours and 'conducted studies' purportedly showing that a vegetarian diet ‘lacked sufficient protein’, leading to protein deficiency. This misinformation campaign was so successful that even in India, meat eaters often ask their vegetarian friends how they manage to get their protein. In fact, especially in North India, there is still a common belief that only meat, egg and dairy consumption makes you 'strong and healthy’.

     Plant protein for years has been sidelined as an 'incomplete protein' source simply because several plant foods are missing one or more amino acids. Also, these don't fare as well in their PDCAAS scores. 80 – 100% of animal proteins are absorbed by the digestive system but absorption isn't that much less for plant proteins – it falls in the range of 75 – 90%. Recently, plant proteins have been getting lots of good press because their 'food package' is much healthier. When you consume this type, you are also getting fibre, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals which build wellness and are as effective in replenishing the amino acid pool as animal proteins.

     PLANT PROTEIN is finally being acknowledged as high quality protein by the scientific community.  This comes after many studies on vegetarians and vegans. Anyone eating whole and largely unprocessed vegetarian food, so long as he consumes a couple or more protein-rich plant foods in a day, will get more than sufficient protein for his daily requirement. This holds good even for an athlete or body-builder. Such people who consume largely plant proteins are found to have lower rates of chronic disease, are more active, more likely to be at their ideal body weight and 'feel healthier' in general.

     This doesn’t mean you need to stop eating meat, dairy or eggs. In India, most people don’t eat meat every day anyway (like they do in the west). Just ensure that you cook meat healthily with less fat / oil, choose white meat over red meat and leave out the yolk more than half the time when consuming eggs.
     Also, most people (even vegetarians) in India consume dairy products like milk, curd, paneer and cheese. These add to the already abundant protein present in a plant - based diet. Just ensure dairy products are low fat to make it a healthy 'food package'. The whole family benefits from eating this way, not just the children.

     These are high protein vegetable foods –------>  dals, pulses, legumes, sprouts, nuts, seeds and green leafy veggies like agathi, rajakeerai, kuppakeerai, sembu ilaigal (colocasia leaves), curry leaves, drumstick leaves and manthakkali keerai. (Of course, to get the benefit of the protein in greens, you have to consume a large quantity). Cereal grains like oats, whole wheat and whole rice are great sources too. Refining of cereal grains (white rice / maida) can result in at least 18 – 25%  loss of valuable protein from the grain. High protein sources which are now popular in India are nuts, seeds, whole grams and last but  not least Quinoa (originally from South America).


     If we consume a variety of healthy, whole and natural foods in a day, we will get enough protein. There are, however, specific circumstances under which extra protein may be required, for example …. endurance athletes, undernourished children, people with chronic disease, injury, infection or diabetes. In such cases, if deemed necessary, a safe protein supplement should be taken as per the doctor's or nutritionist's recommendation. Avoid taking more than prescribed.

     Protein is a big business. Avoid any brand containing the word ‘grow’, ‘muscle building’, ‘mass’, etc even if you are into hardcore strength training. If your doctor prescribes it – follow the same rule and take it for the least possible duration. Just because you train at a gym doesn't mean you need protein supplements. Be responsible for eating a healthy, well balanced diet to meet your daily requirement.

The National Institute of Nutrition states that the recommended dietary protein allowance for Indians is:

Age Group
Protein requirement (gram / kg of body weight)
Infants (0-1yr)
1.4 – 1.6
Children (1 – 10 yrs)
 1.2 – 1.4
1.1 – 1.2
 0.8 – 1
Pregnancy - 1st trimester
Adult allowance plus an additional 1 gram per day
2nd trimester
Adult allowance plus an
additional 7 grams per day
3rd trimester
Adult allowance plus an
additional 20 grams per day
Adult allowance plus an
additional 20 grams per day

If you eat all the foods recommended daily and at least 1 or 2 servings of foods recommended weekly, you will be getting around 70 g of protein or more per day! There is actually a little more coming in from your veggie intake. So don't panic that you may be deficient in protein.....this is proof that a wholesome, largely plant-based diet more than satisfies an average Indian's daily requirement for protein. For your children, based on their food intake capacity, they too are consuming more than enough protein for their body weight. Just ensure these basic food groups are a part of their diet.

Food (Protein Source)
Quantity per serving (g or ml)
Protein content per serving (g)
Recommended number of servings
 Cereal Grains (rice, wheat, millets, oats, etc)
1 roti / 1 idli / 1 dosa / 100 g cooked rice or millet
1.6 - 2
7-10 per day
Dals, pulses and legumes
100 g, soaked or cooked
3 - 4 per day
Milk and Curd (low fat)
200 ml
3 - 4 per day
Nuts and seeds
30 g
4.8 – 7.5
1 per day
100 g, raw or steamed
3 - 4 per week
Paneer and cheese
25 - 30 g
2 per week
Egg White
35 g (1, medium)
2 – 3 per week
Chicken / Poultry
24 g
1 - 2 per week
30 g
1 – 2 per week
Unsweetened Soymilk
200 ml
1 – 2 per fortnight
Plain tofu (not fried)
60 g
1 – 2 per fortnight
100 g, cooked
1 - 2 per fortnight
100 g, cooked
1 – 2 per fortnight
Mutton / Red meat
30 – 35 g
1 per 3 or 4 weeks

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hi, do give me a sense of how to serve you better by leaving a comment.