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Importance of Protein in diet

Nutrition is a key pillar of sound physical health and cognitive abilities. It is widely believed that ‘we are what we eat’. Like carbohydrates and fat, protein is a “macronutrient,” meaning that you require relatively large amounts of it to stay healthy (“Vitamins and minerals, which you only need in small quantities, are called “micronutrients”).

Unlike carbohydrates and fat, your body does not store protein, so it has no reservoir to draw from when you’re running low. The English word “protein” originated from Greek, “proteios”, meaning prime or primary. This is rather fitting because protein is the fundamental component of tissues in all animals. Proteins are essential at all stages of life, even after growth and development, since humans constantly lose protein through normal physiological losses, which therefore needs to be replenished. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Our body needs dietary protein to supply amino acids for the growth and maintenance of our cells and tissues. Much like iron and calcium deficiency, protein deficiency is a common issue among Indians.

The most common mis-beliefs are that a protein-heavy diet is required only by body-builders, gym-goers and sports persons. According to Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in its report ‘What India Eats’ a meagre 5% of rural Indians and 18% of the urban populace consume the recommended amount of good quality proteins. The 2018 IPSOS study stated that 84% of Indian vegetarian and 65% of non-vegetarian diets are protein deficient. Similarly, in a 2017 survey by Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB), it was found that 73% of urban Indians (in seven major cities across the country) consume protein deficient diets and 93% are unaware of their daily protein requirements. Indians on an average eat more simple carbohydrates (rice and flour), less complex carbohydrates, less protein (both animal and plant-based) and less fruit and vegetables compared to the newly published dietary recommendations.

The Indian Consumer Market 2020 report revealed that in urban areas – beverages, refreshments and processed foods account for the highest monthly expenditure, while rural households spend the most on cereals; Indians spend only one-third of their food budgets on protein-rich foods. Various myths surround protein consumption including its digestibility, role in weight loss and muscle development, source of protein and so on.

Are you getting enough Protein?

We may count calories and restrict oil, salt and sugar but we should also make sure that we are getting sufficient protein. Our dietary protein requirement changes throughout the course of our life. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends that adults should consume at least 0.83 g of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day.  Protein requirement and intake will vary based on various stages of life and for athletes, pregnant and lactating mothers, kidney & liver patients etc. A deficiency of protein can lead to several health issues like slow growth, muscle loss, weak immunity, cardiac and respiratory conditions. The value of protein in our diet is often severely underestimated or misunderstood, leading to deficiency. If you are unsure about the amount of protein you are getting and if it is enough for you, here are few signs that you may be consuming a protein-deficient diet –

  • Poor wound healing
  • Nutritional deficiencies like anaemia, kwashiorkor, Marasmus etc.
  • Loss of muscle mass and strength.
  • Pain in muscle, bone and joints.
  • Low immunity.
  • Skin, hair and nail problems
  • Mood swings and food cravings.

Why should you care about making sure you get enough protein?

Protein is made up of 20 building blocks known as amino acids. Amino acids are not stored by the human body; hence they need to be constantly replenished. Nine of the 20 amino acids are not synthesised by the body and thus must be sourced from the food we eat every day.

Here are some of the important functions of protein.

  • Growth and maintenance.
  • Structural part of enzymes required for many biochemical reactions.
  • Structural part of hormones which are key messengers in the body.
  • Providing rigidity and stiffness to cells and tissues all over the body.
  • Maintaining ideal pH and balancing fluids.
  • Bolster immune health.
  • Providing energy  
  • Transporting and storing nutrients.

How to include right amounts of protein in your diet?

A quarter or 25% of a perfect plate of food should consist of protein and you should include it in both main meals and protein rich snacks as midday meals. Meeting your daily protein requirement can be easily achieved by including a variety of foods from plant and animal sources like meat, fish, eggs, dairy and dairy products, nuts and seeds, legumes like beans and lentils. 

We need to focus not only on the quantity but also the quality of protein we’re consuming. High quality protein includes proteins from eggs, chicken, fish, skimmed milk and soy. Whole pulses, lentils, sprouts should be consumed in combination with cereal to make up a complete amino acid profile. A fist-full of nuts, roasted peanuts, chana or seeds can also be included as mid meal snacks to enrich our diet with protein.

Edited By: Aishwarya Raviganesh

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