There is a growing awareness about the importance of good health and proper nutrition in India. Consequently, more and more people are making a conscious effort to eat better with each passing day. While many have adopted an active lifestyle and track their daily steps, even more Indians are trying to eat their way to fitness by choosing foods and snacks in which protein is advertised as the primary nutrient.
This has given rise to numerous protein-infused and protein-rich foods and snacks beyond shakes and nutrition bars. Today, you could get ice cream, chips, coffee, breakfast cereal, chocolate, dosa, and idli batter screaming out their protein content. Simrun Chopra, a Bengaluru-based deep health coach, attributes this to the rise of halo foods that have been glorified due to special marketing terminology. “Presently, people associate high protein with being good and healthy. People have this notion where they associate protein with weight loss,” says Chopra.
But do we really need so much protein in our diet whether we work out or not? And does eating protein-enriched foods mean that you are eating your way to health?
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Protein plays an important role in human diets. Adequate dietary protein is essential during growth when new tissue proteins are being synthesised. As per the recent recommendations, adults need 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of their weight each day, while the estimated average requirement is 0.66 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, says Deepti Khatuja, the head of Clinical Nutrition at Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram. However, in some cases, people may require more than this recommended amount. “For example, during pregnancy, additional protein is necessary for the synthesis of foetal, placental and maternal body proteins that increase with the increase in maternal body weight,” she says.
Of the total daily protein requirement, at least half of it should come from high biological value protein sources. Indian diets are primarily rich in carbohydrates and fats while lacking in protein, admits Khatuja. She advises eating carefully planned meals with natural protein-rich foods in all meals. “In main meals, natural protein sources such as dal, legumes, pulses, low-fat milk and milk products, lean meat, and egg whites can take care of a person’s normal protein requirements, and there is no need for excess proteins until unless is medically required. If you need more protein, you could easily get it in your mid-meal snacks, which could be natural protein-rich foods such as sprouts, roasted or boiled chana, a fistful of nuts,” suggests Khatuja.
So what of the plethora of protein-rich foods on the rise? As with many processed food products, the terminology is misleading, and one must not neglect to read the label. “Most products have more carbs or fats than protein. These so-called health foods are not necessarily healthy,” says Chopra, adding that many bars use low-quality protein sources and have large amounts of sugar and are high in calories. Some can have similar calories to an entire home-cooked meal. “If you are going to have a protein supplement, it is best to go with a high-quality protein without the added gimmicks. Hence a simple whey protein shake with water over a protein bar or snack,” says Chopra.
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And yes, too much of a good thing, including protein, can have adverse effects on your health, warns Khatuja. Some of the common problems include disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis, disorders of the renal functions, kidney stones, acute kidney injury and excessive calcium loss, among others. "Excessive consumption of animal proteins is associated with hyperuricosuria (a condition wherein the body produces too much uric acid). Red meat, a natural protein source, increases the risk of large bowel cancers and breast and colorectal cancers. Red meats are also a source of dietary saturated fats, and this is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases," she adds.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor, and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.