In India, the week from 24 till 30 July is observed as Protein Week to spread awareness about the importance of protein in our diet. When we hear the word protein, our mind usually thinks of muscle or meat.
In nutrition science, proteins are large, complex molecules comprising of hundreds of smaller units called amino acids and form the structure of various cells in the human body. Proteins are found in muscles, bones, skin, hair and virtually in every body part. Since some of the amino acids cannot be made in the body, they are called essential amino acids and have to be obtained through food.
The importance of protein
Proteins perform a wide range of functions and also provide energy - four calories for every gram. Proteins are important in maintenance and repair of cells, hormone production, improved immune function, enzyme secretion and carrying oxygen in the body through haemoglobin.
Apart from the above-mentioned roles of protein, it is also instrumental in supporting immunity. Immune cells that are supported by protein include leucocytes, cytokines, phagocytes, all of which are involved in keeping the immune system healthy by keeping away infections. Deficiency of protein presents itself in the form of frequent infections.
Protein requirements vary with age, day-to-day functioning and physical activity. Growing phase, pregnancy and disease status (barring a few) call for increased protein intake. On average, an adult requires around 1 gram of protein per kg body weight per day. So, if a person weighs 60 kg, the protein requirement per day would be around 60 grams per day. The National Institute of Nutrition in India recommends 60 grams of protein for men and 55 grams of protein for women per day. For children, it could be anything from 16 grams to 60 grams per day, depending on their age and gender. To achieve this target, various food groups come into play.
Filling the protein gap
According to the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau Report 2017, the protein intake of urban Indians was below the recommended dietary allowance. Urban Indians consumed only 89.8 percent of the recommended quantities. This gap could be bridged by including protein-rich foods in our daily diet.
In a vegetarian Indian diet, you derive around half of your protein from cereals. But proteins from cereals do not meet the required quality. Combining two food groups (cereals and pulses) can significantly improve the protein quality in your diet. Traditionally, Indians have always eaten rice with sambar or roti with dal. This along with dairy included in a meal (curd or lassi or buttermilk), can help maintain the adequate protein quality in Indian meals.
Proteins are present both in animal and plant foods. Meats, milk, egg, pulses, dals, nuts and seeds provide protein in good amounts. Some of the grains, like millets and quinoa, are also good sources of protein. In recent years, there has been more interest in obtaining protein through plant sources rather than animal sources for human health as well as for planet health.
Studies support this decision as they suggest that plant protein is probably more beneficial for health than red meats. In India, dependence on meat as protein sources is less because the frequency of meat-eating is much less compared to Western countries. Therefore, plant foods (grains, pulses, dals, nuts, seeds) and dairy foods become more important sources of protein on a regular basis.
For those who are malnourished, recovering from an illness, are unable to get adequate protein through their meals (senior citizens), have an impaired appetite or an enhanced requirement for protein (professional sportspersons), protein powders can be useful. However, overdoing protein intake through supplements when not needed could cause more harm than good. It's best to obtain advice from a qualified dietician on whether or not a protein supplement is required for an individual.
Proteins serve as building blocks, making their adequate presence in the daily diet essential. A deficiency of protein can affect the structure and function of the body. Protein, along with other micronutrients, helps support immunity. So say 'Yes' to a balanced diet and use a wide variety of foods to ensure not only adequate protein intake but also other vital nutrients.
This article was written by Sheela Krishnaswamy, Nutrition and Wellness Consultant.
For more information, read our article on Protein.
Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India's first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.