Women & Protein

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While men frequently discuss (more like debate) protein in gym locker rooms or on the internet, women, even ones who can out-squat their male counterparts, are usually absent when it comes to the subject of proteins. It is a frequent misconception that men and women have different protein requirements; while gender can play a role, it is more often determined by an individual’s degree of activity. As a result, there are a number of misconceptions about women’s protein consumption that need to be addressed.

Protein consumption, particularly how much to consume, is a hot topic in fitness and nutrition circles. Unfortunately, the majority of the conversation is around guys, notably men who are interested in hypertrophy.

Protein is an essential part of any well-balanced nutrition plan.  However, there are vastly different opinions on how much protein women actually need.  Too little and you may suffer from weakness, fatigue, or muscle loss; too much and you may gain weight, have kidney issues, or suffer from irritability.  The appropriate amount of protein for any person depends on activity levels, age, muscle mass, body shape goals, and overall health.

Women have different nutritional and fitness requirements than men. While there are some difficult and fantastic female bodybuilders who are looking to increase a lot of muscle mass, the majority of your female clients will have other objectives. As a result, women have a number of questions that trainers must be prepared to answer:

  • How much protein should I be eating?
  • Will too much protein makes me bulkier or fat?
  • Is eating too much protein unhealthy?
  • Should I try a protein shake?

Let’s take a closer look at this macronutrient and how it’s important for women today, as well as debunk a few myths about it.

What are Proteins?

Nutrients are obtained from the food we consume. Carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are referred to as macronutrients since they are needed in higher amounts. These nutrients each have a specific job in the body, and when combined, they aid in the proper functioning of our bodies.

The word protein is derived from the Greek word “proteos” which means “of utmost importance” and correctly so because it is a major structural component of all body cells and tissues, including our muscles. Proteins are called the building blocks of the body and even as they are always linked only to muscle growth and sustenance, they can be hugely beneficial for your overall well-being and even immunity. Proteins carry out a vast number of your bodily functions, from repair growth and recovery to maintaining fluid balance and hormonal functions. Apart from these, proteins also provide the body with energy (4 Kcal/g), but this is not their primary function.

Proteins are complex structures made up of amino acids. There are various amino acids that are classed as essential or non-essential based on how they are produced in the body. The nine essential amino acids are those that your body cannot produce on its own, thus you must take them through your food.

Protein is structural. It provides the basic material for connective tissue, bones, hair, and nails. Bone health and density are essential for women, especially as they age. Getting enough protein can keep bones strong and minimize the density loss that comes with aging.

Importance of Protein for Women

The importance of proteins in the diets of women cannot be stressed enough. Here are a few ways in which proteins benefit women’s bodies.

Satiety effect – Adequate protein intake will satiate your hunger for long and regulate your appetite, resulting in that waistline you have been yearning for.

Muscle growth – Three words we are all looking for; Lean Muscle Mass. Protein will not only help you build but also recover and strengthen the muscle you have worked during exercise. Muscles, just like abs, are also built in the kitchen. The amino acids present in proteins are indispensable for muscle building and growth.

Strong bones – Proteins help make your bones stronger. A study showed that women and men with relatively lower protein intake had increased bone loss, suggesting that protein intake is important in maintaining bone or minimizing bone loss in elderly persons.

The metabolic rate of the body – Your resting metabolic rate boosts up 20-35% by protein digestion. Hence, when people consume a protein-rich diet, they end up burning more calories even hours after eating, when they are not moving around. When you are on a diet, it is generally observed that metabolism slows down. This is partly due to the loss of lean muscle. Studies have shown that adequate protein intake will help protect against this muscle loss and help in keeping the metabolic rate up which will further help in weight loss.

Hormonal balance – Protein regulates the functioning of various hormones of the body thereby, maintaining hormonal balance.

Structural pillars – Certain proteins act as basal structural components of tissues like hair, nails, bones, etc. They provide these tissues with rigidness and strength. Thus, regular consumption of enough quantities of proteins will make your hair look lustrous, keep your skin shining, and the nails great.

Wound healing – Studies have also shown that high-protein diets help wounds heal faster. As the skin gets renewed during healing two components are mainly involved in this process first is the increase in the number of cells called fibroblasts and the second is the increase in a substance called collagen which is a protein. Increased protein intake or protein supplementation thus helps in tissue repair by enhancing the formation of collagen. On the contrary, if the protein intake is low, the formation of new blood vessels is impaired and so is the wound healing.

Postmenopausal women – It is important that protein intake is sufficient in quantities in post-menopausal women. A study conducted by Gregorio et al. analyzed the association of dietary protein amount with physical performance in postmenopausal women. It was seen that out of the 387 healthy women 25% of them consumed protein below RDA and they possessed an impaired upper and lower extremity functionality.

A review study concluded that an adequate protein intake, in association with resistance exercise can help counteract sarcopenia and related bone loss in post-menopausal women. Yet another study showed that intake of dietary protein, especially from animal sources, may be associated with a reduced incidence of hip fractures in postmenopausal women.

Signs that you may not be consuming enough proteins

You don’t need to count your protein intake in grams to understand whether or not it is sufficient. There are certain signs which, if present, may indicate lower levels of proteins in your body.

  • Feeling of unusual weakness or fatigue, or constantly feeling tired
  • Sudden changes in moods
  • Brittle or damaged hair and nails, flaky skin
  • Feeling hungry a lot of the time or always
  • Getting sick a lot or staying sick longer than expected
  • Slow healing of wounds
  • Swelling in hands or feet

This being said, it is also true that these signs are relative and may not be present in all of you. It is always advisable to consult an expert as well as get yourself examined by a physician if you feel that your body is showing signs of protein deficiency.

How much protein do women need?

As stated earlier, proteins are equally important to women as they are to men. Most women shy away from consuming even the bare minimum daily recommended intake, 0.8 gm per kg. This amount is for women who are sedentary, and even moderately active women certainly require much more. Although the recommended RDA for proteins in Indian women as given by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is 0.8 to 1 gm protein per kg body weight per day, this RDA is sufficient to meet only the basic nutritional requirements.

Protein requirements in women vary according to their activity levels as well as depending on their various life stages. Requirements are greater, approximately 1.3-1.5 gm protein per kg body weight per day during pregnancy, when breastfeeding, or when a woman is recovering from a chronic illness, trauma, or an operation. Those who are active and lifting weights regularly would need to increase their daily intake adequately. 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight can serve as a guideline, the end of the range being for those into competitive fitness or vigorous strength training. It is best to evaluate your intake depending on your lifestyle.

Perhaps, the first question that comes to a woman’s mind is – ‘will protein consumption bulk me up?’. The answer, of course, is that it will not. In fact, a study has shown that it may just contribute to minimizing highly desirable lean mass loss during weight loss and help you look toned.

However, you must also remember that a very high intake of proteins, more than the required levels, is dangerous in the long term and can be potentially harmful to the body. Too much protein can cause constipation and leave you feeling bloated or may even cause diarrhea. It can even damage your liver and kidney. Hence, if you are someone who consumed less protein initially then it is recommended to increase the intake slowly in increments and not suddenly so that your body gets used to the increased amount.

How can I include Protein in my day-to-day diet?

Not too many women think about it enough and thus, their diet is more probably deficient in protein. Also, as the Indian diet is predominated by carbohydrates, it is commonly believed that including proteins in Indian diets is very difficult. But this is not true. Let’s look at the various sources of proteins, and how can they be incorporated into Indian diets.

The most common and richest sources for proteins include meat, eggs, fish, and dairy. Protein from animal sources generally have a ‘complete’ amino acid profile and are regarded as high-quality protein. Hence, if you are a non-vegetarian fulfilling your protein requirements, each day will not be much of a problem.

Now, there is another myth that revolves around protein is that vegetarians and vegans do not get enough proteins from their diets. It is true that plant or vegetable proteins are not of the same quality because of the low content of some of the essential amino acids. However, a combination of cereals, millets, and pulses provides most of the amino acids, which complement each other to provide better quality proteins.

Here are a few tips by which you can easily increase your daily protein intake.

Eat your protein source first. Proteins have high satiety levels which will leave you feeling full. This can be done by including your protein sources as starters or entrée dishes.

Snack on proteins. Avoid snacking on junk food. You can switch to sprouts and cheese for snacking which are other good sources of proteins. Pumpkin and chia seeds are other snacking options that are protein rich.

Make sure to include beans and peas regularly in your diet as they have better quantities of proteins than daals.

Include eggs in your breakfast. Eggs are a complete protein source and including them in your breakfast in various forms (boiled, scrambled, omelets, etc.) will help in fulfilling your protein requirements.

Oats are another good protein-rich breakfast option. Switch to oats instead of cornflakes for breakfast as they have higher protein contents as compared to cornflakes.

Replace tea with milk. Whole milk helps in muscle protein synthesis and also reduces protein breakdown. Drinking milk instead of tea will increase your protein consumption. You can even try adding the almond powder to milk as almonds are yet another rich source of proteins.

Eat cottage cheese (paneer) and soya. Paneer is one ingredient that is loved by many and a good protein source, especially for vegetarians. You can cook simple paneer starter dishes which do not involve the use of excess oil or fats. Also, soya is very high in proteins and great for vegetarians. Soya can be used in different forms, from soya chunks to soya flour. Many delicious recipes can be made using this high protein ingredient.

Have protein bars. If you are someone who has a sweet tooth and craves sweets, then chocolates can be replaced by protein bars. These are also good options during those sudden hunger pangs you feel while on a diet.

Consider protein supplement. Whey protein powders, pea protein powders, etc. are good supplements if your protein requirements are not being fulfilled in your daily diet. These can be kept as the last option, but their importance should not be disregarded. Using protein supplements for making protein shakes for breakfast as well as mid-meal snacks can help complete your protein requirement for the day.

Replace normal butter with peanut butter. Peanut butter is a delicious, as well as a high protein food that will help in meeting your protein needs. You can either spread it on a slice of whole wheat bread or just eat a spoonful out of the jar.

Now, there are various false believes regarding protein supplements that say they are harmful to the body and that consumption may lead to kidney issues. Patients who are already suffering from these issues can avoid taking protein supplements but for others, whey protein contains all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein and is very easily digested by the body.

Rice, hemp, and pea protein also seem to provide relatively usable amino acids. So, pea protein or a mix of rice and pea protein powders can be taken by vegetarians. Orsatti et al. have recently proposed the addition of soy protein to milk to enhance the effect of resistance training in postmenopausal women muscle.

Remember, proteins are important for women. They should not be neglected, and you need to balance them with the other macronutrients. Plan your diet with accessible and readily available sources of protein that can benefit you and your entire family in a sustainable manner. In fact, it might even be a great idea to plan a cheat meal that is rich in protein. As long as you are consuming an adequate amount of protein, do not worry about bulking up and let the gains begin.


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