We see body builders and dieters guzzling down protein shakes (and giving the cold shoulder to breads, pastas and pastries) in an effort to bulk up or slim down. However, if you aren’t on a perpetual diet or trying to pack on pounds of muscle, you might not consider how important protein is for your body and what kind of protein is best.
Los Angeles internist and physical nutritionist Melina Jampolis MD, says most women, especially as they age, are not getting enough quality protein.
“Protein is really important as we age because we have a decreased ability to absorb and utilize it as we get older. The government standards, which most women probably do meet, are the lowest amount of protein you should have and are not high enough for optimal health,” she says.
Women need to eat enough protein for optimal health not only to live longer, but to keep muscles strong and belly fat at bay. Ensuring adequate protein intake, especially if you are watching your weight, is essential for preservation of muscle.
“When you lose muscle as you age, it increases your risk of having more belly fat. Due to hormonal changes, aging in women often results in the ‘butt to gut’ issue where body fat shifts from the female pattern to the male pattern causing a buildup of belly fat that can cause inflammation and increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Jampolis.
The type of protein we eat is also very important. Dr. Jampolis says there are two main types: animal protein and plant protein. “Animal protein is the highest quality you can get. It contains eight essential amino acids that you have to get from food, as your body doesn’t make them on its own. Animal protein, especially if derived from dairy, is absorbed and utilized in the body better too.”
Whey protein in particular, which is derived from dairy, is the highest quality protein as it is low in fat and can be absorbed by the body easily. “Whey has functional benefits that make it stand alone in terms of quality,” she says and it helps you lose that stubborn belly fat. A recent study found that whey protein (versus soy or carbohydrate) led to a small reduction in weight, especially in the reduction of waist circumference in a group of free-living overweight and obese people who were not put on a reduced calorie diet. Research also shows that whey protein has a greater impact on metabolism and fat burning than soy and casein (another dairy protein).
Think upping your protein intake is difficult? Try this. Add a bit more water to your morning oatmeal or cereal and add in a scoop of whey. The brand Designer Whey also makes great tasting powders that are easy to mix into a smoothie—just make sure the oatmeal isn’t too hot or it can destroy the protein.