How much protein do you need?

Recently I wrote about carbohydrates, fats, and protein, the major sources of energy in our diet. Getting sufficient amounts of these nutrients is essential to promote good health and exercise performance. Given the current trend of low-carbohydrate diets and an emphasis on protein for everything from fitness to weight loss, many people have wondered about how much protein they should eat. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Good food display

As you might expect, protein needs vary from person to person for a variety of reasons. For example, an athlete who is working out to add muscle or training for a triathlon needs more protein than a person who does less strenuous exercise. Despite these individualized protein needs, there are some broad recommendations that apply to most people.

There are two ways to estimate the amount of protein a person needs, both of which you may be familiar with. One is to recommend a certain amount of protein, in grams, based on body weight. The RDA, the amount that meets the needs of almost all healthy adults, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day. You can calculate your protein requirement by multiplying your body weight by 0.4, so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. (You can also use an online calculator, like this one)

Meeting this protein requirement isn’t very difficult. A four-ounce serving of meat contains about 30 grams of protein, an egg has 6 grams, and a cup of milk has 8 grams. Plants contain protein, too—whole grain bread and cereal has about 4 grams per serving, and one cup of cooked beans contains about 15 g. Getting enough protein is important, but there is little benefit to eating more protein than you need and excessive intake could cause health problems.

In general, most adults get enough protein but children, women who are pregnant, and older adults should make an extra effort to eat protein-rich foods. Vegetarians and vegans, especially athletes, need to carefully plan meals to get enough protein and the right balance of amino acids to meet health and performance requirements.

The other way to estimate protein needs is based on the number of calories you eat. According to the Institute of Medicine, the acceptable range for protein is between 10–35% of total calories. If you eat 2,000 calories each day, this would equal 50 to 175 grams of protein each day. For someone who weighs 200 lbs, this would be between 0.5 and 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram. Notice that the RDA fits within this range, which accounts for the protein requirements of nearly everyone, including people who have very high protein needs.

While the RDA is sufficient for most healthy people, even those who exercise regularly, it may be too low for athletes engaged in strenuous endurance or strength training. The protein requirement for endurance athletes, including runners, cyclists, and triathletes, is 1.2–1.4 g/kg per day. Athletes who are training to add muscle mass and strength—think football players in the offseason—need even more protein: 1.2–1.7 g/kg per day. This should meet both energy needs to fuel training sessions and provide adequate protein for muscle repair and growth.

For most of us, though, the focus should not be on eating more protein but to get our protein from healthy sources. For starters, several servings of protein-rich lean meat, eggs, and dairy as well as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables should meet protein needs. The emphasis should be on real food rather than processed foods with added protein. After all, no amount of granola bars with added protein will make you healthier!


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Despite the controversy, energy balance still matters.

The concept of energy balance has been in the news again this past week. Unfortunately, the media reports focused on controversial funding for a network of researchers, not on practical information that could help people with weight control. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I take the opportunity to explain what energy balance means and, despite the controversy, how it can help you achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

walking weight loss


First, it is worth explaining what energy balance means. Basically, the energy balance model suggests that your body weight is determined by the balance between the number of calories you consume and the number of calories you expend each day. It is often illustrated as “calories in, calories out” and is the basis for the most basic weight loss advice: eat less and move more.

Now for the controversy. It was recently reported that the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), an organization aimed at promoting activity and health, received money from Coca-Cola, a company that promotes the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.  Furthermore, the obesity and exercise researchers at GEBN started focusing more on the lack of activity, instead of unhealthy food, as a major cause of obesity. Whether this is truly a real conflict of interest or simply a reality of funding a non-profit health organization remains to be seen.

It is important to note that this doesn’t mean that the efforts of GEBN scientists or the concept of energy balance in general should be dismissed. In fact, the energy balance model is a simple and effective way to explain how weight gain and weight loss occur. In fact, the only treatments we have for obesity focus on changing energy intake and energy expenditure. While some suggest that the “calories in, calories out” idea is too simplistic, it certainly helps people understand why they have gained weight and provides an intuitive guide to losing weight. This is most commonly expressed as “eat less, move more” and is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program.

For most researchers, practitioners, and people in general, the focus is typically on the “energy in” and “eat less” parts of the equation. Nearly all diets work by reducing the number of calories someone eats, even if they claim that you can eat as much as you want. Common recommendations to cut back on sugar or fat tend to lead to eating fewer calories, especially if those foods are replaced by fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Since we now know that eating fat won’t necessarily make you fat, the emphasis has shifted to sugar as a cause of weight gain. And sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, are a major source of sugar for many people, especially children. So, most experts recommend consuming less soda, candy, and other sources of added sugar.

But there is another part of the energy balance model that can’t be ignored—energy expenditure. One goal of the GEBN is to emphasize the importance of activity in achieving energy balance and a healthy body weight. The focus on physical activity makes sense considering that the component of energy expenditure you can control is your activity level. This includes exercise, other occupational and leisure activity, and limiting sedentary (sitting) time, with a goal to be as active as possible throughout the day. The key is to achieve a balance between what you eat and drink and the energy you expend by being active.

The importance of exercise and energy expenditure for weight loss is shown by the members of the National Weight Control Registry, commonly called the “successful losers” because they have lost an average of over 50 lbs and kept it off for over five years. They lost weight by following a variety of diets and programs but nearly all continue to exercise regularly. This suggests that physical activity to promote “energy out” is at least as important as diet when it comes to maintaining weight loss.

In fact, if energy expenditure is high enough, a person could get away with eating almost anything he or she wants. In the 2008 Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps famously revealed what he ate on a typically day. The amount and type of foods he consumed were not what you would expect from someone so fit and healthy! Without the hours of training he engaged in each day that diet would almost certainly have resulted in obesity and poor health.

Clearly, increasing physical activity is important both for weight control and health in general. But diet matters, too. And while the energy balance model says that there is nothing wrong with having your favorite foods or drinks as long as you are active, most of us could benefit from drinking less soda and moving a bit more. In this way, keeping yourself in energy balance should allow you to maintain a healthy weight without depriving yourself too much. The key is, and always has been, to find a balance between what you eat and drink and the energy you expend by being active.


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Sometimes kids do get good activity and nutrition education in school. Here are two examples.

Earlier this week I wrote about the fact that most children will miss any meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health when they head back to school. But this isn’t always the case. Some schools include health education in the curriculum, but most don’t. But others do promote healthy eating and exercise elsewhere in the curriculum (daily PE, for example), opportunities for activity throughout the day (recess, letting kids move around in the classroom), and providing healthy meals and snacks.

This is critically important, since good nutrition and physical activity are necessary prerequisites for children to learn and grow.

kids playing


Sometimes I hear about schools that have implemented robust health education programs and individual teachers who make an effort to add activity and nutrition to the “testable” subjects they teach. I am also familiar with two educators who have made nutrition and physical activity a priority both inside on outside the classroom.

One is my brother (@mrkevinparr), a fourth grade teacher in Washington state. Several years ago he decided to address the childhood obesity problem he saw among his students by teaching about healthy eating. Since there was no room in the curriculum for this topic, he created a way to do it while teaching math. This inspired the students to think beyond their class and organize a community health fair.

The other is a longtime friend who was a principal of an elementary school (now district superintendent) in Michigan. He made physical activity a priority through several initiatives including implementing a walking school bus, installing a track around the playground, and encouraging teachers and students to exercise before, during, and after school. (Check out this video!)

So…it can be done, even in the context of an environment that doesn’t support teaching healthy habits. This isn’t to say that parents don’t play an important role in teaching their children healthy habits. But many parents don’t (or don’t know how). Considering the importance of healthy eating and activity for achievement in school and in life in general, schools are a natural place to address these topics.


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Back to school 2015: What kids will STILL be missing!

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the experience of heading back to school. But it’s really about what most kids won’t experience when they are in school—any meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.

walking school bus


It’s back to school time for kids in our area. Students, parents, and teachers are starting another school year filled with opportunities for children to learn and grow through math and science, reading and writing, and art and music. To be sure, this is time well spent since these subjects help kids build a strong foundation that will help them succeed in school and beyond, something that is widely understood and appreciated.

But children should also learn about good nutrition and physical activity, since both good health and good education are essential for lifelong happiness and success. In most schools, though, most kids won’t experience much meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health. In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. And good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most schools hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!

The message that children need to eat breakfast before school is well-known and many schools offer breakfast for kids who don’t get it at home. Similarly, lunch is an important part of the school day. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, these meals also present an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools.

The same is true for physical activity. Research shows that activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades).

The effect of physical activity on brain may be due to physiological adaptations that are associated with enhanced attention, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is delivered through physical education classes, classroom activity, recess (especially outdoors), or extracurricular activity—it’s the movement that matters!

The point is that good nutrition and physical activity support academic success and including them in schools is a natural fit. Research and practical experience shows that nutrition and physical activity have a positive effect on learning. In many ways, health education is just as important as reading and math, topics schools don’t trust parents to teach on their own, to future success.

Some argue that parents, not schools, should be responsible for promoting physical activity and good nutrition. I disagree! Since nutrition and activity improve academic performance, schools are the perfect place to teach about healthy lifestyles. There is also no guarantee that children will have opportunities to eat well or be physically active when they go home, so school may be the best chance for many kids to get these benefits.

Given that most children will get only limited opportunities for physical activity and good nutrition school, these topics necessarily become “homework.” Since most of us could stand to be more active and eat healthier ourselves, we should start by modeling good habits for our children and grandchildren.

Going for a walk in the neighborhood, going to the playground, or doing yard work along with preparing healthy meals and snacks is a good start. Parents and community members should also express their concerns to lawmakers and administrators in an effort to get more health education included in the school day. We should treat nutrition and activity like we treat other subjects. How would you feel if your child’s school wasn’t teaching math?

This isn’t new, of course. I have written about the both the importance of physical activity for growth and learning for children (and adults, too) and the impact of these missed opportunities before. And I’m certainly not the only one to take notice. Probably the most widely known advocate in this area is Jamie Oliver, and his efforts made nutrition and health in schools topics for discussion among parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians alike.


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More about the benefits of outdoor exercise.

You probably know that exercise is good for you and that going for a daily walk is associated with improved health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing.

What you may not know is that where you exercise matters and that exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health.

Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children.

I have written about outdoor exercise in the past, but recent media reports on the topic make this a good time to share new research and revisit some the benefits of being active in nature. Which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard.

jogger in woods


A couple of recent studies, widely reported by the media, highlight some additional benefits of simply going for a walk outdoors in nature as well a possible explanation as to why. In these studies, participants who went for a walk in a quiet, tree-lined area experienced greater improvement in mood—they felt happier—than those who walked along a busy street in an urban area. The researchers also completed brain scans to determine that the difference in mood was related to changes in blood flow in the brain. The finding that being active in a natural environment caused physiological changes that led to psychological benefits is exciting!

Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout. This is mostly due to the fact that you will likely walk or run faster outdoors, but other factors like wind resistance add to your effort. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, they don’t necessarily feel it. In fact, ratings of effort are lower outdoors for the same exercise.

This because the pleasant visual stimuli outdoors distracts you from unpleasant sensations of effort during exercise. This is the same reason that listening to music makes exercise more enjoyable and why fitness centers have televisions on the walls or built into exercise equipment. Think of the outdoors as a really big TV screen!

Almost any indoor exercise can be moved outdoors. While walking, running, and cycling are most obvious, resistance training exercises using body weight and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. Yoga and aerobics classes in the park are also great ways to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.

Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity are meaningful. It also means that going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances can have positive effects. At home, taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors.

Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier. So, get outside and go for a walk!

 

 

 

 

Dive in to aquatic exercise.

There is nothing that feels better on a hot summer day than going for a swim. But beyond being a fun way to cool down, swimming is a great way to get in shape, build muscle, and to help you lose (and maintain) weight. Lap swimming is about as aerobically demanding and burns as many calories as land-based exercise such as walking or jogging. (Obviously, it depends on the stroke you use and how fast you swim). Swimming is also an excellent exercise for injury rehabilitation or for people with conditions like arthritis.

The health and fitness benefits of swimming and aquatic exercise is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Aqua_Aerobics


The fitness benefits of swimming are well established. Since swimming is a whole-body exercise it uses all of your major muscle groups, building strength, endurance, and aerobic fitness. Highly trained swimmers have VO2max values, considered the best measure of aerobic fitness, that are similar to runners and cyclists. If you have doubts about the fitness benefits of swimming, think back to the last Olympics and how muscular and lean the swimmers looked.

Depending on the stroke and speed, swimming ranges between 5 to 10 METs. (METs are units used to measure the intensity of activity; one MET is equivalent to sitting at rest) For example, doing the backstroke at a moderate speed is about 5 METs while swimming laps freestyle with vigorous effort is about 10 METs.

This range is similar to walking at 4 mph up to jogging at a 9 minute per mile pace. What if you are just spending time in the pool or lake rather than swimming laps? Swimming leisurely is 6 METs, still a decent workout.

Swimming is a great way to burn calories, too. Even at a moderate pace, swimming laps for 30 minutes can burn over 200 calories. The exact energy expenditure depends on the stroke (butterfly is highest, backstroke is lowest) and the speed, but for most people swimming will burn as many calories as spending the same amount of time exercising on land.

There are two major reasons for this. First, water is more dense than air, so you need to expend more energy to move your body through the water. Second, swimming is a whole-body exercise which requires more muscle activity compared to walking or jogging which mostly involve the legs.

You may be surprised to learn that novice swimmers expend more energy per lap than elite swimmers. For example, one study showed that competitive swimmers expend only 280 calories to swim a mile, while less experienced swimmers burn about 440 calories to cover the same distance. The reason for this is that experienced swimmers are more efficient, so they expend less energy.

Aquatic exercise is popular for both therapeutic and fitness purposes, especially for people who don’t tolerate exercise on land well. When you are submerged up to your waist, 50% of your weight is supported; when you are up to your chest, about 75% is supported. This reduces the impact of exercise in the water, perfect for people who have arthritis, osteoporosis, severe obesity, or who are recovering from injuries.

Exercise in the water doesn’t have to mean swimming laps. Water aerobics, aqua walking or jogging, and resistance training using foam “weights” or webbed gloves offer safe ways to increase strength and endurance for almost everyone. Most fitness facilities that have a pool offer group aquatic exercise classes and you can find instructions online for exercises that you can do in your own pool.

If you are interested in using your pool for exercise, you can find information about aquatic exercise in general here and links to suggested exercises here. You can learn more about aquatic exercise specifically for arthritis and fibromyalgia, too.

The hot summer weather makes swimming and other water exercise appealing. But even if you don’t use the time for exercise, spending time playing in the pool or lake can still burn as many calories as going for a walk and is a great way to have fun and cool down!


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
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Know your nutrients: Protein

For the last two weeks, I have written about carbohydrates and fats. This week in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard I am covering protein, another essential macronutrient in your diet.

Protein-rich_Foods


Protein is part of all cells and is the main component of muscles. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. The human body requires 20 amino acids for the synthesis of its proteins. Your body can produce some of these amino acids, so they are called non-essential because you do not need to get them from your diet. There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and are obtained only from food. If the protein in a food supplies enough of the essential amino acids, it is called a complete protein. An incomplete protein is one that does not supply all the essential amino acids.

All meat and other animal products are sources of complete proteins. These include beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, and milk products. Protein in plant foods (such as grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables) are either low in or lack one or more of the essential amino acids. These food sources are considered incomplete proteins. One exception is soy protein, which contains all of the essential amino acids.

Plant proteins can be combined to form a complete protein. This is called complementing. Examples of complementing plant proteins are food combinations such as rice with beans or black-eyed peas, beans with corn or wheat tortillas, and hummus, which combines chick peas with sesame paste. Since plant sources of protein are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat, there are health benefits from getting more protein from plants.

A diet low in protein could lead to poor growth in children or result in muscle loss. For this reason, many people, especially athletes, are concerned about their protein intake. The typical diet for most people contains more than enough protein, so this concern is often unwarranted. People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets do need to pay extra attention to their protein intake. This is especially true for vegetarian athletes.

The amount of recommended daily protein depends on age, medical conditions, and activity level. The recommended intake for protein is 0.8 g protein per kg of body weight (or about 0.4 g protein per pound), so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. In general, two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults. For example, four ounces of meat contains about 40 g protein, one cup of cooked beans contains about 15 g protein, and two slices of whole wheat bread have about 6 g protein.

Protein needs are higher for children, pregnant women, and athletes. That said, the average American’s protein intake is sufficient for most of these special situations. While athletes who are training to add muscle require much more protein than the typical adult, the average intake of most athletes is sufficient to meet these needs. In cases when it is not, the recommendation is to get extra protein from food, not supplements.

Since you probably get enough protein in your diet already, you should focus on healthier sources of protein. Select lean meat, poultry without skin, fish, lentils, and legumes often. Also try adding soy protein to your diet by eating tofu, soy milk, and soy beans (edamame) since soy protein contains beneficial compounds called phytochemicals. As always, you should get your protein by eating naturally protein-rich foods rather than through supplements or processed foods with added protein.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr