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Be it getting in shape or boosting immunity, protein has a role to play in every aspect of our lives. That’s why it is often called the building block of life. But, when it comes to absorption, protein needs the support of other nutrients.
So, let’s understand how this works and what you can do to improve protein absorption.
We all know that protein-rich sources include eggs, meat, legumes, tofu, nuts, quinoa, and seeds but how many of us know how protein works within our body? Now is the time to understand how proteins travel from our food into the circulatory system.
To begin with, our stomach and pancreas play an important role in the absorption process.
The absorption process begins the moment you start chewing. Once a protein source enters your stomach, it is broken down into smaller chains of amino acids by pepsin. Pepsin is a digestive enzyme produced by the cells lining the stomach that helps break down protein chains into smaller and smaller pieces. The pancreas then uses peptides to connect these amino acids, which are then broken down further by proteases.
Next, amino acids are taken to the bloodstream and liver. From here, they are sent to cells in various parts of our body to begin repairing tissue and developing muscle.
“There’s no need to remember these scientific terms but it is very important to understand how the absorption process works to avoid health problems. For example, to avoid protein malabsorption and absorb protein properly, we must focus on enhancing our gut health and pancreatic sufficiency. We must adopt an active lifestyle that includes eating an alkaline-rich diet, minimizing stress, and engaging in regular exercise,” suggests Ms Lavleen Kaur, a renowned dietician and co-founder of Diet Insight, a nutrition and wellness clinic.
Now that we know how protein absorption works, let’s look at how we can improve this process.
Keep in mind that you must choose food with whole proteins that include all nine necessary amino acids. This is the first step towards boosting your protein absorption.
1. Increase protease-rich food in your diet
Protease is an essential digestive enzyme that helps break down protein into small peptides and amino acids for better protein absorption. Food items rich in protease include fig, kiwi, mango, papaya, pineapple, and yoghurt.
2. Consume digestive drinks before a meal
In addition to choosing the right protein sources, you can also adopt certain habits to help efficient protein absorption. Drinking ginger water, apple cider vinegar water, lemon water, or even orange juice in mid-mornings (occasionally) is the best method to activate your digestive system. You can also have isabgol or curd as a source of probiotics before your meals. The amount of isabgol intake differs from person to person but remember that excess of anything can turn out to be harmful to your body.
3. Develop food synergy
Protein cannot be completely digested on its own. Therefore, it is recommended that you consume it in combination with other nutrients. You can either have whole grains with legumes and nuts with fruits. For example, if you’re having dal for protein then you should combine it with rice (for complex carbs). This is because the protein in dal is only absorbed when methionine from rice mixes with the lysine from dal.
4. Improve gut health
The most effective way to improve gut health is through maintaining a proper diet. So, don’t forget to include raw fruits and vegetables in your daily diet. My advice would be to eat raw vegetables in the form of salads 30 minutes before your meal to improve protein absorption as well as your gut health.
5. Chew slowly
Chewing the food slowly and properly will allow the food to break down optimally in the pancreas. If you eat your food too quickly, then there will be a rush of protein and amino acids in the stomach which will leave your stomach in a sudden shock and alter your immune system resulting in gut health issues.
6. Moderation is key
Avoid eating high-protein food in excess because excess protein could lead to various health problems. Excess protein intake could lead to proteinuria, abdominal indigestion, fat accumulation, and even obesity. Instead, focus on maintaining a balanced diet while ensuring that each meal consists of a sufficient amount of protein.
According to RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances), 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is recommended for an average inactive adult. For those with an active lifestyle, anywhere between 1 to 1.5 grams per kg is enough to meet the requirement.
Instead of focusing solely on the amount of protein consumed, we should consider whether the protein we consume is being absorbed effectively or not.
“Protein is a big nutrient made up of smaller compounds known as amino acids. Only 11 amino acids can be produced by your body out of a total of 20. The remaining nine are known as essential amino acids because they can only be obtained from food,” highlights Lavleen Kaur.
We get these nine essential amino acids from protein-rich sources such as eggs, chicken, meat, etc. However, this doesn’t mean that vegetarians don’t have sufficient sources of protein available to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a non-vegetarian or a vegetarian. The only thing that matters more than protein sources is protein bioavailability (easy digestion and absorption of protein).
Dietary supplements are available in a variety of forms such as powders, pills, and liquids. While ready-to-drink protein smoothies are available in liquid form, protein supplements are also available in powder form.
There are many different forms of powdered protein supplements available, both animal and plant-based.
For example, L-glutamine is a type of amino acid that is beneficial for gut health, muscles, tissue repair, and overall growth. You can obtain L-glutamine naturally through food sources such as chickpea, fish, cabbage, lentils, beans, tofu, etc. If your body needs extra protein, your first preference should always be real food.
“Common supplements like Whey Protein may be consumed if you are unable to meet your daily requirements with food after consulting with a nutrition professional or a dietitian. Regardless of what the supplement brands claim, remember that the only benefit of supplements is ‘convenience’. Quality nutrition comes from food. Our digestive systems are built to break down food, not artificial nutrients. So, try not to fall for a fancy product when you watch your favourite influencer posing with it on Instagram. Avoid consuming supplements unnecessarily,” says Lavleen Kaur.
There is something known as BCAA supplement (branched-chain amino acid) that is gaining popularity these days because it allegedly increases muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS refers to the rebuilding of muscle tissue, which occurs as a result of stress on the body, such as injury or exercise. The truth, however, is that if your diet contains complete protein sources, you are already getting your BCAAs without having to consume artificial sweeteners, flavourings, and colourings that are often highly synthetic in nature.
In a nutshell, even if you consume a lot of protein-rich foods and supplements, you will not reap the benefits. So, to ensure adequate absorption of the consumed protein, pay attention to your gut health first which can be easily achieved through a healthy lifestyle!