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When it comes to healthy eating, it’s not always clear what should be on your plate – and in what amounts. What is clear, according to Carla Prado, is that most people can benefit from more protein in their diet.

Carla Prado

Carla Prado

Our bodies need protein to maintain muscle mass and support biological functions such as healing wounds and regulating blood glucose levels, says Prado, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science. Without enough protein in our diets, our bodies will steal protein from our muscles to complete those biological functions, leading to muscle loss. Getting enough protein is even more important for people with muscle-wasting conditions such as cancer.

Prado recently co-wrote a cookbook with Anissa Armet, ’18 BSc, and Hillary Wilson, ’19 BSc, of high-protein recipes designed to help people with cancer – and anyone else – maintain healthy muscle mass. Here, she shares what you should know about packing more protein into your life.

Caring about muscles isn’t just for bodybuilders

Getting enough protein is critical for maintaining healthy muscles. Muscle mass is essential for movement, balance, posture, and daily functions such as opening a jar or standing up. It also fuels immune function.

When you get a paper cut, proteins rush to the site to support the growth of new skin. If you have a larger wound, say from surgery, or if you have a chronic illness, the immune system requires more protein to carry out healing. “If you don’t have enough from the diet, it’s going to come from the muscle,” Prado says. Ensuring you get enough protein in your diet can help to support healthy immune function and prevent muscles from wasting away.

Most of us could use more protein in our lives

Prado’s research focuses on high-protein diets for people undergoing cancer treatments, but she says many groups can benefit from upping their protein intake: children, pregnant women, active people, those with obesity or diabetes, and people over the age of 45.

“As we age, we lose muscle,” she says. “We’re all going to lose muscle.” But getting enough protein in your diet can help prevent excessive muscle wasting, which is preferable to trying to gain it back. Once muscle wasting starts, “it’s like a wildfire,” she says, and it can take months or years for those muscles to rebuild. Many people have muscle depletion without even realizing it, she says, as outward appearance doesn’t give the whole picture. Even people with normal body weight can have low muscle mass.

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Not all protein is created equal

When choosing protein sources, it’s important to consider what each one has to offer. In addition to having all nine essential amino acids, animal proteins tend to have higher protein density and more iron, Vitamin D and B12. For example, 100 grams of beef contains 32.6 grams of protein, compared to the same measure of beans, which contains 8.1 grams, she says. Beef also has significantly more leucine, the amino acid most responsible for muscle growth.

“Animal proteins help build muscle more than plant protein,” she says, which is the bottom line when it comes to preventing muscle loss. But plant protein has its benefits, too: it’s often rich in fibre, low in calories and low in fat. Many sources of plant protein, such as peanut butter and legumes, are also inexpensive. With the right guidance, vegans and vegetarians can meet all of their protein requirements with plant-based sources, she says.

Variety is the spice of high-protein meals

Incorporating more protein in your diet doesn’t have to mean returning to the same well again and again. In fact, it’s better not to, says Prado. She recommends finding a variety of plant- and animal-based proteins that you like to keep things interesting and diversify the benefits. Sources of animal protein include beef, pork, bison, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and cheese, while plant sources include beans, lentils, nuts, soy, seeds, buckwheat and quinoa. “It’s not just eating red meat every day,” she says.

Whisk an egg into your oatmeal in the morning. Snack on nuts and fruit. Throw some salmon and sunflower seeds into your lunch salad and add black beans to your chicken and rice bowl. She also suggests spreading protein out throughout the day rather than trying to pile it all in at supper.

Nutrition is not a solo act

“A lot of times nutrition and exercise are divorced,” she says. But muscle health requires both sufficient protein and activity. It’s like the Three Little Pigs, she says. “You can build the house of straw with nutrition, and the house of sticks with exercise,” – but the house of bricks needs both.

She says the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on people’s eating and exercise habits and warns: “We may be on our way to a pandemic of people who have low muscle mass in the near future.” To get the most out of a high-protein diet, Prado recommends adding resistance training exercises such as weightlifting or bodyweight exercises to your regimen.

Tips to up your protein intake

The trio’s High Protein Cookbook for Muscle Health During Cancer Treatment pumps protein into every meal. Here are a few tips for adding more to your diet.

  • Save a buck: Canned or dried beans, lentils and peas along with eggs, peanut butter and canned tuna, are good sources of protein that won’t break the bank.
  • Pack it in a snack: Add more protein with simple snacks like a peanut butter sandwich or cottage cheese with fruit.
  • Make it easy: You can get more protein-rich foods into meals by opting for Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, adding skim milk powder to smoothies and cream-based soups, or blending beans into soup and sauces.

| By Lisa Szabo

Lisa is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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