Saturday, June 9, 2012


Protein is a food component that is essential for body growth and maintenance. After water protein is the most abundant molecules in the body. They are also the major structural component of all living cells. If adequate intake through every day food is not ensured many deficiency symptoms are manifested and therefore minimum daily intake has to be arrived at to prevent such contingencies. Usually terms like Dietary Reference Value (DRV) and Population Reference Intake (PRI) are used by nutritional experts to indicate the levels of protein that need to be consumed daily for different segments of population. Protein needs vary from people to people and they depend on variable factors like age, gender, level of physical activity, etc. Each country arrives at these values in consonance with international bench mark standards. While children and adolescents in general require more proteins, adults and grown ups need lesser proteins for keeping good health. As protein is an integral part of growth phase, its need for growing children is naturally higher as expressed in terms of unit body weight. 

Deficiency of proteins was a burning issue during nineteen fifties, sixties and seventies and most populations in countries in the African, Asian and South American continents were identified as targets requiring massive need for protein foods of good quality. Many government nutritional programs were launched to evolve low cost protein-rich foods for distribution in these protein-stressed countries and reduce or prevent malnutrition-precipitated disease like Kwashiorkar, Marasmus etc. It was later realized that protein deficiency alone could not be blamed for the poor health conditions of people here and energy deficiency also contributed its part in depriving the people of normal healthy life. Ultimately it is the economic conditions that prevail in these countries which are responsible for denying the economically weak population access to good foods, balanced in terms of calories and proteins, besides micro nutrients. In all nutrition interventional programs, it is important to set up bench mark standards for assessing the status of the target population vis-a-vis protein adequacy in the diet. It is here that DRV and PRI become highly relevant. If PRV figures are low, it is necessary to segregate that segment of the population who are not able to afford intake of proteins to the average figures. Efforts must therefore follow to ensure proteins as per DRV are supplied under nutritional programs.

There has never been unanimity among nutritional pundits regarding the minimum protein intake that is necessary for good health. As a thumb rule 25% of energy intake can be accounted for by the proteins present in the diet. But each country tries to come up with its own daily intake values for various nutrients though international agencies like WHO and FAO have well established nutritional guidelines. Why it is necessary to evolve separate standards for each country is still not clear and what is the problem in following these guidelines arrived through extensive inter-country consultations, is not very obvious. Americans and Canadians preach to consume 46 gm of proteins daily by the women in the age range 17-70 while the corresponding figure for men is 56 gm. Further an average figure of 0.85 gm per kg body weight is followed as a general rule. Protein intake can be as high as 125 gm per day for very active people like athletes and heavy duty workers. Health food industry promotes a diet rich in protein, low in fat and medium levels of carbohydrates (about 50%of calorie intake). 

Recent efforts by the European Food Safety Authority to set out minimum protein targets required for good health are some what puzzling.  According to its latest recommendations an average adult needs about 0.83 gm of proteins daily working out to about 58 gm for a person with 70 kg body weight. Except for a minor change these figures are practically same as that existed before and why this exercise was needed is intriguing. After all, in most countries in Europe where meat based diets predominate, even a small portion of chicken, about 75 gm in weight provides about 30 gm of proteins, more than 50% of the daily need and protein deficiency is a non-issue. Obviously these values have been revisited for guidance to the industry for arriving at figures for inclusion in the nutrition information in the front of the label packaging. Where the new guidelines are more illuminating is the attempt to put down DRV figures for infants, children, adolescents, pregnant women and breast feeding women separately which probably makes some sense. Additional intake of proteins to the extent of 1 to 28 gm per day during different stages of pregnancy as being suggested is indeed welcome.  Recommendation for increased protein intake to the extent of 19 gm a day for breast feeding women for the first 6 months and 13 gm there after is also very eminent. 

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