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Protein and bloating

Posted 4 years ago by Brendan

With the London Olympics well under way, a lot of us are finding ourselves extra motivated to get fit and healthy. You don’t see too many bloated bellies squeezed into swim trunks now do you? For those involved in sport or fitness protein is particularly important as it helps to aid recovery following strenuous exercise. When used to supplement a healthy diet and ensure adequate protein intake rather than replace a whole food diet, protein powders can be an effective and convenient way of helping to improve recovery, body composition (fat loss), immune function and general health. However for those prone to bloating and digestive issues (for more on what bloating is click here), protein powders can be a trigger for uncomfortable bloating, flatulence, indigestion and other digestive complaints. Here we’ll take a look at why protein is so important and what options are available and suitable for bloating sufferers.

Why protein?

Made up of 20 different amino acids, proteins are essentially the building blocks of life. Like different coloured Lego blocks, different combinations of amino acids make up our cells, structural tissues (bone, muscle, collagen, hair, etc), hormones, immune cells, enzymes, neurotransmitters and so on. Muscles for example contain the amino acids Leucine, Isolucine and Valine, the delicate lining of our gastrointestinal system requires Glutamine to replicate while Tyrosine is needed to synthesize many of our metabolism regulating hormones and neurotransmitters. Without protein we’d be unable to replace old cells and pretty soon serious problems would develop. 10 amino acids we can manufacture from others (the non-essential amino acids), while the other 10 (the essential amino acids) we must regularly obtained from the diet as we aren’t able to produce these ourselves.

Quinoa is not only a carbohydrate to replace rice or potatos in your meal, but also an excellent source of complete protein! Image from www.thefoodremedy.co.uk

For an average adult, the amount of dietary protein required simply to maintain homeostasis is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight - that’s around 50 grams of protein per day (almost two 100g pieces of chicken breast) for a 60kg person just to maintain normal physiological function i.e. to fuel getting up in the morning and going about your normal routine. For athletes to keep up with the increased demand strenuous physical activity places on the body (the need to replace cells damaged by exercise), their daily protein requirement can be more than 2.0 grams of protein for every kg of body weight – about 140 grams of protein (more than four cooked chicken breasts) for a 70kg athlete.

Protein deficiency

While the extreme is malnutrition and starvation, plenty of people simply don’t eat enough protein to adequately supply all the body’s amino acid dependant processes each day. When insufficient protein is consumed, processes that aren’t essential for acute survival (like rebuilding muscle, hair or nails) are ignored in favour of ensuring life preserving processes (such as renewing organ or blood cells) are maintained. Common signs of protein deficiency include:

  • Weight loss
  • Easily fatigued or lethargic
  • Muscle weakness, stiffness or cramps
  • Easily wounded or injury
  • Slow healing cuts, wounds or scratches
  • Pale, dry or delicate skin
  • Brittle or thinning hair or nails
  • Regular headaches
  • Feinting
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depression, sluggishness or moodiness

Protein and digestive upset

Protein is primarily broken down by hydrochloric acid in the stomach and pancreatic protein enzymes in the upper small intestine, so that its constituent amino acids can be absorbed into the circulation via capillaries in the small intestine. Failure to effectively digest protein in the upper gastrointestinal tract (to read more about low hydrochloric acid levels click here) allows larger undigested proteins to pass into the bowel where it is often decomposed by bacterial putrification – a process that can lead to diarrhoea, cramps, flatulence, bloating and other digestive complaints. For more on bloating and flatulence click here

Protein powders for bloating sufferers

For bloating sufferers, there are two important points to consider when selecting a protein powder that won’t aggravate your digestion.

First, what type of protein is it? The vast majority of readily available protein powders are made from whey – a derivative of cow’s milk. While whey contains an amount and concentration of the amino acids we require, anyone who experiences bloating or other digestive issues after consuming dairy is likely to suffer with whey. For those with a lactose intolerance (an inability to digest milk sugar) rather than a milk protein allergy, powders containing 100% whey protein isolate should be ok but avoid whey protein concentrate or combination formulas. To read more about lactose intolerance click here. For those sensitive to dairy protein, vegans or simply the health conscious; vegetarian protein from hemp seed, chickpea, brown rice or even algaes (spirilina, chlorella, etc) are good alternative. These are generally easier to digest and more alkaline forming than animal protein while also providing essential fatty acids, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Second, what else is in the powder? Most protein powders designed for sport or bodybuilding will be rich in carbohydrates to boost the overall calorie content (to provide more energy or increase body mass) or flavour the powder. Not to mention any number of additional artificial colours, flavours, caffeine or other so called performance enhancers. If your digestion is not robust, you want to avoid overburdening it with the task of processing a long list of ingredients. Adding easily fermented carbohydrate is also just asking for the gut flora to ferment and produce copious amounts of intestinal gases that promote bloating, distension and abdominal discomfort. For more on what causes bloating click here. So go for a product that contains 100% protein or one that contains as few other ingredients as possible.

Getting enough

Whether you’re inspired by Olympian physiques and athletic achievements or you simply don’t eat enough protein, a good quality easily digested vegetarian protein (or combination of say hemp, chickpea and brown rice protein) added to drinks, smoothies or food, can be an easy way of ensuring you get enough protein without having to make an Olympic effort in the kitchen. 

If you've tried protein powders tell us about your experience here... 

About Brendan O'Loughlin

Brendan is a integrative naturopath, nutritionist and yoga teacher. He has completed training in Naturopathy, Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Yoga, Iridology and Live Blood Analysis.

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