Whether you are considering bariatric surgery, have already undergone a procedure or have just stumbled upon this blog by accident, I bet you have had someone tell you to eat more protein. 

It seems to be everywhere in our society today. There are protein powders everywhere you look, food labels boast about protein content and whenever you are hungry someone will always say “eat some protein”. So why has protein become so pushy? Is it really that important? And what about patients that have undergone a weight loss procedure? Do they have to worry about protein? Well, first let’s talk about what protein is, exactly.

Protein is defined by Merriam-Webster as “any of various naturally occurring extremely complex substances that consist of amino-acid residues joined by peptide bonds, contain the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, usually sulfur, and occasionally other elements (as phosphorus or iron), and include many essential biological compounds (as enzymes, hormones, or antibodies)”.

So, that explains it…or not! To put it in simple terms, protein is a food group that is essential to the human body. No human being can survive without an intake of protein foods. Bodily organs such as the heart and tongue are made of protein and protein is what forms the basis of our skin, nails, hair and muscles. Protein is also used in healing–it helps stitch skin back together and heal other wounds, both internally and externally. Those are some pretty important functions! So if you want to maintain your body in a healthy manner, protein is definitely essential in your daily life.

Now that we know what protein is and why it is important, let’s review where we get protein and how much we need. For the general population, a person needs a minimum of 45 grams of protein per day (bariatric surgery patients will have higher requirements, usually no less than 60 grams per day). However, this number can vary greatly based on age, sex, body weight and certain disease states (refer to your physician or Registered Dietitian if you are unsure how much protein you should be consuming).

For most Americans, meeting their protein goal is not difficult. Protein is everywhere in our world and the American diet is full of sources. The best sources include meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, beans and peas, eggs and processed soy products. Given the many sources of protein, a typical American can easily consume 45 grams of protein per day and the average American consumes far above this goal.

Why then would someone who underwent weight loss surgery have a problem meeting their protein needs? Bariatric surgery causes a change in the GI system that is restrictive, malabsorptive or both. When we talk about the restrictive change, we are speaking of the change in the size of the stomach. Post bariatric surgery patients have a much smaller stomach and therefore cannot eat as much food at one time or throughout the day. So while most people can finish an entire hamburger in one sitting, it is unlikely that a bariatric surgery patient will be able to.

When we talk about malabsorption, we are speaking of the fact that some weight loss surgeries bypass an area of the GI tract. This means that not all nutrients that are consumed are actually absorbed and made available for use by the body. For these patients, if they consume just 45 grams of protein per day, they may only absorb 30 grams. Additionally, many post bariatric surgery patients do not have an appetite and will generally eat much less than other people. You can see how these modifications can cause a deficit in protein intake. These are some of the main reasons why so much emphasis is placed on protein after bariatric surgery.

Two other reasons why protein is important for post bariatric surgery patients is for healing and for weight loss promotion. Obviously, someone who has undergone major abdominal surgery will have some healing to do. Without enough protein, the body will not be able to heal itself and the person can become ill. As far as a connection between protein intake and weight loss, we have to be careful how we speak about this. If you simply increase your protein intake and make no other changes, you are unlikely to lose weight. However, after bariatric surgery, because the portions are so limited, we encourage patients to fill up on low-fat proteins instead of carbohydrates, sweets and fats. This change will cause a drop in overall calories and helps the weight to come off the way it should, without causing a loss of muscle mass.

So, have I convinced you that you should join “Team Protein”? If not, let me take one last stab at it. If you do not consume an appropriate amount of protein, you can experience any or all of the following:
• Flaky and weak fingernails
• Hair loss
• Muscle loss
• Fatigue/weakness

Considering that protein is readily available and is quite tasty, it seems a shame to put yourself through these things when they can be so easily avoided. So, when you are planning what to eat think first about your protein and make sure you have a quality source at each meal.

For more information on protein foods and sources visit Choosemyplate or CDC.