Our Obsession with Protein Part II: The Straight Facts

I’ve gone off on a philosophical tangent lately in the blog. Now that we’ve moved into earthy Taurus, it’s time to ground back into some practical information and straighten the record about protein. In the first segment of this topic, I introduced you to the big-picture-importance of protein, and the reasons why we’re obsessed with it at this particular time. Today, we get down to the nitty-gritty details of why we need it, and how much we need.

I recently gave a talk about food at the local running club and, naturally, the discussion veered towards protein. This happens because people associate it directly to muscle. Really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg where protein is concerned.

WHY YOU NEED PROTEIN

As I explained in Part I of this segment, protein is the building block for every aspect of your physical container. It’s the structural material for all connective tissue in the body:

  • Your protective layer: skin, mucous membranes, nails & hair;
  • Cartilage, ligaments and tendons to hold you together;
  • Muscles so you can move;
  • Your nutrient & communication highway: blood vessels;
  • Bones & teeth: yes, they need Ca, P, F and Mg to give your body solidity, but those minerals are encrusted on a protein matrix, like a heavily beaded bodysuit.

“Protein gives me energy.”

Yes & No.

Protein does indeed provide energy (calories), but because it’s required for so many specific jobs in the body, it’s more practical to rely on carbohydrates & fat for most of your energy needs.

The extra energy boost you feel from protein has more to do with the functional molecules that do the physiological work and keep communication flowing.

  1. Hormones of Action:
    • regulate & control all bodily functions from the glands in your brain;
    • control your very metabolism (how you use calories);
    • keep your blood sugar (brain food) balanced;
  2. Neurotransmitters: send electrical & chemical impulses through your brain & body for instantaneous responses to life with its many twists & turns;
  3. Antibodies: help maintain your integrity by creating boundaries between what’s yours and what isn’t;
  4. Enzymes: facilitate just about every chemical reaction – and there are millions.

HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED

As I said last time, the body recycles and reuses amino acids (the units that link to form protein) in whatever combination is needed at a given time.

Because of that sustainable quality,  protein has the lowest requirement of all the macronutrients – only 10-15% of caloric intake, as compared to 65% & 25%, more or less, for carbohydrates and fat.

Protein Math 2

Protein Math: click on the image for the full view

NUMBERS ARE GREAT, BUT HOW DOES THAT TRANSLATE INTO FOOD?
It’s not as difficult as we seem to think.

First, a reality check: the average American eats 100 g of protein daily. Much more than enough; an amount that sets us up for problems (I’ll get to that in a sec).

Food for 60 g protein

For a great article about plant-based protein: http://kriscarr.com/blog-video/my-crazy-sexy-guide-to-plant-based-protein/

For a summary of amounts in conventional protein-rich food: http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/whattoeat/a/highproteinfood.htm

NOT ENOUGH PROTEIN

When you don’t eat enough protein, you lose body mass: hair, nails, skin, then muscle starts to break down; wounds don’t heal well and you get sick more easily; you become lethargic, and in the extreme your blood will degenerate. In fact, any of those signs could be a red flag that you need more protein in your diet.

Continuing the analogy of the temple from Part I, when you don’t replace damaged bricks, nor maintain the mortar, the structure will eventually crumble. Necessary tasks will remain undone when you spread the staff too thin.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

The other day, I heard someone at book club announce, “You could never get enough protein.” Why, oh why do we hold onto the idea that if some is good, more must be better?

Eating too much protein doesn’t come without a price on your health. As a reflection of the consumer society in which we live, a high percentage of protein in the diet creates issues similar to the overcrowded landfills and plastic islands in the ocean.

High protein consumption

  • Dehydrates the body: water is necessary to the reaction that breaks peptide chains (strings of amino acids) apart.
  • Increases tissue acidity, the playground of inflammation and feeding trough for cancer. Calcium & other vital minerals are drawn out of your bones to buffer the acid.

To make up for a relatively low intake of carbohydrates, amino acids are converted to glucose for energy, an inefficient conversion that requires energy to perform.

  • This same reaction creates ketones and nitrogen-based bi-products, which in turn
  • Force the kidneys work harder to eliminate the wastes, potentially allowing them to back up in a toxic traffic jam.

All this extra peeing is how protein has become the latest panacea in our eternal quest for weight loss solutions: That big initial weight drop is nothing more than water loss.

ARE YOU ABLE TO TAKE IT ALL IN?

I touched on this last time, but let’s talk about it concretely:

So you eat adequate protein for your age, gender, activity level (see the box above), yet how much of it are you absorbing?

Before the protein-digesting enzymes can do their job, a protein needs to be denatured (uncoiled) by stomach acid. Not enough acid, and that protein stays pretty much intact through the rest of the digestive ride, leading to putrefaction.

Translation: feeling full & heavy or heartburn after a meal (esp. if it includes meat); bloating & smelly gas; constipation. (As well as the signs of low protein mentioned above)

The good news is that this is easily fixed

a)     lay off the antacids (talk to your health care professional if you have an ulcer or true high stomach acid);

b)     drink a glass of warm water with 1 tsp of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar before your meals (or after if you have heartburn)

Hope this helps clear up some of the confusion. If you have any questions, bring them to the comments below, so everyone can benefit.

 

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27 thoughts on “Our Obsession with Protein Part II: The Straight Facts

  1. Pingback: Our Obsession with Protein, Part I: A Soul Perspective | Whole Health

  2. Pingback: Putting Calories in their Place | Whole Health

  3. Pingback: The Skinny on Fat | Whole Health

  4. Good, informative article on protein! I think we are obsessed with protein in this country, especially in the form of protein powders and drinks. Are protein (and all nutrients) should always come from real, whole foods.

  5. thanks for this wonderfully informative article, cathy! and i’m so glad that you addressed the issue of “too much protein” – more people need to be aware of the inherent danger of this practice.

  6. You have amazing knowledge. I want to ask you something. My son and I care for totally 2 young girls in Uganda who live in the slums. My son met them 4 years ago when he was over there. They asked for sponsorship to go to school. He started doing it and then I started helping him. It still costs a lot of money to totally fund 2 young teenagers (they are now) to go to school, food, health, rent, books, clothes etc. There parents died in the civil war, they were living with a grandma when my son met the girls. The grandma died 2 years ago now. Even though we pay for them they must have suffered malnutrition before we met them and as I said even the money we send does not pay for luxuries. So they mainly eat beans and rice. they have dreadful stomach ulcers. One of them has a hernia and I have just paid for her surgery. What on earth can I do to tell these girls who live in a slum who have grown up on poor food – what they can eat cheaply to alleviate the stomach ulcers. I do not know if you have ever had anything to do with people who have grown up starving and how that effects their bodies but of you have any clues it would be appreciated. thanks

    • What wonderful work you’re doing with your son in the world, Deb!

      As for your question, it’s too complex of an issue to address in the comments of a blog post. Other than the fact that there are more things to consider beyond the main issue, I have no experience with anyone living in such conditions. Nor do I have an idea of what would be available in Uganda in terms of herbs or other remedies. Were these girls living down the street from me, I’d make a general suggestion to try marshmallow root or aloe vera gel – though, let me say again, these choices would need to be made in reference to other aspects of their health history & current symptoms.

  7. I know I get enough protein, but my body is not absorbing it. So, I try to get extra enzymes in my system during and between meals to help with absorption. I am going to add the apple cider vinegar to my diet now. It has so many good uses. Thanks for the links, charts and the breakdowns. They are really helpful!

  8. Another great post on protein! It is so important to understand that protein is necessary for so much more than just muscle. I also like how you addressed the dangers of not having enough protein as well as the added demands on our organs when we consume excess protein. Great information, very understandable and informative. Thank you!

  9. Merci beaucoup Cathy! J’ai suivi ton conseil, je mange un peu plus de proteines depuis notre dernière consultation. Je me sens moins fatiguée depuis… mais j’ai pris un peu de poids depuis…pas beaucoup mais mon calories intake a augmenté so… je pense que cela a occassionné une petite prise de poids mais avec ton BLOG cela me permet d’examiner et de réajuster mes portions de protéines. Merci encore pour tes conseils!

  10. OH boy… I infact couldn’t sleep last night, realizing I really needed protein and I’d better listen.. Couldn’t sleep so I am in fact, harphing down a big ol’ steak right now… .sometimes, when I get tired, I loose it… like today… so off I go to bed, reinforced from this MORE THAN TIMELY POST!!!!! I probably err on the side of too much protein … but I’ll tell you, when I don’t get enough, a day like today happens… and if I end up in a store with food… I’m gone… like today… so ate chocolate… like too much chocolate… but now I’m good. Time to sleep. My body has relaxed…. and sends you my thanks !!!! great post! thank you… ox

  11. Great information Cathy, I keep track of my macronutrient ratio per day, not just protein to keep my body burning at a nice steady burn. As you know a healthy lifestyle is much different than counting calories, my old uninformed way of living. So much crazy information out there about protein being the cure all for weight loss…glad you have reinforced the dark side of too much protein.

  12. Thank you, Cathy, for all this great information. I’ve cut down considerably on my protein intake in the form of meat and have added more legumes, chick peas, nuts, etc. I find that I need protein to keep my stomach satisfied and free of hunger pangs.

    • Absolutely, Lori. Protein digestion starts in the stomach – if it’s working on getting a steady stream of nutrients from whole food (packed with a whole array of nutrients), then it doesn’t need to ask for more, and you can get on with your day.

  13. I never seem to eat enough protein. This was really informative and helpful. I will definitely be more mindful of my protein consumption moving forward! Thank you!

  14. Thank you for clearing up the protein question. I am probably have TOO LITTLE protein in my diet. Thanks for expelling this in terms of food and not only numbers, your food sample chart is perfect for me!

  15. I like how you showed actual food examples of protein. Yes too much can be detrimental. Another side effect off too much protein is, if your body doesn’t use it, it can be stored as fat. Definitely calcium loss and too much uric acid are two big issues with too much protein as well.

    • Thanks for reiterating the point about the calcium…I probably could have highlighted that fact more in the post. The high meat intake of the standard North American diet is one the reasons our RDA for calcium is so disproportionately high.

  16. For so many years I got way less protein than I needed. Now I fear I may be going a bit overboard. Thanks for the heads up–I need to make sure I am not getting too much of a good thing.

  17. Informative post, Cathy, thank you. It’s funny, I was sitting in a dental chair the other day, mouth full of novocaine and cotton, listening to my dentist talk about the weight he had recently lost on some high protein, low carbohydrate diet developed by a doctor. My ears perked up when he said, “You have to eat some of “their” food like the sugar-free cheerios they send you in little packets (????) and you can’t exercise because the weight is coming off very fast and you don’t have energy (????) so I was glad to get to maintenance.” He didn’t know I was a culinary nutritionist. Lucky for him my mouth was full of novocaine and cotton because I fear I might have said something I’d regret. Like what could possibly be nourishing about a packet of sugar-free cheerios, for example? It saddens me to think a perfectly intelligent man could follow such a perfectly unintelligent diet just because “a doctor” developed it. So thank you for the charts and the conversation. There is still much education to be done here.

    • HaHa! I can just picture you in that chair, Sue Ann! Crazy what passes as healthy sometimes. My first reaction would have been to laugh at the naïveté of buying special cheerios, when the regular ones have no sugar…or the fact that it’s the lack of carbs that creates the lack of energy…Oy!

  18. I really needed to read this! I have been so busy with work that
    I have been less mindful of my diet. I think I could be suffering from too much protein. I tend to err on that side when I am not paying attention.

    Time reintroduce water with lemon each day. TY4 all of the great info.

    • Interesting how different constitutions work: my tendency is to go for the carbs & neglect the protein when I’m stressed or rushed.

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