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.
- 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;
- Neurotransmitters: send electrical & chemical impulses through your brain & body for instantaneous responses to life with its many twists & turns;
- Antibodies: help maintain your integrity by creating boundaries between what’s yours and what isn’t;
- 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.
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).
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.