Our Obsession with Protein Part II: The Straight Facts

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 facts are concerned.

In exploring the beautiful reflection you see in your meals through the Magic Looking Glass for Eating Right, you are also learning to reflect a deeper care of yourself. This is self-love in action. Eating a balance of nourishing food you enjoy is one of the concrete ways you express self-love – it’s a form of radical self-care. Each of the nutrients in the looking glass framework offer you an important angle for eating right AND show you how you can nourish your best self.

 

WHY YOU NEED PROTEIN

As 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 and the blood itself;
  • Bones & teeth: yes, they need calcium, phosphorous, fluorine and magnesium 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

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 facts: how much do YOU need

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). Let’s look at the true needs of our example from above: a 140 lb woman.

Protein facts: how to find what you need in food

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?

Let’s talk about this 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

  1. a) lay off the antacids (talk to your health care professional if you have an ulcer or true high stomach acid);
  2. 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 at the bottom of this page, so everyone can benefit. When you share your thoughts, you open the possibilities for others.

Be sure to share these protein facts with all your healthy-food-rules concsious friends using any (or all!) of the pretty green buttons.

Our Obsession with Protein, Part I: A Soul Perspective

Why do we have a protein obsession these days? Ask anyone trying to lose weight or gain muscle or recover from illness, or really anyone striving to eat right, and the question of protein amounts & sources inevitably comes up. In a time when our focus on food choices has reached a religious fervour, protein leads the current caravan of nutrition to the promised land.

In exploring the beautiful reflection you see in your meals through the Magic Looking Glass for Eating Right, you are also learning to reflect a deeper care of yourself. This is self-love in action. Eating a balance of nourishing food you enjoy is one of the concrete ways you express self-love – it’s a form of radical self-care. Each of the nutrients in the looking glass framework offer you an important angle for eating right AND show you how you can nourish your best self.

 

How is it that we’ve come to view lots of protein (to the exclusion of other macronutrients) as synonymous with health?

why are we obsessed with protein?

Two ways: timing and our personal focus at this time.

Historically, it’s been coming to this inevitability for decades:

Nutritional science of the 70s, 80s & 90s drove us to an unrelenting fear of fat. First saturated fat, then fat in general, were (falsely) proven to be the source of heart & weight problems in North America. The extreme version of this food fad found me on a practically fat-free diet after the birth of my 1st son – a situation that had a negative impact on my health for the next 20 years.

Atkins and all the variations of low-carb diets followed that fiasco. (These should more accurately be called low-starch or low-refined-carb diets, but I digress. You can read about this particular pet peeve of mine here.)

Turn 2 out of 3 macronutrients into bad guys, and you’ve got to drive home the benefits of the last man standing. There are many fantastic reasons why we need protein, though we’re now overdoing it to the detriment of our fat & carb intake. (I’ll get to those protein-based details in the next post.)

 

Another circumstance underlines our heightened awareness of this nutrient.

While carbohydrates fuel us with the energy to stand straight and function adequately through the day, and while fats ensure our constant warm temperature and a healthy nervous system, protein provides the actual structure and functionality of the body.

 

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

If you believe this tenet by Teilhard de Chardin, then you can fully understand Meggan Watterson’s guiding principle that “The body is our sacred chance to be here.”

The flesh and sinew that make up this tabernacle, this house for the soul, is all protein.

Think of protein as the stones of the temple honouring your soul. Protein is the building block for muscle, yes. It’s also the structural material for all tissue in the body: skin, mucous membrane, nails & hair; cartilage, ligaments, tendons; even your bones & teeth.


Protein is the molecule that differentiates plant from animal.

Because of the structure, protein gives us (as animals) the freedom to roam the earth independently. And it’s protein that supplies the means by which we have the ability to carry out our life’s purpose, our work in the world.

There are messengers keeping us in constant communication with the Self: hormones, neurotransmitters, antibodies.

There are enzymes, the acolytes who quietly see to every minute chore within the temple.

Freedom and location independence: as a society, these are the values we currently crave the most. No wonder we’re obsessed with protein!

 

The wonders of protein don’t stop there…

In a beautiful model of sustainability, the body recycles and reuses protein constantly, thereby keeping our daily intake needs to a minimum. Brilliant, when you think about it, having evolved from an ancestry of feast or famine, the body learned to make its most precious commodity last.

 

Are You Able to Take It All In?

Even when you eat right amount of protein for your age, gender, activity level (details in the 2nd post), how much of it are you absorbing and actually using?

Before the peptidases (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.

The stomach lies at the heart of the 3rd chakra, the energy centre ruling your sense of self, your ability to stand up for yourself. Your Will. Digestion, in general, and specifically activities of the stomach are an act of will – an indication of how engaged you are with life, how well you digest life.

In other words, you need a strong sense of self, at an emotional-soul level, in order to best access the building blocks for your physical body. The best way to solidify your Solar (3rd) Chakra is to ground more strongly into the lower two, root yourself into your own care & security. Improve your relationship with the earth, and you’ll improve your digestion.

As we move into the new paradigm, an age in which the needs of the individual soul step forward as the guiding principle for how we live, it’s essential that the way we nourish the body supports that growth and movement.

“The body is your sacred chance to be here” and, with the help of protein, follows the directives of your soul.

 

These thought are great food for conversation. Get a good discussion going among your friends by using any (or all!) of the pretty green buttons. Then come to the Eating Better Conversation group to mull it over with me.