What is Protein and How Much Do You Need?
In Western diets, protein intake is at a very high level. There are good reasons to be more aware not only of how much protein you eat, but what kind of protein you take in, as well as how often you consume it.
Let’s begin with a simple question:
What is protein?
First, animal-based protein is anything that walked, crawled, swam, or flew at one time.
Any animal base is a complete protein. What does this mean?
In terms of digestion, it means eating an animal-based protein is all you need to gain the full effects of protein.
A complete protein contains four calories per gram, so, for example, if you eat 10 grams of protein, you get roughly 40 calories from it.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, of which there are essential, non-essential, and semi-essential amino acids.
Basically, you have to get essential amino acids into your body through the food you eat because your body can’t make them.
On the other hand, as their name suggests, non-essential amino acids provide good benefits for your body, but you don’t have to worry about ingesting them through your diet, as your body will be able to create them.
An example of a semi-essential amino acid is when a bodybuilder depletes the essential amino acid Glutamine by working his muscles so much that the Glutamine is all burned up. The liver of the weight lifter will then tell his biceps to give up its Glutamine so it can be turned into sugar to feed his brain.
This is an important concept in regards to the function of protein in our body. If my brain needs sugar, it’s going to smoke my biceps of Glutamine to turn it into sugar through a process called Gluconeogenesis.
Additionally, any stress on your body, be it physical, emotional, or mental, is going to break down the protein in your body. This protein will have to be replaced.
Protein is essential for muscle contraction and movement. It is the basis for most of your hormones. It is also required for the activation of selected vitamins, particularly B-vitamins.
Protein is basically involved in every process in your body.
And that’s why consuming protein on a regular basis is so important. It has the highest metabolic need in your body, compared to fat. This is because when you eat protein, your body will replace your muscle protein with that good protein.
There is a constant process of protein degradation, or breakdown, and protein buildup, as long as there are adequate amounts in your diet.
This brings us back to the protein available for non-meat eaters. How do people who eat a plant-based diet get adequate protein into their diets?
Vegetable sources can be great sources of protein, but you have to combine them. So that’s why we want to differentiate a complete protein, like you’d find in meat or protein powder, from a vegetable protein.
Primary vegetable protein sources are beans and legumes. Many other vegetables, healthy as they are, are primarily made of carbohydrates and water. Cauliflower, potatoes, and rice are carbohydrates and must be mixed with vegetable protein sources in order to fulfill your protein needs.
That’s why you’ll often find peas and carrots together because peas and carrots make a complete protein. Rice and black beans also make a complete protein. When you have that complete protein, it tends to be more filling.
Additional sources of vegetarian protein include nuts and seeds, which come in all sizes, shapes, and forms.
(I’d like to give a little shout-out to my absolute favorite type of seed: pumpkin seeds. These little guys have the highest source of natural magnesium in nature.)
Milk products, casein and whey, soy, and egg are also meatless forms of protein.
An outstanding benefit to taking in vegetable protein is that those who suffer from conditions including high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and prediabetes or diabetes, will find that by eating vegetable proteins their levels of blood pressure and insulin resistance will go down.
If you’re worried about losing muscle mass by eating mostly vegetable protein, let me reassure you: I’ve worked with a couple of very talented top-level bodybuilders that are vegetarians, and they’re not insulin resistant.
They have no metabolic issues. Their hormones are perfect. They have everything lined up to be able to eat a plant-based diet and still maintain a great degree of lean mass and muscle.
A lot of the plant-based research for heart disease came from Dean Ornish out of San Francisco. He showed that a strict vegetarian diet actually reverses coronary artery plaques.
However, all of the people in this study were also meditating, doing yoga, and taking supplements. So when they showed decreased plaques with a plant-based diet, the patients under observation were also doing everything else right.
This is good to bear in mind when you are reviewing medical studies because you need to be aware that most of the time, health improves as a result of several factors blending in recovery.
What defines a good protein?
I always like to joke that an example of comparing the quality of proteins is like looking at spam and sirloin. What is the difference in these proteins?
When I look at food, I look at the protein content, but also at the fat and carbohydrate content of that protein, and the total calories.
Good protein combinations that are well-balanced would be dairy, beans, nuts, and seeds. These contain great balances of carbs, protein and fat, and are excellent foods.
A note of caution if you are consuming protein powders or bars: Be sure to consider the carbohydrate source, particularly if it’s anything artificial. Beware also high amounts of sugar and alcohol. High fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, mannitol (sugar alcohol), sucrose, and artificial sweeteners often used in items containing crisp rice can cause issues in some people.
Another important note is that someone who’s metabolically challenged or has insulin resistance does not need to be drinking their protein. It’s best to chew it so it’s slowly absorbed and won’t cause such a massive rush of insulin and hormones.
So there you have it, a little summary about the basics of protein. It’s an amazing fuel for our bodies and so important to good health.
Be sure to check out my new book Obtainable and my book Better Than Steroids for more detailed information on protein, along with many valuable resources on helping you eat for health and balance as you continue to RecoverMe and be your best self!
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