Hello everyone! This is Week 17 in our Full Year of Resolutions. We hope you’ve been enjoying our weekly tips so far, and that you’ll find Tip #17 valuable as well: Eat the right amount of good protein for your body.
This topic is one that is often misunderstood. It doesn’t help when the narrative about what we should and shouldn’t eat seems to change with the wind…We’ve lived through the era of fat-free everything (read more about this misinformation here). Then carbs became the dietary villain. We’ve got everything from Keto to Paleo to clean eating to figure out. So it’s no surprise that many people don’t understand the importance of getting the right kind and the right amount of good protein each day.
There is a reason the word “protein” comes from the Greek word protos, meaning “first.” If we don’t first provide our bodies with the protein it needs, our health suffers. Protein provides the building blocks of our cells. It plays a key role in the creation and maintenance of every cell in your body, all while fueling the cells that power your body. Let’s take a closer look at why protein is so crucial to our nutrition and our overall health.
Protein is essential
Not all protein is created equal. Protein is a very large nutrient made up of smaller substances called amino acids. Amino acids play many critical roles in the body, affecting proteins, hormones, and neurotransmitters. There are 20 amino acids, but the body can only produce 11 of them. The other nine are what we refer to as “essential amino acids,” and we can only get them through our diet.
That’s why it’s so important we incorporate high-quality protein sources into our diets. Foods like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy contain all nine of the essential amino acids. These are called whole or complete proteins. Other protein sources like nuts, beans, and seeds only have some of the essential amino acids. So if you don’t (or can’t) eat animal proteins, you have to be careful to combine other protein sources in the right ways so that your body is getting all of the amino acids it needs.
Six reasons to not skip the protein
In this week’s video, we discussed some of the specific reasons why protein is so important. Here we’re taking an even deeper dive into each of the reasons we shared. It’s kind of astounding just how much protein does for us!
1) Protein reduces appetite, boosts metabolism, and increases fat burning, which helps you lose weight and maintain weight loss.
The research on this is pretty compelling, and this first reason alone should motivate us to want to eat protein. Science says protein is the single most important nutrient for weight loss. In fact, there is so much science out there that backs up this claim, and explains how it works, that I could easily write this entire blog post about this one point.
But to sum it up, protein helps you lose weight, especially belly fat, in several different ways. Foods that are high in protein are also filling, which helps reduce appetite and control cravings. Studies show that eating protein can lead to large reductions in cravings, especially late at night. Even a modest increase in protein intake can help prevent weight regain.
Protein also boosts your metabolism. And, because of its high thermic effect, it increases calories burned by 80-100 calories per day. Protein intake makes you burn more calories round the clock, even when you’re sleeping. It gives you a “metabolic advantage” and naturally increases fat burn. Weight loss doesn’t necessarily mean fat loss, but protein helps prevent muscle loss as you lose weight, which means you lose what you want to lose – fat! It also prevents the metabolic slowdown that often occurs with dieting and weight loss.
Protein actually changes several of our weight-regulating hormones. It reduces levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, while boosting the appetite-reducing hormones GLP-1, peptide YY, and cholecystokinin. This is why you feel fuller after eating protein, and this results in an automatic reduction in caloric intake.
2) Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, and skin. In fact, your hair and nails are comprised mostly of protein.
Let’s break this one down a little and talk about each of these important components.
Protein is absolutely key for building muscles; in fact, without enough protein, you quickly begin to lose muscle mass in your body. Besides the obvious reasons for wanting adequate muscle is the fact that muscle tissue burns more calories, even when you’re doing absolutely nothing, than body fat. One pound of muscle burns 6 calories a day (at rest) while a pound of fat burns 2 calories. That metabolic math means that muscle is three times more metabolically active than fat.
Studies show that eating protein is directly linked to healthy muscle mass and strength. If you’re doing any kind of strength training or using resistance in your workouts (and we hope you are, as it is so very good for you – watch for a future tip on the subject!), it’s particularly important that you’re providing adequate healthy protein to promote and maintain muscle growth. And, as we already addressed above, protein helps prevent muscle loss when you are actively trying to lose weight.
Protein, especially animal protein, is very beneficial for bone health. Did you know that about 50% of bone is made of protein?
Studies prove that people who eat more protein maintain bone mass better as they age. They have a much lower risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. This is particularly important for women who are at high risk of osteoporosis after menopause. In a six-year study of over 144,000 postmenopausal women, protein intake was linked to significantly higher bone density throughout the body.
Eating the right amount of good protein is a great preventative measure to help protect our bones. Protein helps fortify bone health during aging and weight loss.
Hair, Skin, and Nails
The amino acids that we get through animal proteins are the building blocks of collagen, elastin, and keratin, which are the structural substances that make up healthy hair, skin, and nails.
Your hair is primarily made up of keratin, an important element that regulates your hair’s strength, volume, and moisture. Keratin, along with collagen, helps prevent graying. Keratin also helps keep skin firm and nails strong.
The connection between collagen and protein
Collagen is important enough it needs its own section in this post. Most of us know that collagen is not only necessary for our health (to keep our joints working), but it’s also vital for our looks. It provides skin’s smoothness and elasticity. Collagen production declines with age, which means our skin becomes increasingly thin, dry, and wrinkly. It also affects the integrity of our hair and nails. Without collagen our hair starts to thin and grey. Nails get weak and brittle.
Collagen is a type of protein. It’s actually the most abundant structural protein in animals. A structural protein is a protein that makes up the structure, or framework, of your cells and tissues. Besides helping our skin and hair to look better, collagen is found in connective tissue, skin, tendons, bones, and cartilage. It plays vital roles in cellular processes like tissue repair, immune response, and cell communication.
The body naturally produces collagen, but as we grow older, it becomes fragmented, and collagen production slows. We can consume collagen through protein dietary sources and collagen supplements. Because we produce collagen from amino acids, it’s important that we’re eating the right amount of good protein from foods like poultry, fish, beans, and eggs.
3) Protein lowers blood pressure and helps oxygenate the body.
As if those first two points weren’t reason enough, protein also lowers blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major cause of heart attacks, strokes, and chronic kidney disease. In over 40 controlled trials, increased protein consistently lowered both the systolic and diastolic (the top and bottom numbers) blood pressure readings.
In addition to lowering blood pressure, studies show that protein reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides.
The right amount of good protein also helps to oxygenate your body. Red blood cells contain a protein compound called hemoglobin that carries oxygen throughout the body. This helps supply your entire body with nutrients it needs. The more red blood cells you have, the more hemoglobin is available to move oxygen through the body. Consuming the right proteins can support red blood cell production, which in turn increases oxygen uptake.
4) Protein helps your body repair itself after injuries.
Your body uses protein to build and repair tissue which helps you stay fit as you age. This makes sense, since protein forms the building blocks of our tissues and organs.
After a sports injury, the injured body part often must be kept immobilized. This inevitably leads to a decline in strength and muscle mass. Getting enough protein can help minimize this loss. In addition, protein can help prevent inflammation, which slows down recovery.
5) Protein helps with digestion.
About half the dietary protein that you consume each day goes into making enzymes, which aid in digesting food. When it comes to digestion, you must be able to build your gut, produce digestive juices, repair your gut when needed, and regulate digestion. All of this requires the right amount of good protein.
You might not realize that your digestive tract is actually made up of tissues, and the main component of these tissues is protein. These tissue layers are constantly damaged and reproducing new cells to heal. When the lining of the gut wall is too damaged this results in leaky gut, which causes all sorts of health problems. You need many specific amino acids to help make new, healthy cells and heal your gut lining, and one of the best sources for these comes from animal proteins.
6) Protein plays an important role in hormone regulation.
We’ve already discussed how protein impacts appetite-regulating hormones. But it also impacts many other important hormones as well. Your body relies on protein to produce protein-derived hormones, also known as peptide hormones.
Peptide hormones are integral in regulating many physiological processes, like growth, energy metabolism, stress, and reproduction. These hormones aid our internal communication system which carries messages between organs, cells, and systems.
The endocrine glands make these hormones from amino acids, which are the foundation for synthesizing proteins. We create 11 of these in our body naturally. The other 9 are referred to as “essential amino acids” and are necessary to sustain life. But our bodies don’t create them. We get them by eating the right amount of good protein for our body.
Whew! Protein is pretty impressive, isn’t it? Protein is a very important element of achieving optimal health, and it’s especially important when it comes to helping you stay fit as you age.
What’s the right amount of good protein?
So how much protein should you be eating? What I love about functional nutrition is that every approach is about YOU being the scientist and figuring out what your body needs to achieve your optimal health. It is completely tailored to you. This tip is no exception. When it comes to how much protein you should eat, there is simply no one-size-fits-all answer that works.
How much protein you should eat is determined by so many factors. Are you male or female? How much do you weigh? What are your health conditions? Activity levels? How does your body assimilate nutrients from protein?
We also need to talk about all the different sources of protein. Protein comes from meat, vegetables, fish and seafood, and powders like whey, pea, hemp, etc. Nuts and seeds are a source of protein.
Some of my clients can only tolerate a few of these proteins while others can eat all of them.
Everyone is different. When I have a client ask me about macros and how much protein they should be having, I simply say I don’t really know. I can provide some guidelines, but then we have to work together and do some research and tracking to figure it out.
It’s taken David and I quite a bit of trial and error to figure out how much and which types of proteins work best for him. When he was battling bladder cancer, he went vegetarian for about 18 months. This did not work well for him. His energy levels dropped really low without those animal proteins. Animal proteins also help him heal faster from injuries. We have lots of friends who get their protein solely from plants and do fine, but that isn’t optimal for him. It’s just so individual!
The type of protein he eats also makes a huge difference for him. David has a lot of food sensitivities, so he is much more limited on what he can eat. He can’t eat salmon, which is probably one of the best proteins out there. He can’t eat several plant-based proteins like nuts and seeds, and he can’t have soy. Animal proteins work best for him.
He figured it out through food journaling
However, we’ve realized over the past few years that he has to be careful to not go overboard on animal protein. When he has too much, he pays with bouts of bloating, gas, constipation, and pain. As he kept track with his food-mood-poop journal, we noticed that his feet would hurt when he consumed too much protein in a day. He’s currently off of all pain medications and prescriptions for his peripheral neuropathy, but when he eats foods that cause inflammation in his body, the pain returns. Too much protein, as well as the wrong kind of protein, do that to him. We’ve figured out that he functions best when he eats 6-10 ounces of animal protein in a day, and he tries to eat that in one meal.
I don’t have the food sensitivities and issues that David’s gut has, so I can have almost all proteins without adverse effects. But I’ve realized that when I limit my intake of animal protein to 6 ounces a day, that’s when I feel the best.
*You can read more about David’s amazing story to reclaim his health in our book, Eating to Live: Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code.
So how do you know what works best for you? At More Than Healthy we’ve developed a protocol to do just that. I help clients as they work their way through the Four Levels of the MTH Protocol. Level 1 starts with almost no animal protein. Then we will slowly add things one at a time, then wait three days as you journal your results and track how you do. When it comes to animal protein, I always have clients start low and go slow. This way we can identify exactly where the trouble spots are, and which foods are hard for your gut to handle.
An important note about poultry and beef
Let’s talk about the right kinds of animal proteins for a minute. If you’re going to have poultry, it’s important to find pasture-raised chicken, turkeys, and eggs. If you can’t find that, then free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free poultry is the next best thing.
With beef, look for grass-fed and finished beef. That “finished” part is important; it means they were grass-fed the entire time. If the beef you buy only says grass-fed, that means it can be fed grain at the end of its life to bulk it up. Grass-fed beef has significantly lower levels of saturated fat, is higher in antioxidants, and has six times more Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef.
Remember, you’re eating everything your food ate, too. If your beef ate grains, you’re eating grains, too. Those sneaky grains can cause inflammation in your body. David is so sensitive to grains that he can tell when he’s eaten beef that wasn’t grass-fed. That inflammation comes back and the pain returns to his feet.
We like to find local farmers, whose animals are raised to forage for food. You might be surprised that local farmers are also often cheaper than the grocery store.
The right amount of good protein is so good for you!
It’s truly fascinating what the body can do with a complete protein. Animal proteins have all of those essential amino acids we need. It also has all the essential fatty acids our body needs but can’t produce on its own. To get the most out of animal proteins, you’ll want to use more than just the muscle meat. In future tips we’ll talk about the incredible benefits that come from the protein available in bone broth as well as organ meats. There’s so much goodness available!
We hope we’ve helped you better understand why eating the right amount of good protein for your body is so essential for achieving optimal health. Please leave us any comments or questions below, or contact us on our website at morethanhealthy.com. We also hope you’ll join us for our free monthly coaching call. Just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to get on our email list.
Nothing makes us happier than helping others discover the great gift of optimal health!