If we had to name the most beloved macronutrient in our society today, it would have to be protein. Important for building muscle, innocuous for our blood sugar levels, and generally packaged in delicious foods like hamburgers, nuts, and eggs. In contrast to carbohydrates and fat, protein is never demonized by the popular press. A life without protein? No thanks.
That doesn’t mean, however, that protein is the end-all, be-all savior for our health, and that we should eat as much protein as possible every day. For example, our brain, arguably one of our most important internal organs, relies on glucose for fuel! In times of great starvation, yes, it can use some amino acids, the building blocks of protein, for energy, in truth, your brain craves sugar.
And while protein is critical for building our muscles, bone, body tissues, and enzymes to keep our body running, too much protein can do the exact same thing that too many carbs or too much fat can do — turn into excess weight.
How much protein do our bodies need?
The recommendation is 10-35% of your daily calories from protein, or 0.9g per kg of body weight. What this equals out to is 63 grams of protein (or 9 oz of steak) for a man weighing 154lbs. Deficient protein intake is the cause of kwashiorkor, an debilitating disease found in Africa or other developing countries. Too much protein? Some studies suggest it can adversely affect bone health, while others point to excess protein as a cause of kidney damage and dehydration. But as with anything else, our bodies are very forgiving and can accommodate wide fluctuations in our protein intake.
What about animal versus vegetarian sources of protein?
The traditional literature lists dairy, eggs, and protein as the “best” sources of protein, because by weight, they have a high percentage of protein content (approximately 30%). However, many vegetable and plant-based foods have a protein content as high (and even higher!) than meat sources.
Some particularly high plant-based sources of protein:
- Nori Seaweed (55% protein)
- Spirulina (50-70% protein)
- Soy beans (40% protein)
- Peanuts (25% protein)
It’s also important to note that all vegetables have protein, albeit in smaller amounts than found in meat. This means that even if you are eating a plant-based diet, you are not completely deficient in protein, and are likely doing just fine.
What’s the deal with complete vs noncomplete proteins?
As I’ve talked about before, many people previously believed that animal proteins are better than plant-based proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids. However, the great diversity in the amino acid profiles of plant-based foods, and the fact that we all eat a reasonably varied died (i.e., more than just lentils), you shouldn’t worry about getting your protein requirements from plant-based sources.
When should you rethink your protein intake? If you’re feeling lethargic, experiencing muscle fatigue, or other symptoms that something’s “not right”. In that case – definitely talk with your doctor to figure out what’s going on.
In summary, the literature shows that individuals living in America or other Western nations probably don’t have to worry at all about not getting enough protein. Between our penchant for meat products, and the fact that we eat varied diets filled with foods that contribute at least some protein, if you’re getting enough calories to sustain your weight, you are likely getting enough protein as well.
But let’s turn to reasons why you would want to intentionally monitor or add protein to your diets.
Benefits of protein: stabilizing blood glucose levels
A well-known and oft-cited benefit of consuming protein during a meal or snack is that the protein acts to slow down your digestion through the release of pancreatic hormones. What this means is that you’ll absorb the carbohydrates from your meal slower as well, resulting in a smaller spike in your blood glucose levels and keeping you fuller for longer.
Benefits of protein: retaining muscle and bone mass when losing weight
Another interesting benefit of protein is for retaining muscle and bone mass when you are losing weight. When you do have a deficit of calories (a pre-requisite for weight loss), you are not losing weight only as fat – you are also potentially losing muscle and bone as well. Researchers have found that maintaining a high protein diet in the midst of weight loss can actually protect your bones from that loss, ensuring that the weight you are losing are the much less important fat cells in your body.
Benefit of protein: reducing cravings
Have you ever felt a craving for protein? For me, it usually manifests as a desire for a meal that is a little more satiating or filling. Often, that means that the meal or snack was a little too heavy on the simple carbohydrates, and didn’t include enough protein and fat. Protein helps us feel full! The presence of protein and amino acids in our stomach leads to the release of specific hormones like peptide YY (PYY) that tell our brains that we are full.
There is also a certain set of practitioners who believe that we crave protein because it is a nutrient-rich source of food that can make up for a high consumption of nutrient- and vitamin-poor, but energy-rich foods like refined sugars and flours. It’s an interesting point to consider given that proteins truly are the building blocks of our bodies, and if we are eating too many calories of foods that aren’t providing anything besides calories and sugar, we actually could be needing more protein to have optimal function in our muscles and cells.
What this means is that our bodies are not just craving protein, they’re craving nutrient dense food.
This notion falls in line with literature that examines the effects of protein intake on calcium balance and bone health. Potentially, high protein intake results in lower bone density because it is acidifying for the body and the blood. Foods like fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, have an alkaline quality and help the body retain calcium and nutrients. Researchers suggest that the association between high protein intake and poor bone health could actually be more strongly related to the low levels of alkaline foods, rather than the fault of the protein.
For both of these cases, increasing your general intake of healthful foods, rather than focusing on protein intake persay, could help reduce your cravings for extra calories and keep you feeling energized, but not over-full.
The NoMeatAthlete has great advice for getting your protein fix that I love – “Make sure you include a decent protein source, even if just a little bit, in every meal or snack”
To put this into practice, this means serving your apple with a scoop of peanut butter, or refraining from drinking sugary beverages in between meals. Eat a varied, whole-foods diet, and your protein needs will be met, and you’ll be feeling full, energized, and healthy.
What is your experience with protein cravings? Do you intentionally add protein to your meals and snacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!