With many people obsessed with Protein, it is helpful to understand how it is used by the body and the different types of this essential nutrient.
Protein is always in the food news. Recently, however, it is promoted with packaged foods such as pancakes, cookies, shakes, snacks, bars, drinks - even water – having labels proclaiming their mega portions of protein! We are so obsessed with this nutrient, but can the body actually use these higher amounts? People believe that greater protein intake makes for leaner, more muscled bodies without having to do much more than consume it. The truth is that the body can only use a certain amount of protein, depending upon physical activity and body type. One can only actually absorb what the body needs. The rest is stored as fat. If too much protein is consumed, it can cause health risks.
To really understand protein, one needs to know how the body absorbs it. Protein is harder to digest than other food groups. After swallowing, your stomach acid begins the breakdown process by literally “unfolding” the molecules. This prepares the protein for digestion by enzymes, such as pepsin, to make smaller pieces of protein, called peptides, which are amino acids joined in short chains.
Amino acids are then used throughout the body, not just in muscles but also in enzymes, hormones, cell structures, transportation of molecules, and storage of nutrients in the body. The body sends protein where it is needed for survival, not just for bigger biceps or six-pack abs. Also, since it takes a lot longer to digest protein than carbohydrates, it can be helpful when people want to feel full longer.
When a person eats more protein than their body actually needs, the extra protein will not instantly turn into sparkling energy or rippling muscles. Consumed protein has to be processed and the nitrogen, which is produced during this process, is passed through the kidneys. Excreting all the extra nitrogen causes extra strain for the kidneys and may actually cause weight gain. High levels of nitrogen are dehydrating and toxic, and hard on the organs. So, extra protein may be not only pointless, but also damaging.
The currently popular ketogenic diet assists in weight loss by forcing the body to burn stored fat and not sugar. This is best done by eating more fatty foods than by eating more protein. The low carb, high protein style of dieting can shock the body. Studies have shown that ketosis cannot be maintained. Over 90% of subjects in the study, who ate high quantities of protein, eventually gained back the weight. Rather, the focus should be on good fat and moderate protein.
In a study by the University of Texas, it was found that 30 grams of protein (about a 3-oz serving of chicken) could boost muscle building activity by 50%. It also showed that even if there were more protein in a meal, it went through the same process and the achievement was the same. More did not lead to greater muscle building.
Real protein comes in many forms, not just from a steak, a bar or a shake!
Dairy has protein, although it should be used with caution, due to the lactose content and the propensity for allergies. Make sure it is organic, full fat, and from grass fed sources so it is not laden with artificial hormones, pesticides, and stripped of digestive enzymes, which can cause inflammation. It is best to eat fermented dairy, such as yogurt or kefir. Eggs are another complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids we need from food. Other good sources of protein are beans, lentils, nuts, soy (fermented is best), fish and seafood, nut butters, seeds such as chia, sunflower, pumpkin, and quinoa, peas, hemp, even algae such as spirulina. Much of the protein shakes have either whey protein or pea, since it is easier to assimilate and absorb.
Casein - the most abundant protein in milk - and soy are two versions of protein that have issues. Casein can be an allergen for some, is damaged in processing, and cannot easily be absorbed, making these hard on the digestion. It is also found in milk solids used to fortify foods with protein. Soy has a strong estrogen stimulant, which can play havoc with women’s hormones and cause men to become effeminate and grow breasts. Harvard School of Public Health did studies into soy protein and among other issues, found it cause cognitive function decline. Plus, most soy comes from GMO products that are sprayed heavily with pesticides.
The amount absorbed depends upon a number of digestive circumstances, such as the correct enzymes to break down and utilize the different long chain molecules that make up proteins, and, more importantly, the need for repair and growth.
Here’s some food for thought: some of the largest and most muscular creatures on the planet are herbivores.
Advice from a Naturopath
Safe and healthy protein, and good balanced portions can help to build or maintain muscle, while providing the energy required for the other uses of this essential nutrient. Be sensible about what you actually need. If you work at a desk all day and do not pump heavy weights to gain muscles, you may not need as much protein as you believe. The average American diet often contains meat and dairy products in each meal. Add with these meals the protein snacks, drinks and shakes, and that is a lot of protein per day. Without balancing the diet with necessary nutrients and fiber. As a result, the daily diet is often too high in protein. This can lead to a number of serious health problems, such as kidney disease, osteoporosis and cancer. Look at your required nutrients for your body weight and include checking into how much protein you actually need. For example, the Recommended Daily Amount for adult women says they need 46 g of protein per day, that is 1.6 ounces, and adult men need 56 g per day, that is 1.9 ounces. This is the minimum amount necessary. It does indicate that the food products that shout about high levels of protein 3-4 times the daily recommendation, are excessive and can be damaging. Check out what you need for your individual height, weight, age etc. Use a calculator instead of buying products from companies which are jumping onto the trend to make money off you by selling dangerous levels of this nutrient.
Here at Metro Integrative we have safe and healthy choices of protein to add to your diet. We can also advise you on the correct amounts for your individual health needs.
Sally Warren, PhD
Board Certified Traditional Naturopathic Doctor
Metro Integrative Pharmacy
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This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition. The information in this article is for educational purposes only.