All You Need to Know About Protein
What is protein?
Protein is one of our macronutrients (along with fat and carbs) and is essential to all of our body functions. It means something different to our bodies though, because unlike carbs and fat, protein is not meant to be used as a source of energy. It’s meant to be used as a building block.
If a protein is like a word, then amino acids are like the letters that make up the word. There’s 20 different amino acids, and their mixing and matching is what leads to the plethora of different proteins in our body. Our skin and muscles and internal organs are made of proteins. Our hormones and neurotransmitters are proteins. The main objective of DNA is to make protein. The enzymes that make possible our little chemistry experiment called life are proteins.
No protein, no life. However, more protein does not necessarily mean more life.
How much do we need?
First of all if you are a body builder, you are in the wrong place! I’m talking to the average active adult, and we don’t need that much protein. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) is 0.8g/kg of our weight. For Americans that’s about one third of your weight in grams. Studies show that if you’re in your 60s you may want to crank that ratio up closer to half your body weight in grams. (1) I think between a third and a half your body weight in grams is a nice safe range for most of us.
It’s really uncommon for someone to be protein deficient in the developed world. Meat and dairy eaters don’t have to worry one bit if they’re getting enough protein. Vegetarians and vegans have to be more mindful, but not obsessively so. With a variety of vegetables including legumes, nuts, and seeds, you are covered. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorites.
This brings me to THE most important point – it’s not so much about the protein as it is about the package the protein comes in.
Plant vs Animal Protein
Animal pros: In my opinion, the biggest benefits of animal protein is that it comes with B vitamins that can’t be found in plants, and a significant amount of zinc and iron. It is also very delicious.
Animal cons: Aside from all of the moral and environmental reasons to not eat animal products, it also comes with a significant amount of saturated fat which is inflammatory and a metabolic burden in excess. Diets heavy in animal products are time and time again correlated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. (2)
Plant pros: Plant proteins come with fiber, which is absolutely key to a healthy gut. They’re also accompanied by a much wider variety and higher concentration of other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that serve our health in countless ways. Nobody has to die, and they too are so delicious.
Plant cons: If you have serious protein goals, you’ve got to work harder to figure it out with plants. In my experience eating plant-based also takes more time - there’s more ingredients and more chopping and prep. You really gotta learn to love your kitchen time.
PUNCHLINE: Plants win!
What happens if we get too much?
We don’t store protein because it’s not meant to be used as a fuel. That means that when we have excess, our super smart bodies get creative and transform it. Depending on what you’re up to and what other macronutrients are around, excess protein can be broken down and eliminated through the kidneys or else converted to glucose or ketones to be stored or burned as energy for our cells.
That’s IF your digestion is in tip top shape. If you’ve got inflammation in your gut, then you’re going to have some challenges digesting all that protein in the first place. It can overstay its welcome in your intestines and perpetuate an inflammatory state in your gut and your body. So if you’ve got gut health issues, take it easy on the protein. Also if you want to take it easy on your kidneys for any reason, take it easy on the protein.
In summary, protein is an incredibly important nutrient. It’s not that hard to meet our daily requirement with a plant-based diet, and basically impossible to undershoot it if we eat animal products. I wanted to write this blog to introduce you to the basics of protein, but also to remind you that it’s the big picture that matters more than any one nutrient. If you’re able to focus on getting a variety of vegetables with as many meals as you can, then all of the details will be taken care of for you.
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments below.