Protein is a macronutrient that I’ve been obsessed with lately. Mostly because it is essential that we get enough of it everyday, and it is definitely the macronutrient that we are (on average) not getting enough of, especially Women. As we get older, it is especially important to prioritize because our muscle mass breaks down more rapidly as we age, and protein can help counteract the decline.
This blog post breaks down all of the questions you have on protein like; what is protein and why do we need it, how protein affects insulin, blood sugar and weight loss, how much do we need to eat on a daily basis, ways to get more protein in, plant based vs. animal based proteins and their differences, why digestion matters with protein, and more…
What is a protein, and the amino acid breakdown
Protein is found throughout the body, in our skin, bone, muscle, hair, and every other tissue and muscle in the body. There are 20 amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and 9 of which are called essential amino acids, meaning our body cannot make them and need to get them from food. See the image below for the list of the 9 essential amino acids.
So when I say, protein is essential, it is just a simplified way of saying that we NEED all 20 amino acids to survive.
“Additionally, some amino acids are also used for the synthesis of specific (nonprotein) products, such as nitric oxide, polyamides, creatine, glutathione, nucleotides, glucosamine, hormones, neurotransmitters, and other factors.”See Reference #2 below
The problems that can arise when we don’t get enough protein; malnutrition, loss of muscle mass, decreased immunity, cognitive impairment, hormone-related issues, like PMS, thyroid dysfunction, PCOS, infertility, and more.
All proteins are not created equally, there are many factors when it comes to protein quality, it is determined by assessing its amino acid breakdown, digestibility and bioavailability of amino acids.
Top 3 Amino Acids: lysine (recommended 3.4g/day), methionine (less than 1g and key to other AA pathways), leucine. Foods high is methionine: eggs, animal products = high, plant proteins low in methionine. New research is suggesting that; Instead of focusing on overall protein quantity, focus in these top 3 amino acids, but it can be harder to calculate these amounts. In general, if you are meeting your protein amounts with animal products each day, you are most likely getting enough of these essential amino acids, it gets trickier if you are eating strictly plant-based, and needs to be more of a focus.
Why do we need it? How does the body use it?
The 3 macronutrients are; protein, carbohydrates and fats. Carbs and fats are used as fuel, we take it in and we either burn it or store it. But protein has to be used when it is ingested, we can’t store the building blocks of protein (amino acids) as much, although muscle is a reservoir somewhat. The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) is the minimum amount of protein you need to replace what you’ve lost, primarily through your urine (as Urea).
How does protein affect Blood sugar and Insulin
When you eat food, insulin is released by the pancreas to take the food (what turns to sugars in the body) and helps it into the cells. Certain foods require more insulin to come and shuttle it into the cells, like white bread for example. Where as, green beans would not require as much insulin, and therefore, the insulin amounts released would be lower. You can choose to eat more foods that are lower on the glycemic index, which measures each food and how it affects the blood sugar levels after it’s eaten.
The analogy I like to use here is that of building fire. Picture you are camping and about to build a fire 🔥. You will need to start with some dry newspaper and kindling to get it started, once you take a match to the kindling and paper, the flames will go up, but they will die out quickly if you don’t add larger sticks and eventually logs. Once the logs are on, the fire can be sustained for longer. Think of the flames as your energy levels or your blood sugar. The kindling is the carbohydrates; it provides the body with quick fuel, but it doesn’t last long. So, in eating enough protein and fat with each meal, you are giving your body sustained energy, it keeps the fire burning a little longer, until you add the next big log (aka protein).
How does protein intake affect weight loss?
Weight gain is directly associated to insulin levels. To simplify; the more and more your insulin levels are elevated, the more fat will be stored. Insulin is known as the fat storage hormone. There is another hormone, called glucagon, which is known as the fat burning hormone, which is released when you eat protein rich foods.
Another factor that comes into play when you are eating more protein is your appetite. Protein has higher satiety properties than carbohydrates and fats (6). Higher-protein diets have led to unintentional weight loss caused from reductions in daily energy intake, which may have occurred as a result of increased satiety (6).
There are two other very important hormones that are the drivers of hunger or fullness feelings, and they are called Ghrelin and Leptin. Ghrelin signals to your brain that you are hungry, Leptin signals that you are full. Ghrelin is made by the cells in the gastrointestinal tract and is induced by hypoglycaemia (which is another term for unbalanced blood sugars). Have you ever had a very carb-rich meal like a bowl of pasta, or oatmeal, only to be hungry within the hour for something sweet? That is the sign of imbalanced blood sugar, and your body asking for more fuel (think of the kindling) that it can use for quick energy. Leptin is our satiating hormone which is produced by white fat (adipose tissue), it signals to the brain that we are full.
To learn more about Leptin and Ghrelin, watch this video.
Don’t under estimate the power of satiety (being more satisfied with your meal), a recent trial examined the effects of higher protein amounts for breakfast and found that; “Compared with a lower-protein breakfast, the higher-protein version led to less energy consumed throughout the day, particularly from high-fat/high-sugar evening snacks” (6).
Plant based vs animal based proteins.
Like I mentioned before, not all proteins are created equally. Most plant proteins lack all 9 essential amino acids. Many plant-based proteins are also harder to digest because of anti-nutrients in the plants such as; trypsin inhibitors, lectins, and tannins, which impair the body’s ability to digest and absorb. The absorbability can also be affected by the age of the person and the health of the gut. Protein quality: digestibility 95% or higher from animal proteins, for plant proteins 60-70% available because we can’t digest all the fiber (when in raw state – it helps to lightly cook and/or ferment). If you look at the protein on a bowl of wheat germ cereal and it’s 4g, only about 50% of that can be used by the body, so really, you are only getting 2g of protein with that bowl of cereal.
If you are plant based, you need to eat a variety of plant foods (vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes) in order to get all of the essential amino acids. There are a few plant foods that have all 9 essential amino acids; soy, hemp seeds, nutritional yeast, chia seeds, Spirulina, quinoa, buckwheat. So if you are a strict vegan (plant foods only), make sure to prioritize these foods, as well as a variety of vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruits to get all the amino acids. If you are a vegetarian and eat eggs and dairy, that will make your life way easier when trying to get enough protein, because the amino acid profiles in eggs and dairy are very highly absorbable.
So while, it is much easier to eat meat and get your protein and amino acids that way, it is possible to do it only eating plant foods, but you do need to eat way more. Ideally, if you can eat eggs, dairy (and even fish), then you will be ensuring your body is getting everything it needs, and it will be much easier to achieve your health goals. To summarize, If you have 120g/protein per day, the split between plant and animal proteins probably doesn’t matter… You’re probably getting enough. But if you’re only getting 50g per day, than the plant to animal protein content makes big difference because you need to ensure you are getting those amino acids. If you want to learn more on Amino Acids, I listened to a great podcast that you can listen to hear (5). And this is an area where you can check in with yourself. How do you feel when you are eating a plant based diet? Are you tired all the time or do you have loads of energy? Do you crave meat? Do you have any hormonal issues? If you can be honest with yourself, you might be thriving on a plant based diet, or you might not be. Just know you will most likely need to be taking more vitamins and supplements and making more of an effort to prioritize protein. And remember that if something is working for you now, it might not be in 1 year, or in 5 years. Re-assess to eat the best for you and your body in this moment.
How does poor digestion affect protein absorption?
You can eat protein and meet your daily needs, but if your body is not properly absorbing the amino acids and minerals in that protein, then you won’t be meeting your needs. Once you put food in your mouth, you chew it up and it travels down your digestive tract and you stomach will release enzymes such as Hydrochloric Acid (HCL), which is the beginning of the digestive cascade. Hydrochloric Acid has many important functions; it ionizes (aka breaks apart) minerals, activates pepsin (which breaks down proteins), it sterilizes (which directly impacts your immune system). But as we age, our HCL decreases, on average, it is producing about 50% when we are in our 60’s and it can get down to 85% functionality when we are in our 80’s.
So, to summarize, people who don’t have enough HCL can be depleted in minerals (even if their diet is on point), because the pepsin that is needed to break down and absorb the minerals is just not there. Proteins can also putrefy (hypochlorhydria) if there is not enough HCL to break it down and sterilize it. When this happens, the “bad bacteria” and yeast in the gut will feed off it and this can cause dysbiosis and candida. Some signs that you may have Hypochlorhydria;
- Bloating, burping of gas after meals
- Feeling as though the foods sits for hours
- Nausea after taking supplements
- Indigestion, diarrhea, constipation
- Weak nails (need protein and minerals to make really strong nails = need HCL to break down proteins and for mineral absorption)
- Dilated blood vessels in cheeks
When people have these symptoms, many times, doctors can prescribe drugs that lower stomach acid because they think there is too much stomach acid, when really the problem is low stomach acid. To deal with the fermentation acids that are being produced in the stomach, it is common to:
- Use antacids (tums/rolaids), they are forms of calcium carbonate which is alkaline, they can neutralize.
- Class of drugs called H2 antagonists (zantac, pepcid) – they are stronger and neutralize right at the site blocking the histamine response on site
- Protein pump inhibitor (PPIs) (Nexium) = shuts of stomach acid by up to 99%!!
And in every one of these cases, there is not enough stomach acid, and all of these drugs become more damaging than helpful, there are more serious side effects like bone fractures because the person is no longer absorbing minerals, etc, or can get pernicious anemia/B12 deficiency **Only use these short term if you need to heal an ulcer.
How to heal HCL /digestive Issues:
- Rest and Digest (get into parasympathetic mode before a meal)
- Bitters (Because when things in nature are bitter, our body understands that they might be poisonous, and that is how our body has evolved, and it ramps up whole digestive tract, turns on HCL/enzymes/bile, whatever can deal with that potential threat as quickly as possible). Examples: dandelion root, arugula, artichoke root, lemon, ACV, can help to stimulate the digestive fire. Take this 20-30 minutes before meal.
- Stomach Acid repletion protocol (the use of HCL pills before a meal) – there is a specific protocol that can be done working you up to a certain number of HCL capsules. You would be best to work with an experienced practitioner to do this.
How much protein do you need every day?
Currently, the general recommendations for protein are .8g /kg body weight. So if you are 150 lbs, that would be approximately 55 grams of protein per day. This has been proven to be an underestimate of what we need. This would be a minimum for someone with an extremely sedentary lifestyle. And as Dr. Phillips states “We are still aiming at the prevention of deficiency (with the RDA), as opposed to the optimization of processes that are important” (5).
To meet the functional needs, such as promoting skeletal-muscle protein accretion and physical strength, dietary intake of 1.0, 1.3, and 1.6 g protein per kg BW per day is recommended for individuals with minimal, moderate, and intense physical activity, respectively. Long-term consumption of protein at 2 g per kg BW per day is safe for healthy adults, and the tolerable upper limit is 3.5 g per kg BW per day for well-adapted subjects. (4)
So, to make it easier, I tell my clients about .7 – .75 grams / lb of your goal weight. Notice that I say goal weight. If you are currently 30 lbs heavier than normal, calculate the protein amounts based on your goal weight. So, let’s say you are a mom in her early 40s, who is 190 lbs, you feel your best when you are 160 lbs. You have a couple kids so you are somewhat active chasing them around, but you don’t go to the gym. I would normally recommend you eat about 112 – 120 grams per day. Now if you are only eating 3 meals a day, which is the way I currently eat and recommend to a lot of my clients, but the case would be much different if you are pregnant, postpartum, breastfeeding, weight lifting regularly, or diabetic – in these cases, snacks would be appropriate. At 3 meals per day, that looks like about 37 – 40 grams of protein at each meal. That may sound like a lot, but there are a couple caveats with this recommendation;
1. That may be totally unrealistic for you, so aim higher, and don’t stress if you are just getting 20-30 grams at each meal, this is better than many people. The whole point of the reco is that you are now becoming more aware of how much protein you are getting in, just the act of thinking of it alone, will help you eat more.
2. You can also slowly ramp it up. If you are currently eating 50 grams of protein per day and tomorrow you start trying to eat 120 grams, your body hasn’t had a chance to catch up and “update” the current digestion and enzymes, so you may get constipated or notice digestive upset if you jump right in. Instead, get yourself up to your goal amount by slowly increasing it over a couple weeks.
What does 30-40 grams of protein look like? See the image below:
5 Top tips for eating more protein:
- Batch cook protein 1-2 x /week – We will do this every week so that there is always protein to grab in the fridge. When I plan meals during the week, I will always cook 2-4 times what I need for that meal. An example is cooking extra chicken thighs, and then you can have that chopped chicken in the fridge that can be used in a quick stir-fry or salad. Other proteins we tent to cook lots of: chicken, pork (skewers or pulled pork),
- Add it to baked goods – This is an especially good idea when baking for kids. I always add protein to pancakes, muffins, cakes, oatmeal, etc. I love to use Whey Isolate powder and Collagen because I find they don’t change the taste at all.
- Have dinner for breakfast – Focus on increasing your protein amounts at breakfast, an easy way to do this is to stay away from traditional “breakfast foods”. Instead, have dinner leftovers for breakfast, or Greek yogurt is always a good option of you want something more breakfast-like. Setting yourself up for a more stable day and less snacking in the evening.
- Sprinkle it on (chia seeds, hemp seeds, nutritional yeast, etc). A good way to add texture, as well as a couple extra grams of protein. I even add collagen powder on my kids noodles.
- Have quick and easy protein on hand – For those days (or weeks) where you don’t have time to cook or prepare protein, turn to canned fish, meat sticks or jerky, or frozen meatballs. For fish, I like tuna (although I try not to eat it more than 2x/month), salmon, herring, or oysters. And as for meat sticks, find a brand that has fewer ingredients and stay away from extra fillers, like wheat and colouring, and artificial flavours. Meatballs are another quick and easy option to throw a quick spaghetti and meatball dinner together. Here’s one of my favourite recipes.
Who needs more protein?
If you are healing from a surgery, birth or trauma, if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, if you are breastfeeding, if you are very active an/or regularly lifting weights (4+ x /week), if you are in older age (50+). Your body will naturally need more protein because protein (amino acids) provide the building blocks for growth and healing.
Can you eat too much protein?
As humans, our bodies are capable of getting rid of extra protein in the form of Urea. If you are eating beyond what your body needs, your body will digest the protein you’re eating, but your body just can’t use it.
“Healthy adults can tolerate long-term consumption of 2 g dietary protein per kg BW per day or even a higher amount. For example, consumption of 3 g dietary protein per kg BW per day (the highest amount tested in the study) for 3 weeks (duration of the study) did not cause any side effects in elite cyclists. They reported that cyclists could well tolerate 3.3 g dietary protein per kg BW per day (the highest amount tested in the study) for 7 days (duration of the study). Furthermore, based on the capacity of urea synthesis, the scientists estimated that healthy adults can tolerate a dietary intake of 3.5 g protein per kg BW per day without side effects. This is equivalent to 280 g protein per day for an 80 kg (180lbs) subject. Interestingly, the Greenland Eskimos, who have lived on an almost exclusive meat diet for generations, consume daily 280 g protein, 135 g fat, and 54 g carbohydrate per person without renal or hepatic abnormality. However, a higher intake of protein may present a problem for some adults. In a recent study, forty healthy resistance-trained individuals were assigned to ingest 4.4 g protein per kg BW per day. The protein was derived from regular diet plus a mixture of whey and casein powder. Among the ten subjects who dropped out, three stated an inability to consume the required amount of protein and one subject complained about gastrointestinal distress. However, thirty subjects (including men and women with an average age of 24 years) could consume 4.4 g protein per kg BW per day for 8 weeks without side effects. Based on these studies, it appears that well-adapted healthy adults can tolerate a dietary intake of 3.5 g protein per kg BW per day for a prolonged period of time.” (4)
Long-term consumption of any nutrients (including water, protein, and vitamin A) in high amounts may have adverse effects on human health. When protein intake is ≤2 g per kg BW per day, there is little evidence of intestinal, hepatic, renal or cardiovascular dysfunction in healthy people.
As for when to eat the protein, it is best to be somewhat equally distributed at your meals so that your body can use it when it needs it. Because like I said before, the body is not great at storing protein. Some studies found that greater amounts at breakfast can be beneficial.
I got pretty technical a couple times here, but it doesn’t need to be complex. I recommend that my clients keep track of how much protein they are eating each day and see what that amounts to. Then, from there, they can layer on a little more if they are not getting enough. That might look like an extra egg in your omelet, an extra scoop of greek yogurt, or some extra nuts or hemp seeds sprinkled onto a meal.
Because we are all so different, and our needs are so wildly different, these recommendations are just that. So I urge you to take these numbers and calculate your daily needs and try to hit those numbers for a week. How do you feel? Do you have more energy? Are you sleeping better? Are you having fewer cravings? Or, are you so full you can’t finish you meals? Check in and individualize your amounts based on how you feel. Maybe you just eat more protein on meals after you’ve worked out, or maybe on days you are just feeling a little bit hungrier. Take this time to check in with yourself and see what is right for you.
I hope this answered some of your questions about protein and gave you some ideas of how you can incorporate more in your day to day.
If you have more questions, comment below.