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The Ultimate Guide to Protein

protein meat fish dairy

What Are Macronutrients?

  • The three major nutrients found in food are:
  • carbohydrates
  • protein
  • fat

Proteins are essential, in other words they need to be consumed in the diet or you will fail to thrive and your body will consume itself. Eventually, death would occur.

Carbohydrates on the other hand are not essential. 

Some cultures do not include much carbohydrate at all and remain healthy. Of course, they have adapted this way over thousands of years but it attests to the fact that carbohydrates themselves are not absolutely essential for human life.

Fat has nine calories per gram, carbohydrates and protein contain four calories per gram.

What is Protein?

protein foods

Proteins are made up of amino acids which are polymer chains held together by peptide bonds. Nine out of 20 amino acids found in proteins are considered essential. What this means is that we need to get them from our diets as they are not able to be made in the body.

Protein is:

  • Found in every tissue (skin, hair, muscle bone, etc.)
  • Make up the enzymes that power chemical reactions in the body
  • Make up hemoglobin that carries oxygen to your blood
  • Made of 20 basic building blocks called amino acids we either make ourselves or modify from food sources
  • Made of 9 essential amino acids that must be obtained from food. These are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine

The Building Blocks of Tissue

Humans evolved as hunter gatherers who hunted and ate proteins. Animals and animal product (milk, eggs, etc.) contain the most rich sources of protein.

Carbohydrates may not have always been available  but proteins were. We evolved to rely on animals for important nutrients that fuel various functions in our bodies such as vitamin B12, zinc, heme iron, creatine, tyrosine, carnosine, vitamine D3, DHA, and more.

Proteins are necessary for building everything in the human body.  

Muscle is comprised of amino acids and proteins and protein is needed to rebuild muscle when it is damaged from strength training. All regrowth and repair of tissues is performed by protein.

Amino acids are linked together in a long chain. The chain is then bundled into to a three-dimensional tangled up structure. 

Proteins make up:

  • cartilage, tendons and ligaments (collagen and elastin)
  • the contracting component of muscles (actin and myosin)
  • keratin based substances like skin, hair and nails
  • blood proteins 
  • enzymes
  • hormones
  • antibodies
  • cell structures

How the Body Breaks Down and Absorbs Proteins

eating meat meal

Proteins are broken down into amino acids and are absorbed through the small intestinal wall. They are then used to make all the structures and perform all of the actions listed previously.

Enzymes are used to break down the protein we consume into amino acids. These free amino acids then recombine into chains, forming specialized proteins that in turn become other enzymes, tissues and structures, antibodies, and hormones. 

Pepsin is the enzyme mainly used to break down proteins in the stomach. It works by breaking down the peptide bond holding the protein together. At this point, you are left with polypeptides, which are groups of several amino acids joined together. 

These polypeptides then move on to the small intestine where other enzymes will break them down further.

These enzymes are made in the pancreas and are called trypsin, chymotrypsin, and carboxypeptidase. They break down the polypeptides into peptides, which are two amino acids joined together. 

Further enzymatic breakdown occurs to create peptides and amino acids that can then be absorbed through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. 

 

How Protein Helps Keep You Feeling Full

lunch with protein

Protein is highly satiating, meaning, it helps keep you feeling full. High protein diets allow people to eat fewer calories when other macronutrients are kept in balance because protein fills you up and keeps you feeling full for longer.

Carbohydrates on the other hand, can spike blood sugar and increase desire to eat more. This is especially true for refined, processed carbohydrate sources. 

Carbs are important for energy and building muscle but they are not as successful as keeping us feeling full. This is why high protein diets are popular for weight loss.

Protein requires more energy in order to digest it. This helps keep you full and also burns more energy (calories) than carbohydrates or fat. 

This is something called the thermic effect of food:

  • Protein = 20 to 35%
  • Carbohydrates = 5 to 15%
  • Fats = 5 to 15% (at most)

What Are the Best Sources?

Animal proteins are the best source of complete proteins. They are the richest source and the easiest way to consume bioavailable complete proteins.

Animal products provide plentiful protein that is much harder to obtain through plant sources in similar quantities.

That is not to say it isn’t possible, but animal products are by far and away the richest source and are complete proteins. No food combinations are necessary to obtain complete proteins as with plant sources.

For some protein examples: there are 30 grams of protein in chicken breast (merely six ounces of chicken) while the same amount in rice would take 1,000 grams (1kg). Even for sources like tofu, you would need to eat 400 grams to get the same amount of protein as six ounces of chicken.

Try these: Mango Chicken with Cilantro Lime Rice, Creamy Tomato Basil Chicken, Maple Bourbon BBQ Chicken, Mango Chili Chicken Salad.

Eggs are rated as one of the highest sources of quality protein. They contain all nine essential amino acids and are highly absorbable (bioavailaible) for use in the body. 

How much protein in an egg: 

  • whole egg: 6-7 grams 
  • egg white: 3-4 grams
  • egg yolk: 2-3 grams

Dairy products are also protein rich foods. Cottage cheese is especially affordable as well as being lean and highly versatile. Greek yogurt is a high protein source as well and it can be made with minimal fat if keeping calories lower is important for you. Kefir is another fantastic option because it also provides you with ample probiotics and vitamins. (try this kefir Dirty Chai Latte!)

Check out this post all about kefir: How Kefir Benefits Your Health (Plus How to Make!)

For a great recipe using greek yogurt, try this Lighter Potato Salad.

For an excellent breakfast recipe using both eggs and cottage cheese try this Healthy Veggie Egg Bake Casserole.

 

eggs, ham toast

Creatine is an important nutrient found in animal products that is not found in plant sources. Vegans should consider supplementing with creatine. 

There are a few rating systems in place to measure protein quality. Bioavailabilty (BV) measures the proportion of absorbed protein of a food which becomes incorporated into the proteins of the organisms’ body.

Less protein from a high quality source is better than more of a low quality source. Protein from legumes have lower value than the value found in eggs. Eggs have extremely high BV due to their amino acid profile.

Whey protein is very high in branch chain amino acids which aid in recovery and athletic performance. More on whey protein to come.

How Vegans Should Find Protein Sources

beans, tofu, legumes vegan protein

Many people choose a plant based diet for personal reasons. That is a completely individual choice and I respect the ability for each person to make their own choices about what they put in their bodies. You can read more about the pros and cons of a vegan diet on Illness to Ultra.

Nuts, seeds, grains, soy products are all plant based protein examples for vegans.

Here are some great vegan protein examples:

  • Tempeh: 17 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Shelled edamame: 9 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Tofu: 9 grams per 3 ounces
  • Soymilk: 7 grams per 1 cup
  • Nutritional yeast: 4 grams per 2 Tbsp. (also known as nooch, is cheesy tasting)
  • Seitan: 20 grams per 3 ounces (made from wheat)
  • Quinoa: 8 grams per 1 cup
  • Wild rice: 6.5 grams per 1 cup
  • Oats: 6 grams per 1 cup
  • Buckwheat: 5.5 grams per 1 cup
  • Spinach: 4 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Green peas: 4 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Brussels sprouts: 3 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Sprouted-grain bread: 4 grams per slice
  • Lentils: 18 grams per 1 cup
  • Chickpeas: 11 grams per 1 cup
  • Black beans: 14 grams per 1 cup
  • Pumpkin seeds: 8 grams per 1.5 oz.
  • Hemp seeds: 6 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Tahini: 5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Almonds: 9 grams per 1.5 oz.
  • Cashews: 8 grams per 1.5 oz.
  • Peanut butter: 8 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Nutritional yeast: 8 grams per 1/4 cup (also contains all essential amino acids!)
Protein for vegetarians can extend to eggs and dairy products as well as all of the above protein examples. 

For a super nutritious snack using nutritional yeast, try this: Stovetop Popcorn with Nacho Seasoning Recipe

For a delicious sweet treat using black beans try these Fudgy Black Bean Brownies

How Much Protein Per Day Should You Eat?

The optimal amount of protein for performance and muscle building is greater than it is for longevity or basic health maintenance. 

Maximum performance is not the same goal as longevity. This type of training is not necessarily the ideal for optimal health.

How much you need depends on your body size, lean body mass, activity, and goals.

How Much Protein To Eat to Gain Muscle

woman with muscle flexing

The science says that 0.6 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight in relatively lean people is the correct amount of protein for muscle gain.

In overweight people, use your lean body mass as the weight for choosing correct protein consumption as you do not need to eat protein to fuel your current weight if you have weight to lose.

There’s no benefit to eating more than these levels. It will not harm you as long as you get other nutrients in a varied diet, but there will not be a performance or muscle building benefit for non-steroid users consuming more than this amount.

In fact, over loading could cause your body to become desensitized to it over time. You could end up with a weakened response and less results if you are over loading yourself. This theory is out there in the scientific literature, but does need more studies to confirm validity.

The body adapts quickly to stimulus. So, if you are either over eating or under eating protein, your body will adapt accordingly, either by desensitizing in the case of too much, or beginning to better utilize protein to build muscle if you were previously under consuming it.

How Much Protein to Eat to Lose Weight and Burn Fat

weight loss exercise jogging woman

Current advice recommends that 30 percent of your calories come from protein if your goal is fat loss. So for a 2,000 calorie diet, this is around 150 grams per day. 

Keep in mind your current lean body mass weight however and remember that you do not need to consume more than 0.6 to 1 gram per pound of lean body  mass.

How many calories you need depends on your current weight and your weight loss goals. Never cut calories too low and always adjust them as you add on exercise.

The idea of eating less and exercising more is a very damaging process. As you add on activity to your day, you will need more calories to fuel it. Trying to cut calories and add on activity will prevent you from being able to reap the rewards of your training and may even cause metabolic damage leading to further weight gain.

Instead, add in strength training and more movement into your day and eat healthy, whole food meals that fuel your activity and keep you satiated. Keep junk food and calorie dense, non-nutritive foods to a minimum. 

For a comprehensive guide to choosing an exercise program for your goals see this article: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a New Workout Routine

How Much Protein to Eat For Longevity

fit elderly people

This is a tricky topic because the conclusive research is still up in the air.

Some researchers say that up to .75 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day is ideal, while others claim that protein is detrimental to longevity.

Dr. Valter Longo, a professor of biological science at the University of Southern California says that proteins and amino acids regulate the two major pro-aging pathways and that consuming them “up-regulates” these pathways leading to disease and death.

Now, this is one researcher and there is plenty of conflicting evidence. So, keep in mind that blindly following the newest researcher may not be the best idea. 

Keep in mind also that the proteins many Americans consume do not necessarily come from optimal sources. 

How to Consume Protein

It is ideal to consume protein with fats and carbohydtrates.

The idea of consuming protein on its own being more effective is false.

In nature, protein is always eaten with at least some fat or carbohydrates, or both. Meat contains fat and plants contain carbohydrates. The idea of separating them being a better option is false.

eggs, salmon, avocado, healthy fats and protein

For people who have anxiety or high cortisol levels and stress, there is some evidence that eating a breakfast high in protein and fat, such as the one pictured above can help alleviate these issues. This type of breakfast is thought  to balance blood sugars and stabilize cortisol levels. 

So, if you have issues with anxiety, give this a try and see if it works for you.

See related articles: 

Post Workout, Pre Workout, and Before Bed

There are myths surrounding protein timing. When to take it and how much.

However, there is no real evidence for most of these claims about strict timing. Even if there is a small effect, it is not enough of a driver towards results to be of any concern.

You can replenish glycogen faster by having protein post workout, but you will also replenish your glycogen stores if you eat 3 hours later. The only benefit you gain from this is if you plan to do multiple workout sessions in a day. For the average person, there is no advantage.

Eating protein every 4-6 hours is fine. In fact, you will continue to burn fat after your workouts if you do not eat directly after your workout. Your body will burn fat after glucose stores are depleted, so letting your body burn through some fat stores can be a better option than refueling immediately if fat loss is a goal for you.

Moreover, drinking a shake straight after a high intensity workout can cause gastrointestinal issues.

Exercise creates inflammation, including in the gut. As you are freshly recovering from exercise, you can aggravate your gut and cause digestion issues. This can cause leaky gut symptoms and antibodies developing causing intolerance.

protein supplements whey

Importance of Variety

Protein variety is important because each protein source contains different amino acids.

It is not a good strategy to pick a singular, or narrow group of sources and eat them day in and day out.

Sometimes, if you over consume a food of any kind, your body will build up an intolerance to it. This can be the case with dairy, whey, and eggs. It is even starting to be seen with rice which was once considered anti-allergenic.

Be sure to choose a large variety of sources in order to obtain all of the amino acids as well as the other micronutrients and fat varieties they provide such as zinc, B12, omega-3-6-9 fats and more.

Track your food intake to see how much variety you are consuming. Try to add new types of protein into your diet to benefit from the added micronutrients, minerals, healthy cholesterol, and other sterols. 

For example, adding in organ meats, seafood and shellfish like clams, and other often neglected sources will help add ironzinc, healthy cholesterol, selenium, vitamin B12 (clams have over 7000% of your daily minimum in 190-gram serving!), healthy fats like EPA and DHA only found in fish, fish oils, and krill oil, and more.

variety of protein

Protein Digestion and Weight

You can gain weight from eating too much of anything.

Despite limiting other macronutrients, if you are eating too many calories in the form of protein, you will gain weight.

Although it is less likely and harder to gain weight eating high protein, if you are over consuming calories, you will gain weight.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that as long as they eat mostly protein, they cannot gain weight. This is not the case. Access calories will lead to weight gain regardless of where those calories come from. 

Obviously, there is more to how our bodies work than simple math, but it is still true that protein contains calories. Moreover, studies have shown that eating too much protein and not enough carbohydrates can lead to increased risk of osteoporosis.

Protein releases acids into the bloodstream as they are digested, which are then neutralized by calcium. This calcium is leeched from bone mass if there is not enough calcium in the diet.

Fats are also very important and are helpful in a fat loss diet. Fats increase satiety and slow down digestion to improve feelings of fullness. 

They can also stimulate stored fats to be used as energy. Fats like medium-chain-triglycerides have been shown to improve fat loss outcomes. 

Slow vs. Fast Digesting

The myth of slow versus fast digesting protein is mostly a marketing strategy to sell more supplements.

Whey protein will be absorbed faster than casein but timing your intake in the form of supplements will not really make much difference in the long run.

Protein timing is a tiny part of the picture and will not noticeably effect your results.

The supplement industry stressed casein as a before bed supplement but it is a marketing strategy meant to sell more supplements. 

Eating protein every 4-6 hours is plenty. 

Protein Absorption

Some sources report only being able to aborb 30 to 40 grams at a time.

This is false. Digestion will occur no matter what. Your body is efficient at absorbing everything you consume. 

However, you will end up with side effects of over consuming protein at the expense of other macronutrients. 

Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon published a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition stating that 

“to maximize anabolism one should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/day. Using the upper daily intake of 2.2 g/kg/day reported in the literature spread out over the same four meals would necessitate a maximum of 0.55 g/kg/meal.”

This study provides some extra guidance on how to divide protein feeds throughout the day.

How Much Protein is Too Much?:
Signs of Protein Over-Consumption

digestion troubles woman

Digestive issues can arise from over-consumption. At super high levels that some body builders attempt to eat, you can end up with gastrointestinal distress. Bad breath, noxious gas and stomach aches can occur. 

If you over consume protein and do not balance it with enough carbohydrates or fats, you can suffer from these negative side effects.

So how much protein is too much? Well, that will depend on your individual makeup, but your body will most likely let you know by reacting with the following:

  • bad breath
  • digestive upset
  • stomach ache
  • dehydration
  • headaches
  • constipation
  • fatigue
Some sources report that eating over 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight can lead to these and other negative signs of overconsumption. Be sure to pay attention to your body when it is telling you how much protein is too much.

Shakes and Powders

protein powder shake

Supplementing with shakes is okay but obtaining protein from food is better.

Protein powders are processed foods. They are highly refined and not a natural food.

Protein powders are made from a variety of sources including:

  • Rice (gluten-free, plant based, usually hypo-allergenic)
  • Egg (fat free, essential amino acids in concentrated amounts)
  • Milk (high in BCAAS, contains lactose, can boost immune system)
  • Pea (high in lysine, arginine and glutamine, hypo-allergenic, plant based, cheap, no cholesterol, no saturated fat)
  • Hemp (fiber, omega-3 fats, plant based, contains arginine and histidine in high amounts)
  • Soy (may contain anti-nutrients, could effect hormone levels negatively, plant based) 
  • Cranberry (plant based, contains omega-3 fats and antioxidants)
  • Artichoke (plant based, contains pre-biotics and BCAAs)
  • Beef isolate/aka collagen: (not a complete protein, high in glycine, proline, arginine, and hydroxyproline – glycine is a “filler” amino acid which is used to trick lab tests – do not recommend this fad protein powder)
There are also several forms of protein processing:
  • Concentrate: 60-70% protein by weight
  • Isolate: 90-95% protein by weight
  • Hydrolysates: protein peptides of 2-5 amino acids
  • Ion-exchange: separates protein molecules with electrical charge (used in milk processing)
  • Microfiltration, cross microfiltration and ultrafiltration: removes impurities and contaminants

Whole and natural foods cannot be matched.

Moreover, taking branch chain amino acids or other amino acid supplements is a waste of money if you are consuming enough protein. You obtain more than enough from foods. One egg will supply enough amino acids to out perform any supplement and it is more bioavailable as well.

Eating too many certain types of amino acids will also impair your body’s ability to utilize all of the other amino acids needed for essential functions. In fact, too much BCAA supplementation can impair your body’s ability to synthesize serotonin and has been implicated in certain types of depression.

Keep this in mind if you have been taking BCAA supplements.

 

Creatine
Creatine
Klaire Labs Vital-Zymes Chewable Digestive Enzymes
Klaire Labs Vital-Zymes Chewable Digestive Enzymes
Nutritional Yeast Flakes
Nutritional Yeast Flakes
Hemp Protein
Hemp Protein
Spatone Liquid Iron
Spatone Liquid Iron
Whey Protein
Whey Protein
Raw Grass Fed Whey
Raw Grass Fed Whey
Vegan Protein Powder
Vegan Protein Powder
Plant Power Green Powder
Plant Power Green Powder
New Zealand Vanilla Whey Protein
New Zealand Vanilla Whey Protein
Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12
Egg Protein Powder
Egg Protein Powder
MCT Oil
MCT Oil
Hemp Seeds
Hemp Seeds
HCL Pepsin
HCL Pepsin
Zinc
Zinc
Pea Protein
Pea Protein
RAW Organic Protein
RAW Organic Protein
Rice Protein
Rice Protein
Krill Oil DHA/EPA
Krill Oil DHA/EPA

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