In my last couple of blogs we have been talking about small steps that can lead to big strides in improving our overall health and well-being. Today I want to talk about protein. I have written about protein in the past but, because I believe it is so important, I think it is worth revisiting.
The Protein Conundrum
The amount and types of protein that our bodies need has been a source of a lot of research and debate for decades. For many years we were told that Americans get way too much protein, and we were not only encouraged to eat less protein but also actually admonished for eating too much. Then came the low-carb fad and we were told that carbs were the enemy and we could eat as much protein as we pleased. Now once again we see articles in the news about too much protein. It really seems to be a conundrum.
Nutrition Tip: “Moderation in all things” Emerson
Having said that, there ARE precautions to eating too much protein, particularly protein from animal sources that have “unclean” raising and slaughtering practices and processed meats. Let me discuss those for a moment.
Processed Meat e.g. Bacon, smoked meat, hot dogs salami.
Due to additives and/or cooking methods, these meats have cancer risks that are independent of other lifestyle factors.
My Advice: Avoid altogether or eat SPARINGLY.
Red Meat. Red meat is associated with a higher cancer risk. It is important to remember that there are other factors to consider with regard to red meat and cancer, such as lifestyle and dietary choices that tend to coincide with high meat intake (e.g. alcohol consumption, smoking, sedentary lifestyle).
My Advice: Eat red meat in moderation. Whenever possible choose grass fed organic beef. According to the Mayo Clinic, grass fed, organic beef is higher in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and linoleic acid, has more antioxidants including vitamin E and, interestingly, less total fat than conventionally raised beef. AND! Research shows grass fed beef actually tastes better than conventionally raised beef.
Protein from other animal sources e.g. poultry, pork, fish.
While there has not been as much emphasis in the research on these protein sources and a potential link to cancer, it is REALLY important to consider how the animal was raised and slaughtered. Raising animals conventionally involves feeding the animal food from sources that are full of toxic substances such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. In addition they are fed antibiotics and even arsenic!
Some of these chemicals stay in the animal and may be particularly concentrated in the fat. When we eat an animal that is laden with these chemicals, those chemicals stay in our bodies. These chemicals are linked to a whole range of health problems including cancer, heart disease, infertility, seizures, and in the case of mercury, blindness. As humans, at the top of the food chain, the more of these food sources we ingest, the greater the risk experiencing side effects, symptoms and health issues.
What about the chemicals that are not absorbed by the animal, but excreted in urine and feces? Well….this byproduct of digestion which should be a natural and healthy fertilizer, becomes and ecological nightmare. Wherever it is dumped the ecology of that area dies.
My Advice: Choose organic poultry, sustainably raised pork and avoid farm-raised fish (unless sustainably farmed). With regard to fish, be mindful of mercury. The larger the fish, the more highly it may be contaminated. This includes: tuna, orange roughy, swordfish, shark, Chilean sea bass and tile fish.
Protein and Kidney Function
It has been generally accepted by the medical community that too much protein is harmful to the kidneys or at the very least puts them under stress. However, in looking at the literature, this is what I discovered:
- In studies that specifically looked at high protein intake and kidney function in healthy individuals, there was no evidence to support high protein intake negatively effecting kidney function.
- In studies that looked at people with Type 2 Diabetes and weight training, those on a higher protein diet lost more fat and gained more muscle than those following diet with recommended daily protein intake
- It appears that for healthy, active adults it would require and enormous amount of protein combined with insufficient water intake to induce kidney damage.
- Individuals with kidney disease should consult their physician and a dietician to monitor diet and kidney function. However, the recommended daily intake of ~ .8g of protein/ kg of body weight (~. 36g/pound) appears to be safe.
Protein and Alzheimer’s
There has been some discussion around protein intake and its relationship to Alzheimer’s. As it turns out, it doesn’t appear that it is the protein per se that is the problem. The issue has more to do with the type of protein. Processed meat (like those mentioned above) and high cholesterol appear to be the main concern. Here again, high quality, lean protein consumption that is appropriate for your age and activity level, appears to be not only safe for cognitive function but also necessary to maintain brain health.
Protein and Cooking Methods
As I mentioned above, meat that is smoked or preserved is associated with a higher cancer risk. This is also true of meat that is over cooked or grilled. Any style of cooking that produces that charred appearance on the flesh or that overcooks the meat, results in the production of compounds called ACAs and PAHs. Don’t worry about remember the names of these compounds, just remember that barbequing, smoking, and cooking at high temperatures produces these compounds and that these compounds cause cancer.
To avoid or reduce the production of these cancer causing compounds:
- Cook more slowly on lower heat
- Don’t overcook meat
- When grilling, turn the meat more frequently to reduce charring
- Add a protective marinade. Antioxidants found in rosemary, onion, garlic and lemon have been shown to reduce the formation of ACAs and PAHs.
Now that we have addressed many of the concerns that we see in the media about protein, lets take a minute to discuss the benefits.
As we mentioned earlier, the general protein guidelines for sedentary adults under 45 are .8g protein/kg body weight. Having said that, I will tell you that in my experience, for most people this is not enough protein.
In my book, I take you through the calculations to determine the amount of protein you need for your age and activity level. However, you can get a good start on meeting your protein requirements by starting with an easy calculation of 1g protein/kg body weight (or roughly .45g protein/pound).
I will wait while you do the calculation……
Your body needs protein for more than muscle.
Did you know?
- Your bones are approximately 30% collagen protein.
- Many of your hormones are made up of proteins.
- Protein plays an important role in your blood.
- Protein is essential to enzymes which carry out the chemical reactions in your body.
- Protein is an important part of your cell membranes.
In essence, your body needs protein to remain upright and function properly.
Now that you have done the calculation to determine your basic protein needs, here are some things to remember:
- As we age we need more protein. Most adults over 50 do not get enough protein.
- In times of growth, illness, repair, or pregnancy we need more protein.
- Your body can only absorb so much protein at a time. Therefore to assure you are absorbing adequate protein, be sure to space your protein out throughout the day.
Timing your protein.
Many avid weight trainers and athletes have made a science out of timing when to eat protein. If you are a weight lifter or heavy exerciser it is important to be aware that exercise actually breaks down muscle. You need to take in protein fairly quickly after a heavy workout to help build/rebuild muscle mass.
If you are an average exerciser (please tell me you are!!), you mainly need to think about spacing your protein out between meals and snacks to ensure you are absorbing what your body needs.
It doesn’t have to be hard. Here are some basic numbers to help you get your head around your protein intake:
- A 3 oz serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards
- 3 oz of meat is approximately 21 grams of protein
- One egg has about 6 -7 grams of protein
- One cup of quinoa has about 8 grams of protein
- A half chicken breast is approximately 30 grams of protein.
Now that you know your protein requirements and how much protein is in a few foods, you can begin to figure out how to incorporate protein throughout the day to accomplish your protein goals.
NOTE: Too much protein, particularly at dinnertime, is simply excess calories that will eventually be stored as fat. Also, if you are dealing with acid reflux, it's best to keep your dinner protein serving smaller than mid-day, for example.
Taking small steps toward getting the right amount of protein in your daily routine will help you build and maintain muscle mass, maintain bone density and provide all of your body functions with the protein they need to keep you running vibrantly.
Here’s you to an your increasingly good health!
Until next time…
P.S. I would love to see you at my next book signing: Bookworks on Rio Grande, Thursday March 23rd at 6:00pm. See you there!
P.P.S. Do you belong a group that would like to learn more about wellness? I am available and can tailor a wellness talk to your group’s interests and needs!