All About Protein!
It is a buzz word and it’s all over food labels. I get so many questions on protein and I wanted to do this topic justice. It is necessary to have an understanding of what protein actually is, so you can then make an informed decision on when, how, why and with what you should supplement with! Hopefully after reading this post, you will have some insight 😊
Let’s discuss protein!
What is protein?
Proteins are complex molecules that play critical roles in our body. They are made up of many smaller units, called amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids which can be combined to make a protein, and the specific sequence will determine each protein’s structure and therefore function.
What do proteins do?
The role of protein can be anything from carrying out chemical reactions in cells, to binding to foreign material in the body, to transmitting signals to coordinate biological processes, to carrying atoms and molecules within cells throughout the body. We most commonly think of proteins as making us “jacked”, but on a scientific level, this would be the role of structural support and thus providing the cell’s support, and building new skeletal muscle as well as allowing the body to move.
When you eat “protein”, the body breaks this down into amino acids and utilizes them for different processes (like those named prior).
Who needs protein?
We all do! Infants all the way to geriatrics. As you can see, these cellular-level functions and biological processes are normal day to day happenings for the body; you don’t even know they’re going on! BUT! Since protein plays a key role, we need to ensure that we are giving our body what it needs to do its proper job.
That being said, the guidelines for how much protein vary. A person with a sedentary lifestyle will need less protein than an endurance athlete, and they will both require less than a bodybuilder, or someone trying to build muscle.
For the average American woman, weighing around 168 lbs, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for a sedentary lifestyle, or 61 grams of protein per day. A person performing endurance exercises would require 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, and someone looking to build muscle or who is training with extensive weight lifting would require between 1.6-2.0 grams per kilogram. Clearly, the more active you are, the more protein your body requires. Again, think back to all the internal processes that proteins aid in… the more you move and do, the more you require of your body (the more protein needed)!
Powders vs Real Food?
A debate for the ages… However, to keep it simple, just try to vary your protein sources. (This tip can be carried through to any other macronutrient category as well.) It should not all come from powders. The benefit of getting protein from a real food source vs a powder is that the real food will require the body to break it down, thus sustaining the dosage over a longer period of time, allowing the body to push protein to where it’s needed, and bonus in that you also gain the perks of the other nutrients in the food source. Powders are a bolus to the system, albeit convenient, however much will be filtered through the kidneys and thus exerted as urine.
What’s best for me?
It is truly a lifestyle choice. Since we are all on different activity levels and have different “goals”, the amount and composition of our protein in our diet is not a one size fits all. Annoying, I know. A health coach, dietician, or nutritionist can offer a much more comprehensive analysis on what sources and how much would be a good fit! (I am more than happy to help align you with someone, so please reach out if you’re completely at a loss!). NOTE: Most primary care physicians are not adequately trained in nutrition. Don’t expect them to be able to write you out a complete macronutrient analysis (unless you see a functional medicine practitioner). This is not the fault of them, but that medical education does not emphasize food (unfortunately).
General Rules of Thumb
Athletes or those participating in exercise should consume protein within 60 minutes of a workout, as this is when your muscles are most responsive to utilizing protein for repair and growth process.
If you are looking for weight control, it is necessary to consume a steady supply of protein at each meal to help keep you full and avoid highs and lows. For instance: Instead of just an apple, choose an apple with a dollop of nut butter; dried fruit should be paired with nuts; toast should get an egg. (You get the idea!)
Whole Food Sources of Protein
Depending on if you are a carnivore or vegetarian, your “go to” sources of food-based protein will vary. For starters, some great options are:
Almonds (then pistachios and cashews)
Greek Yogurt (plain)
Market Protein Supplements Available
The supermarkets are stocked full of different powders, all claiming to be the best! How do you know which one is a proper fit?
I will start by saying that quality is key. (Price may or may not be an indicator of quality!) Read labels and analyze every ingredient.
It really is necessary to find a supplement that matches your overall goal. Weight loss? Muscle gain? Nutritional impact? One size does not fit all. Find something that meets your needs. (See below.)
This seems to be the most commonly used protein and is good for day to day use. It is a milk-based protein, so it is not a good fit for a vegan diet. (Note: whey protein isolate should contain very little lactose, and may even be consumable by those with lactose intolerances/sensitivities.) Whey protein and whey isolates are a good option for building muscle. A high biological value is also necessary, as this indicates how well the body can absorb and utilize the protein. I would also suggest sourcing whey that is organically produced, and whey coming from grass fed cows that aren’t treated with artificial hormones would also be highly recommended.
For some women, this may ease symptoms of menopause, however there are very mixed reviews with using soy (mainly from a standpoint of hormone interference). Genetic modification is also happening in soy land, so that would definitely be something to be watchful of! Personally, I tend to avoid soy, unless in the form of fermented soybeans (miso).
Hemp protein is 100% plant-based protein and is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. This should be 100% hemp, and therefore for someone concerned with added sugars, this is a good option as it should otherwise be “clean label”.
Pea protein is making some strides, in my opinion! I think the taste and texture has come a long way. Also being plant-based, it is also highly digestible, hypo-allergenic, and economical from a production/sourcing stand point. Pea protein will usually be a mixture, so watch for additives, artificial flavorings, and sugar.
I am briefly adding it in here, because this is something I get many questions about. In reality, this deserves its own blog post (which I promise to do!). To help compare, however, understand that collagen makes up about 30% of the proteins in the body...and these structures are found in bones, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue. Collagen also contains high concentration of four amino acids. Collagen, however, is not a complete protein. Unlike whey, hemp and soy, which contain the 9 essential amino acids our body can’t produce, collagen only contains 8 (and therefore it is categorized as an incomplete protein). If you are looking for muscle gain and recovery post-workout, a complete protein would be recommended. Collagen, however, has been shown to support connective tissue and improve joint pain. There are no long-term studies, though, to truly objectify the effects of collagen use.
AVOID: Milk protein concentrate/whey protein concentrate. These are scary chemically comprised substances and their origin is likely untraceable.
To summarize, I would suggest finding a protein supplement that is right for you and fits your needs. I think it is important that every diet contain a combination of both high quality whole foods and supplements, therefore do not try to rely entirely on powders! It is necessary for your body to break food down and utilize the wonderful nutrients that may be lacking in supplements (and supplements should be used just to round out your regimen where the whole foods may be lacking). The exact combination is up to you and your lifestyle! If you are interested in exploring this topic more, I can certainly assist you in finding someone who would be adequately trained in advising you on your diet :) Just send me an email!
To your health! Xoxo!