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  • Writer's picturenuHEALth Jeff

Macros: What's the scene, with protein?

Protein is a big topic, one that requires much more time than a blog like this, but I’ll do my best. I thought of the title because there are many different “scenes”, or opinions, in regards to protein. It’s very misunderstood, as well as overvalued. Don’t get me wrong, protein is extremely important, but it’s been put on this throne that I don’t believe it deserves. So I’ll try to quickly give a synopsis of the who, what, where, when, and why of this nutritional giant.

Protein is one of three macronutrients, also including carbohydrates and fat. One difference is that like fat and carbs, it is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but it also has the element of nitrogen. Protein comes from the latin word “proteos” meaning “of prime importance”. You could say, this is where it all begins. As far back as you can imagine, protein has been looked at as being the king of the nutritional world. A title I believe not well deserved. As critical as protein is, the almost obsessive opinion over getting enough of it is not rooted in facts. 

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids help build your muscle, tissues, hormones, and more. There are 20 amino acids, but only 9 are called essential, which means they can not be made by your body. This means you must take these amino acids in through food. The fact these amino acids are called essential or nonessential may have been much of the reason for calling certain types proteins complete or incomplete. Proteins that come from animal sources are considered complete. Animals have an amino acid profiles similar to humans, so the synthesis that occurs is also similar having all 9 essentials, hence the "completeness".

So complete proteins must be better, right? Wrong. In fact, too much complete protein can be a bad thing due to something called biological value (BV). Animal based proteins have a higher BV than most plant based proteins, because they are more efficiently utilized as described above. So again, if the whole process of animal based complete proteins is more efficient, they must be better, right? Wong again. With increased efficiency due to the higher BV, you also get increased body growth, as well as other increased growths like cancer/tumor growth.  One thing this is great for is animal agriculture since faster growth means increased efficiency, more product, which means more money.

Most plant based proteins are incomplete, but that’s not a bad thing. As long as you eat a diverse whole food plant based diet, the different incomplete proteins taken in throughout the day will combine with each other and make them complete, allowing one to take in all essential amino acids. Examples of plant based complete proteins are quinoa, soy, hemp, and chia.

One thing to keep in mind is that all protein comes from plants. Only plants are able to take nitrogen from the air and create the necessary amino acids. Animals then eat the plants and create their own food protein “package”, based on the plants they ate.

One of the most common questions is how much protein is ideal? I believe most people eat too much, way too much. The RDA for protein is .8 grams per kg of bodyweight. What that means is, after conversion from kg to lbs, for an average 170 pound person, about 62 grams of protein is suggested. 90-135 grams is more normal which is basically double the RDA. Athletes require more, sometimes 2x as much, depending on activity type and amount. Elderly people are often being advised to eat more protein also to help maintain muscle mass.

For several reasons, it is possible to eat too much protein. The extra calories from protein is often stored as fat. Too much can also cause kidney damage, or an acidic environment and cause unwanted leaching of calcium from bones.  The body is trying to equalize for a better Ph. Also, a by-product of protein metabolism is uric acid which can be dangerous and is linked to many chronic diseases including acidosis related conditions. I like to tell people that breast milk, often taught as human’s most perfect food, is only 5% protein and a baby doubles in size in 6 months.

The argument over animal protein vs plant protein is for another post, but limiting the amount of intake overall, especially animal based proteins, is something to keep in mind and talk to a nutritionist about.  Also, technically protein deficiency is a real thing, but it’s practically unheard of, except in undeveloped countries, or maybe in the US with someone who isn’t getting enough calories overall. It’s actually very hard not to get enough protein, and much easier to get too much.

Please comment below with your thoughts regarding this “prime” nutrient. What is your experience with it? Let me know any questions you may have. The conversations are where and when we all learn. Thank you!

Be well.

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