The protein conversation
The macronutrient we associate with muscle building.
The macronutrient that triggers such an emotional response in people.
The macronutrient that divided the wellness industry into two specific groups: the animal-based protein eaters, and the plant-based protein eaters.
We love to debate high carb vs low carb, and high fat vs low fat. We might agree or disagree, but no conversation gets heated like the one surrounding protein, hence why we now tend to just leave it out. This creates only more place for misinformation, and makes it seem like there’s no real importance in getting our protein intake right.
If you’re someone who chooses not to eat animal products because it doesn’t align with what you value and it simply makes you uncomfortable, I respect you and this article might not be for you. I’m not here to challenge anyone’s values and beliefs. I’m here for the people who are choosing to avoid eating meat thinking that it’s the healthy thing to do. I’m here for the people that are dealing with issues that could easily be fixed by increasing the amount of quality protein on their plate, and have yet to figure that out. My goal is to cut through the noise, and share the truth, so that everyone can make the best decisions for them based on what type of life they want to live.
I stubbornly stuck to a vegan diet for 5 years thinking that I was doing the “right thing”. I went strict keto, and limited my protein intake, worried that it would kick me out of ketosis. The problem in my case, and something that I see happening a lot when it comes to nutrition, is that I was passing the microphone to the wrong people. I know better today than to read the headlines and fall for false statements just because it makes sense when said out loud. Anyone who believes that fat makes you fat clearly doesn’t understand the science, and this how we end up mislead and confused. We need to stop mixing emotion with evidence-based nutrition. People are suffering, overwhelmed, and setting themselves up for long-term health failure because they are listening to a very loud, yet very small crowd of people with bad information.
I want to talk about protein because while everyone is focusing on the obesity epidemic, we’re not looking at the other piece of the puzzle: we’re lacking muscles.
What about plant-based protein?
Yes, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, beans, legumes and nuts are all sources of protein. No, the amino acid content of a steak is not equivalent to the amino acid content in tofu. Not only in the content per gram, but also in their bio-availability (60-80% for plant proteins vs <90% for animal proteins). Antinutrients found in plant foods will also decrease that number, leaving little protein to work with. For example, we’d have to eat 6 cups of quinoa to get the equivalent of protein you’d get from one chicken breast, which would be metabolically disastrous. We’re simply not biologically designed to be vegans as it relates to muscle tissues and aging. We are made of protein, fat and water, there is just no way around it. Protein is the main component of our muscles, bones, organs, skin, hair and nails. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and unfortunately, most people are not giving their body nearly enough quality protein to take care of all of it, and end up creating a cascade of symptoms overtime, from weaker bones to skin conditions. We need to focus on eating quality protein, in the right amount, and I’m simply not convinced that soy and nuts can help us do that. I do think that some people can do well on a plant-based diet, but that is certainly not the majority. I think it’s important to look at the facts, and make informed decisions that support our physical, emotional and mental health. This is the whole point.
We’re chronically overfed, and largely domesticated physically. This should be the easiest problem to solve, and yet, here we are. We have a choice, we’re in control, we’ve got the tools and resources, it’s time to wake the f*ck up if you ask me.
Let’s look at some other facts
Protein is an essential macronutrient.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. It is responsible for protein synthesis, tissue repair, nutrient absorption, and much more.
There are 20 amino acids, and 9 of them are essentials.This means that you need to get them from your food, your body can’t make them.
Animal-based proteins are higher in those essential amino acids than plant-based proteins.
There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. Our body does need glucose to function, but it also has the ability to make it. For every 100g of protein you eat, your body generates 60g of glucose.
Protein determines the health of your muscle tissues.
Protein stimulates MTOR (muscle growth).
Protein is the most satisfying macronutrient, it regulates 6 of the 8 hunger hormones, keeping us full and satisfied for hours. Protein protects our muscles and our mind from overeating. In fact, it is really hard to overeat, unlike carbs and fat. If you struggle with binges/overeating, this might be a sign that your body needs more protein. Our brain makes us reach for food, and it will keep doing so until it gets the protein that it needs and gets send the signal that we’re fed and fueled. It has been shown that people on a low protein diet tends to consume more calories overall.
Protein increases the thermic effect of food. Your body uses some of the calories from your food to digest, absorb, and metabolize. Technically, protein has 4 calories per gram, but if we’re taking the thermic effect into consideration, we’re looking at about 3 calories.
The amino acid Glutamine is essential for gut health, the cells use it as a fuel source. If you suffer from leaky gut, you might want to look into glutamine supplementation.
Skeletal muscle is stimulated by dietary protein, and resistance training.
Why is muscle mass so important?
We’re familiar with muscle as it regards to mobility and strength, but muscle is also the organ of longevity, as well as our metabolic currency. It determines how we feel, how we age, and how we manage our blood sugar.
It is one of the largest sites for glucose disposal. It determines our carbohydrate threshold, aka, how many carbs we can eat. There’s a limit to how much carbohydrates our muscles can store, and pass that limit, which is around 30-40g per meal, we’re starting to store the glucose in our fat cells.
It is our amino acid reservoir, so that during times of sickness, our body has some fuel to access to.
Muscle contraction activates the secretion of myokines which travel through the body. Those myokines are anti-inflammatory, and determine how the food that we eat will be utilized. Simultaneously, the secretion of bdnf and serotonin in the brain optimizes our overall brain functions (memory, learning, clarity), and regulates our mood.
We are constantly regenerating our liver, our gut, and our skin, and the majority of the protein we consume are used to cover those basic repairs and turnovers. By optimizing our protein intake, we give our body extra protein to work with, and do other things such as lowering blood pressure for example.
Food isn’t just a way to satisfy hunger. It carries information in the body, it gives it instructions on what to do, and what genes to turn on and off. It’s a powerful tool, or most of us are using it wrong.
Quick tip: eat a satisfying, high protein meal first, then if you still want the carbs or the dessert, go for it! It’s not about deprivation or cultivating a feeling of guilt around our food choices, it’s about making the connection between the food that we eat and how we feel.
At the end of the day, we all need to ask ourselves: how do I want to live? If you want to be unstoppable, have the capacity to go after the things that you want, be a thought leader, and make a difference in the world, you need to keep your body and mind in check. You can’t live the life of your dreams and struggle with joint pain, lack of energy and focus or constantly be chasing an eating disorder. You gotta choose.