How important is protein in your diet?
Some talk (seemingly forever) about carbohydrates (the sugar in plants) or fat as the bad guys in health and obesity. I confess a level of guilt in the sugar category. And you may be sick of it, particularly since I keep suggesting you change what you eat. Because, dang it, you LIKE what you eat.
Neither one of those alone is to blame. It is the combination coupled with the absence of protein. Ideally carbohydrate (sugar) and fat in your food provide the energy required to allow protein in your diet to do its job. Not enough of the right protein in the long run results in weak and reduced muscle mass. In the short run the result is excess body fat.
That is the bottom line. Read further to understand how that works and how to avoid the problem.
Sources of energy
Carbohydrates and fat are energy sources. Dietary carbohydrates require insulin to process, dietary fat doesn’t. On the other hand, the amino acids in food proteins are the building blocks of your body, not actually intended to be a source of energy. Ten of those amino acids are essential and must be eaten in food.
In a really serious crunch, like in actual or perceived starvation, your body can convert some of those amino acids into sugar for energy. There will be a serious uncontrollable craving for protein under those circumstances. Your body does not want to consume the amino acids in your muscles for energy. Instead it is going to encourage you to consume more protein to avoid the necessity.
What is the purpose of protein?
You are MADE of amino acids contained in protein. Everything that is constructed in your body to replace and repair is MADE of protein. Everything that ENABLES that construction process, the hammer and nails, is MADE of protein. Think muscle , hair, nails, hormones, enzymes, blood cells, brain cells. EVERYTHING. Don’t forget that your heart is also a muscle. If anything I have understated the importance of protein.
Energy has no purpose other than keeping protein utilization going. Are you thinking, “Gosh, breathing might be more important?” Breathing is indeed essential and it is very fortunate that the parts of your body involved in breathing have the right amino acids available to keep them going.
Have you watched a TV show called Naked and Afraid? People get dumped out somewhere in the world with absolutely no resources and have to figure out how to survive. Forget the naked part (although they ARE naked) because that isn’t the point. The point is they haven’t got any food.
So talk about a food craving, these people automatically are on a full-on search for meat. With the exception of one vegan who tried her best to just eat some roots she dug out of the ground (she did finally give up and eat some meat), EVERYONE craves protein.
So, you may be thinking, how will they get energy with just protein? Give the good Lord credit for the design. Your liver makes sugar when you need it from whatever resource is available. You would survive forever without so much as one carbohydrate. And I should point out the amount you “need” is infinitesimal.
And your liver makes fat too, by converting excess sugar into fat and putting it away in storage. How did you think you got that gut?
The energy source of last resort!
The big deal is that, in a crisis, protein is the energy source of last resort. In a major pinch, like when you get dumped out in a really bad spot on Naked and Afraid, your body will break down protein to make sugar and even fat. If the program participants (who are, in my opinion, nuts) don’t find protein to eat, their bodies will break down muscle. That is what happens in starvation.
In fact, those folks on Naked and Afraid could last the whole time with only water. They lose a lot of weight because their liver starts converting their body fat into energy and then it goes to work on their muscles. If your body could “think” it will be thinking “this could go on forever and we better get a lot more protein (as the energy source of last resort) in here ASAP”. Hungry and craving protein for sure but not dying!
This is an important message. If your body isn’t getting enough protein it will let you know. And you will eat and eat and eat. This factors into what happens to people whose diets consist of a lot of processed, low protein and high carbohydrate foods.
Sources of protein
There is protein in both meat and plants. But the protein in plants has a couple of problems. There isn’t much there in any one plant. And the protein is “incomplete,” missing one or the other of the ten essential amino acids, all of which are found in meat.
In other words, it takes a ton of plants in just the right mix to make all the protein your body needs.
Plant eating herbivores
Consider herbivore animals that eat only plants. The ones that come to mind are BIG animals like elephants, deer, and cows. And what do we know about those animals? They browse all the time. Would that be to get more and more energy?
Sure, they are big guys and needs lots of energy. They have multiple stomachs and unique digestion required for a continuous supply of grass carbohydrates. But if they didn’t browse all the time they wouldn’t be able to get all the protein they require.
Plants with the highest protein are beans. It isn’t that beans aren’t nutritious. But if you depend on just beans for your protein you have to eat a LOT in the right mix and a LOT brings an enormous load of carbohydrates (energy) along for the ride. All that excess energy will become body fat.
This is a clue for us humans with only one stomach. The more we depend on plants for our protein needs, the bigger we will get. We are stuck with a lot of carbohydrate (sugar) going in when our bodies are not designed for that exclusive diet.
How much protein should you eat?
I have an enormous aversion to saying “how much protein” you should eat. Different experts have widely divergent opinions. It depends on your size, your level of exertion, your body mass index (BMI) and your age. Everyone is different.
Another factor to consider would be any unique health conditions. If you happen to have kidney failure going on but are not yet on dialysis, your kidneys can’t remove the urea produced when your body digests protein. Your doctor will tell you what you should do about that. Always pay attention to your doctor’s direction.
Short of some special health condition, the beauty is you probably won’t have to worry about the amount. Just cut back on the carbs and replace them with protein in your meals until you stop craving food.
How might you know you aren’t getting enough protein? Perpetual hunger is one sign. But the most obvious sign is that you don’t have much muscle strength. The older you get, the more important this becomes.
What does age have to do with it?
As you age you need ever more protein to deal with the inevitable deterioration of aging, perhaps twice as much. If you find yourself weaker, less able to exercise, can’t walk far, worried that you might fall down and be unable to get up, you likely have way too much carbohydrate and not have enough protein in your diet. Double up on your meat protein and don’t worry about the fat on it.
The incredible edible egg
And if you are financially limited or have a bit of a chewing problem, just lean heavy on the incredible edible egg. Fine source of protein and healthy fat.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All About the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Pat is a resident of Montgomery County, AR, president of Ouachita Village, Inc. board of directors (Montgomery County Food Pantry), and president of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org; phone number is 870-490-1836; visit her website at allaboutthefood.org