By Ashley Koff, RD, Calmful Living Nutrition Editor
I can’t go anywhere these days without spotting a protein mention—from menus highlighting how you can add protein to grab-’n-go foods and beverages increasing their protein content; I even saw a coffee with it added in! We are in love with this macronutrient; and while it’s a worthy macronutrient (like carbs and fats), if you are swapping lemons for proteins, you won’t get better health results. So, here’s the skinny on protein—what you really need and a few ideas for how to get it:
- You need it.
Protein builds muscles, but it also delivers messages in our bodies, helping to signal reactions that impact everything from inflammatory response to metabolism and energy levels.
- You need different kinds of it.
More accurately, you need different amino acids. Proteins are formed from amino acids, some of which the body can synthesize and some of which the body needs you to bring in via your food (essential amino acids).
- You need it at regular intervals.
Protein plays a key role in balancing the quick-energy impact of carbohydrates or stimulants (like caffeine) to help prevent energy spikes and crashes. Nutrient balance—carbs, proteins, fats, non-starchy vegetables—provides the body with a better balance of energy as well as the nutrients to signal the body about that energy, and the nutrients to help the body optimally break down and use that energy.
- You don’t need more of it.
The negative health risks of too much protein are significant; and excess proteins do not confer better performance results, especially when they come from animal or poor-quality plant sources. Animal proteins are acid formers; this makes it harder to maintain the desirable pH levels in which good bacteria thrive in the lower digestive tract. Too much protein means too much work for the kidneys, an organ whose optimal function is critical to our elimination of toxins as well as overall balance of electrolytes and blood pH.For most of us, about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is more than sufficient. (The low range is 0.8 g/kg, and the high end can go as high as 1.3 or 1.7 g, depending on performance and health needs; but anything above 1.3 g/kg should be discussed/developed with a healthcare provider.) How do you figure this out? Take your body weight in pounds—let’s say 160 pounds—and multiply by .45 to get kilograms, which equals 72 kg; so your daily intake (1 g/kg) should be around 72 grams of protein.
- You don’t need too much at one time.
Not only can the body not use it all at once, but too much protein makes it harder on the organs involved with digesting, allocating, and eliminating the byproducts of protein metabolism. What is too much? On my nutrition plan, I note that a serving is anywhere from 6 to 20 grams of protein. Most of us do best with keeping our upper limit at the 20-gram range. Remember, this is per nutrition pit stop—meal or snack—not total for the day. So if your daily goal is 72 g, you can break this up into five equal pit stops of 14 g, or three at 20 g and one at 12 g, and so on.
- You need it better.
The quality of the protein you ingest is directly related to how well protein can do its job. Allergies, intolerances, irritation, unhealthy inflammatory response and disease result as much from the body repeatedly trying to do its work with unhealthy inputs as they do from external assaults. One example is autoimmune disease, the body attacking itself, which occurs in large part because certain messages are miscommunicated. Part of addressing autoimmune disease is cleaning up dietary choices, including protein.
- You need mostly better plant protein.
Plants provide us with so much of what we animals need—yes, just like horses or cows, which get their nutrients exclusively from plants (OK, almost exclusively, as its fair to say they also consume some critters that thrive on plants, like good bacteria and yummy bugs) and can be lean, mean fighting machines; and cows, like us, should actually not be overfat. When you consume plants, not only do you get the amino acids your body needs to make all its proteins, but you also get vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other plant nutrients (phytonutrients) that help support better health. While some plants provide “complete” protein, all plants provide valuable amino acids; so a diverse plant-based diet will get you all the amino acids you need. I often advise a third of your daily protein as the maximum from animal protein.