“Protein we Should Think of as a Vitamin Pill”
It’s common to want to jump right in and change a lot of behaviors when we notice that it’s time to make some changes to improve our health. This can lead to overwhelm and giving up. Slow and steady always wins the race. Its far better to learn to juggle with one ball and add in one ball at a time. So too with improving on nutrition!
So, for now, let’s just focus on getting in more servings of lean protein. Examples of lean proteins are chicken, fish, crustaceans, pork, beef, lamb, elk, venison, deer, eggs, Greek yogurt, low fat cottage cheese, higher protein lower fat milk, protein powders, and low-fat quark cheese. It is the macronutrient that is a good source of complete proteins and amino acids.
Why is this a good place to start?
Protein and the amino acids contained within are the building blocks to life. You are protein. Without them, we cannot maintain or build muscle mass. In fact, as we age, it’s our primary concern because muscle is our organ of longevity. Without it, we lose our independence and increase our risk of injury. I don’t want to sound dire but the older we get, the easier it is to lose muscle. To make things even harder on us, the older we get, the harder it also becomes to rebuild muscle because as we age, we become less anabolic. It’s kind of like our bank account. We really can’t afford to let our savings dwindle in our 40’s and 50’s like we could in our 20’s and 30’s because time is not on our side as we age to build those funds back up. Muscle is the currency of aging well
Regarding nutrition, protein is the macronutrient that we want to look at first because it isn’t a source of energy for the body in the way that carbohydrates and fats are. We don’t store protein the way we do fat (in fat cells) or the way we store glucose from carbohydrates (or excess starch carbs that convert to fat). If you take in more lean protein than you need to synthesize into lean mass, you will just excrete the excess protein into your urine. it used to be thought that eating too much protein could be detrimental to our health, but further study has shown that even large quantities at a time are not harmful. So, it’s easy to see why lean protein is the go-to macronutrient when it comes to weight loss and body composition management.
Protein is also the most filling of the macronutrients, partly due to reducing your level of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Have you ever tried to overeat a lean protein like chicken? It’s nearly impossible. There’s a definite signal of fullness that kicks in. For some, even in mid chew, a feeling of nausea can happen if too much has been eaten. You don’t get that from a palmful of potato chips! Yet a serving of protein is about the size of a deck of cards in your palm and serves a whopping 40 grams of pure protein!
Protein intake is also essential for blood sugar balance, and according to researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins centre, it can also prevent weight gain and lean tissue loss during peri menopausal years. If you have gone through perimenopause, you know first-hand that it becomes more difficult to maintain weight. Of course, there are other lifestyle and individual factors at play here, but these researchers suggest that the body’s appetite for protein increases at this time and if a woman’s protein needs aren’t met then overconsumption of other macronutrients will happen, leading to an over consumption of calories. Consuming too many calories for activity levels equals weight gain. This can also lead to malnourishment, as a person can be a normal weight for their age and height by eating less nutritious foods due to cravings. Eating more lean protein assists with diminishing cravings for other foods.
You can see how adding more lean protein into your diet can regulate the amount of calories eaten in a day, which is the number one factor to maintaining or losing weight. You can also see how including more lean protein into the diet can help with improving the function of hormones that regulate weight, especially as we age, and as our bodies change.
There are also studies done on how much protein is needed in a serving size to adequately stimulate the process of protein synthesis, which is the process by which cells make protein for muscle growth. It is not just for our muscles that we need to eat protein either. Muscle mass and strength are linked. Of course, this is where resistance training is important, but we also need protein for our bones, teeth, skin, hair, nails, and other important physiological functions like building antibodies in the immune system. This seems to vary depending on which studies are being cited, but the minimum intake is 20g per serving for muscle growth, with suggestions up to 40 or 50g per serving. As you will see below, you will have to find a minimum intake at each meal, as well as how many meals you need to eat a day to meet your daily protein needs.
For a daily recommendation, the standard recommendation currently is 0.8 per kg of body weight, but studies on aging in North America are showing that it isn’t enough for elderly people to maintain the muscle that they have, and that is too low a number to build muscle with. The exact number varies from person to person, depending on lifestyle, goals, and body composition, sex, age, etc. but for active people with normal kidney function, 2.2g per kg per day is a good place to start. That may sound shocking as most people struggle to even hit less than half of that. However, after reworking my own diet and assisting others with doing the same, I’ve seen that it becomes relatively easy when it’s placed at the top of the list and paired with other macronutrients that also contain protein.
So, how do you go about getting enough of this macronutrient that we can clearly see we need to age well and to be healthy? First determine how much you need. Let’s use me for an example. I weigh 66kg. (if you only know your weight in pounds, use an online calculator to convert) I take my weight of 66kg and multiple it by 2.2 and I come up with 145. I need 145g of protein per day as a minimum. I lift weights 4x a week for muscle growth. To get my muscles out of a catabolic state from sleep, I eat a minimum of between 30g and 40g of protein in my first meal. I do the same for my last meal as a measure against the fasting state that I am going into for sleep. That is up to 80g of my 145g target for the day in two meals. That means I need other meals and snacks to equal the remaining 65g. Make the first item on your plate for a meal or snack a protein, then build the rest of your meal or snack from there. A 6oz portion (which is the size of a deck of cards in the palm of your hand) of chicken, fish or meat will give you about 40g of protein. 2 eggs will yield 12g but 1/3 of a cup of egg whites will give you 10g of protein, so supplementing your egg meals with whites will increase your protein without increasing your fat intake. 1 cup of cottage cheese is 30g of protein, Greek yogurt 20g per cup. Protein powder varies from 25 to 30g per serving. These are all considered pure proteins. All other sources are considered either fats or starch carbs with protein. An important distinction to make for caloric intake which is important for weight management.
Once you have one of these proteins as your main protein, you can choose other items that are considered starches or fats with protein as sides. For example, having oatmeal or something rolled oats based will increase your protein intake by 5g per half cup. There are 20g of protein in a ½ cup of chickpeas. There are many varieties of beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, and vegetables that have some protein. Searching out and including them in your meals will increase you protein intake. Just remember two important points- starch carbs and fats are energy sources, so calories must be considered. Also, sources of protein that come in the form of plants and resistant starches are not as readily available to humans as the protein is wrapped up in the indigestible fiber. Cooking helps to mitigate this some, but plant protein does not give the same distribution of amino acids that animal protein does. If you are not consuming enough animal protein sources, you will need to supplement.
As you do the math on yourself for your own protein needs and visualize a serving of lean protein, it may start to become clear why you don’t currently consume enough protein. Perhaps your diet is filled with other items that fill you up instead. Items that don’t curb hunger like protein does, or that don’t fulfill the daily nutrients you need. Filler. Don’t despair. You don’t have to think of getting rid of anything in your diet. All you must focus on is getting in the servings of protein. Everything you now know about protein and hunger cessation will naturally clean up the rest of your diet.