When it comes to macronutrients, there is so much information out there and it can be difficult to sort through. From figuring out the right ratios to assembling them in our meals to consuming the right types, it can be confusing. It’s no wonder many of us struggle to figure out how to balance them adequately.
There are 3 types of macronutrients to know about: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. In this blog post, I’ll focus on protein. I’ll explain why it’s so important, the types of protein, and how to figure out the ideal amount for YOU. I’ll also cover tips for consuming and digesting it.
Let’s start with the basics
Proteins are large complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work in our cells and are required for the optimal structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs, specifically our skeletal muscles. Did you know that muscle is our body’s largest organ second only to the skin? It’s also an endocrine organ meaning that it communicates with other organs in our body.
Proteins are made up of chains of smaller building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. Essential amino acids are ones our body can’t produce on its own, so we need to get them from our diet. Most proteins are chains of 50-2000 amino acids.
Why is protein important for optimal health?
Every cell in the body utilizes protein. Protein supports skeletal muscle by synthesizing it from amino acids and repairing muscle from strenuous activity so we can bounce back stronger. It’s also present in our nails, skin, hair, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Protein is essential for hormone production and regulation as well as for promoting good sleep, mood, blood sugar levels, and energy.
What’s the right amount of protein to consume?
The current RDA for protein is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Whether you think that amount is little or a lot is going to depend on your individual experience and viewpoint around protein. I view this RDA as a basic standard to keep us alive and functioning but not necessarily adequate to help us achieve optimal health. Everyone’s unique needs are different, right? What may be sufficient for some may not be the case for others.
Protein intake will ultimately boil down to many factors but 3 basic ones to consider are age, health status, and activity level. If you are an athlete, bodybuilder, or if you hit the gym several times a week, your needs may be greater than someone trying to lose weight for example. Is there such a thing as consuming too much protein? Certainly. Too much of anything can cause problems. Keep in mind that our body can also convert protein into glucose through a process called gluco-neogenesis.
Generally, if you are young, you can probably get away with eating less protein, although even then I’d still pay attention to your intake. But if you are over the age of 40, you’ll want to be especially mindful, since there is a high correlation between age and muscle loss. We naturally lose muscle as we age, and adequate protein intake is the first step in fighting against this.
So how do we determine the right amount? Generally, the industry average for optimal health is 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. This is an ideal starting point and whether you consume less or more is going to depend on those 3 factors I mentioned above. If your goal is to gain weight, you may consume a little more (1.2 g/kg), and if your goal is to lose weight, you may want to consume a little less (0.8g/kg).
HINT: Convert your weight in pounds to kilograms by dividing by 2.2. Then multiply by your desired g/kg of protein intake.
Example: weight 150 pounds
150/2.2 = 68
68 x 1.0 = 68. Ideal protein intake is around 68g per day if your goal is 1 g/kg.
68 x 0.8= 54. Ideal protein intake is 54g per day if your goal is 0.8 g/kg.
68 x 1.2=81. Ideal protein intake is 81g per day if your goal is 1.2 g/kg.
What’s the best type of protein to consume?
Protein is derived from two sources: animals and plants. Whether you lean more toward one over the other is going to depend on your preferences and what generally suits you best.
Typically, animal protein tends to be a lot more bioavailable when it comes to nutrient content and absorption, but you can still get protein from plants as long as you are mindful of your total caloric intake. For example, you’d need to eat about 4-6 cups of quinoa to get the same amount of protein in a 3-4 ounce chicken breast. That can lead to a hefty amount of calories and carbs over time, especially if you are consuming other things.
You’ll also want to pay attention to certain ingredients in plant-based proteins and how manufacturers are producing them. Overall, because plant-based protein consumption is still relativity new for humans, we don’t have enough data to determine its long-term effects. Generally though, if you aren’t getting in enough protein and aren’t big on animal-based consumption, plant protein is better than no protein at all.
When it comes to animal protein, that area is not perfect either. Ideally, opt for quality sources like grass-fed, pasture-raised, or organic. While these labels do signal better quality, they should not make or break the macronutrient for you. So if you can’t afford to eat this way, it does not mean you should avoid animal protein altogether. Any animal protein is better than no animal protein at all.
A good rule of thumb to go by is that if you do consume conventionally raised protein, consume it without gluten, seed oils, and sugar. It is these 3 culprits in our modern diets that cause a recipe for disaster when it comes to meat consumption. Think fast-food chain restaurants and how they create their meals. Lastly, if you are concerned about the environment or the global impact of meat consumption, I highly recommend reading the book Sacred Cow by nutritionist Diana Rodgers.
Tips for consuming and digesting protein effectively
1 – Protein generally needs to be broken down in an acidic environment for adequate digestion and absorption. Our stomach acidity levels should have a PH between 1 and 3. Nowadays, this is just not the case for most people due to poor modern diet and lifestyle as well as age and other related illnesses and diseases. One way to combat this and boost acidity levels is to consume apple cider vinegar before your meals or in your salad dressings or take a replacement digestive enzyme such as Betaine HCL.
2 – Ideally, we want to aim for a combination of lean and fatty protein sources. If you look at mother nature, you normally won’t find protein in its lean form alone. It always comes with some sort of fat on it, like the skin for example. Too much lean protein can disrupt blood sugar levels in some folks over time. Fat, on the other hand, has a neutral effect on blood sugar. Consuming some fattier protein once in a while, in addition to lean protein, will help balance those blood sugar swings. If you are concerned about the effects of cholesterol or saturated fat, don’t be. They are not bad as we once thought, as explained by Chris Kresser. That doesn’t mean we can now go overboard with their consumption. Moderation is KEY to everything.
A final word on protein
Muscle is the driver of longevity and is our metabolic currency. We need to protect our muscles as we get older and the best way to do that is through sufficient protein consumption. One way to figure out your current intake is by investing in a kitchen scale and weighing your protein. Over time, you’ll become more familiar with the portion sizes and will no longer need to rely on a scale. In general, protein builds muscle via protein synthesis while resistance exercise accelerates the process. The stronger your muscles are, the more carbs and fat you will be able to burn. Keeping protein top of mind throughout the day, and including enough of it especially in the first meal of your day (after you break your fast from the night before) will do wonders for your health in the long run.
Written by Health Coach Lydia, NBC-HWC