I make no excuses for my absence the past two months. Truth is, I’ve been going through a lot of transitions lately. Namely, I started classes again, dove headfirst into a job, and started making plans for what’s going to happen after this semester. I’ve also been pondering what it is I want out of this blog — do I want to tell my stories about how I’ve come into this relationship I have with food? Do I want to share knowledge about nutrition and food I’ve acquired over the years? Honestly? Who the hell knows. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to say on this site. So bear with me while I figure it out. But for now, I want to talk a bit about something that is essential to all of us, literally builds up who we are: PROTEIN.
I’ll limit the scientific jargon to the bare minimum: Proteins (or polypeptides) are organic molecules made up of several amino acids, which are made up of several elements, ALL joined together by several types of bonds, which occur due to several types of side chains on all those amino acids. Sound complicated yet? It should. Hang in there. I’m sure you’ve heard of the essential and nonessential proteins, yes? There are 20 of them. And when you take one amino acid (say…. arginine) and join it with another one (let’s go with lysine), you start to build a chain. Keep going, and going, and the different amino acids start to interact with each other based on what each one is made of. These interactions start to fold and make cool shapes, which define what the protein is designed for! If you haven’t gotten where I’m going with this… There are a bazillion types of amino acid combinations that make proteins for a bazillion purposes.
Which is pretty wicked amazing. Our bodies need them for everything it does, down to the smallest, most insignificant function. And where do we get these guys? Our diet.
Remember the essential and nonessential amino acids? The essential ones NEED to come from the foods we eat. The nonessential ones can be made by changing the essential ones we eat into different amino acids altogether! Pretty cool, huh? There are tons of ways we can get protein in our diet. The most obvious way is by consuming tissues of other animals, which (DUH) are made up of only protein! Meat is the most direct way of obtaining protein. You’re literally taking animal tissue, putting it into your body, breaking it down into amino acid pieces, and adding it to your own animal tissues. NOW. Here’s the kicker. What do you do if you’re not into meat, like this girl? If you think about it, proteins are essential to ALL forms of life, not just us and the animals we eat. Remember, plants are living too! They need protein just as much as we do. It’s just that they don’t need protein-rich tissues like animals do (AKA, plants don’t have muscles to flex and organs to contract). But they do have tissues to keep healthy, so they have protein! Shocker!
Vegetarians and vegans can definitely get their protein too – beans, grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, eggs… they all have different levels of proteins in them! But because they’re not working, contracting tissues, they may not have all the essential amino acids animal tissues will. That’s why it’s so important for vegetarians to learn about complementary proteins (this does not mean one protein tells the other it looks nice today. Wrong complimentary. I crack myself up).
Complementary proteins are sources of protein that, individually, do not provide all essential amino acids. BUT, when paired together, they do! Grains + legumes, grains + vegetables, nuts/seeds + vegetables… The combinations are endless. So, what does this mean? Vegetarians can get just as much protein as meat eaters do! Common misconception. Just because you don’t eat meat, doesn’t mean you don’t get enough protein. Which brings me to the big issue I have about protein in today’s world… How do we know how much protein we actually need?
Food marketing is obsessed with the word “protein.” If we see it on the front of the package, it’s okay to eat. Doesn’t matter what’s in it, or what it tastes like! As long as it’s chock full of protein, I’m good to go. Protein bars and protein powders are the biggest offenders. These products are often loaded with processed forms of protein, such as soy and whey isolate, which often have damaged forms of these proteins! Not only that, but fillers and stabilizers are added in order to pack these proteins into a conveniently wrapped bar, or a powder with a long shelf life that you can add to your smoothie as a meal replacement. Now, here’s my question: If you’re eating a whole and healthy diet (ie. from lean meats, vegetarian protein sources, whole grains, eggs, the works…), why do you need this extra protein?
The USDA recommends an RDA of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for a sedentary person (we’ll get into active people later). That means: women need anywhere from 40-50 grams, and men need anywhere from 50-60 grams. Most people I know? They don’t consume that amount. They consume WAY more. But why? Society and marketing industries tell us protein is good for us, and better for us than fats and carbohydrates. Remember when I told you how important proteins are to our bodies? And how our tissues need them to exist? Yeah, same deal for fats and carbohydrates. Fats are essential for cell structure. They allow essential chemical reactions to occur in our bodies. Carbohydrates allow us to keep going during the day. Our brains function EXCLUSIVELY on glucose (the most basic piece of a carbohydrate)! Where I’m getting here is… you need carbohydrates and fats just as much as you need proteins. We cannot survive without all three. Don’t fear one and eat only the others. It’s as simple as that.
There are probably a few questions you may be asking: What if I’m trying to lose weight? What if I’m trying to bulk up? What if I’m extremely active and need the extra protein? There are a million exceptions to the rule of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. But no matter how you spin it, unless you’re running 100 miles a day and lifting several hours on top of that, your protein intake isn’t going to shift THAT much. People who are trying to lose weight tend to up their protein intake because we’re more easily sated by 100 calories of protein than we are 100 calories of fat or carbohydrates. We eat less, and we lose weight. Boom. People bulk up because when you eat more protein, there’s more amino acids available for muscle tissue building. That’s why people who work out intensely need a little more protein. When you work out, you tear muscle fibers, and in order for the muscle to repair, you need extra amino acids lying around! It’s all about giving your body what you need, and keeping everything in balance too.
So what’s the takeaway, now that Caroline has ranted about protein, and possibly blown your mind:
1. You CAN have too much protein. You’ve heard too much of a good thing can be bad. That’s true here too. Just like with fats and carbohydrates, your body takes what it needs from the protein you eat, and what happens to the rest? It goes to body fat. OR it goes to your kidneys to be processed as waste, which is really hard on them! Easy on the organs, y’all!
2. Quality over quantity. You may get a lot of protein from eating a couple gristly steaks, but you also get a lot of saturated fats too (more on fats in a later post), and your body doesn’t process those amino acids as neatly as it would a leaner piece of meat. The muscle you gain is what I call “dirty muscle.” It’s better to put high-quality protein sources into your body than to get in as much as possible. Same goes for chemical and filler-loaded bars and powders. Get your protein from things that used to be alive. Enough said.
3. Don’t ignore the other macronutrients. Your body needs to get energy from all three macronutrients. Contrary to what you may believe, proteins are not more important than carbohydrates and lipids! It’s all about the balance!
My main point here is, give your body what it needs! Not to sound cheesy, but they’re pretty amazing organisms — they know what they need, and they’ll tell you when they’re not getting it. Listen to your bodies! Give it the cleanest form of what it needs, and don’t listen to what society is telling you is best! Only YOUR body knows what’s best for it. My body doesn’t like animal proteins. But that doesn’t mean I keep it from getting what it needs. All of our bodies are different — but what matters most is how we listen to these differences and how we keep our bodies functioning as best they can! I know it’s hard sometimes, but our health is the one thing we should never compromise on! There isn’t an easy fix, or a quick route — just the best one.