Get to know your Macros: Protein
The most glaring issue that I see with most people’s diets is a lack of protein, especially protein coming from a high quality source. Our culture has grown to rely on other, cheaper and less quality sources of food to fill our stomachs. Whether it is a convenience issue, a cost issue, a cultural issue, or a learned issue, I’m not sure, but it certainly seems widespread.
In fact, I believe that at the root of all of the major diets that are popular right now, a great deal of the benefits that people are seeing are from an increase in quality protein, and not necessarily from eliminating carbs and/or gluten or because it’s what our caveman ancestors did. When you cut out the crap that you are eating, and substitute it for a high quality protein source, you should expect major results on a variety of markers.
So why is protein so awesome?
For healthy, active individuals who exercise regularly, protein is the building block that repairs muscle after it is broken down via working out. As I mentioned in a previous post that you can read here, the point of exercise is to physically stress the body in a new way that forces it to adapt and prepare for the next bout of exercise. This preparation comes in the form of repairing and fortifying the damage done. Protein is the building block of repairing that damage.
For less active individuals who are more sedentary, protein is still a vital part of the diet. A more sedentary person will still undergo a great deal of physical and mental stress in their lives. In the same way that protein helps the exerciser repair intentional damage done via fitness, protein helps the sedentary person survive the damage they are doing to themselves by other stresses.
Energy and Hunger Levels
Compared to the other macronutrients, protein generally gives people the best balance of energy and level of fullness throughout the day. It is digested slower and allows for a more sustained satiety as it is processed by the body. This results in less of an energy crash and less hangry feelings throughout the day. In other words, by consuming an appropriate amount of protein with your meal at noon, you will help prevent murdering all of your co-workers on your way to the vending machine for something to satisfy your hunger.
Because it is slower and more complex to digest, your body actually burns significantly more energy (calories) as it processes protein. 20-35% of the protein calories that you consume are burned in the process of digesting that same protein. Compared to carbohydrates (5-15%) and fats (0-5%), that number is significant. In other words, if you consume 500 calories of protein in a day, you will burn 100-175 of them just in digestion. Pretty nifty, huh?
Regulation of Insulin and Glucagon
Insulin and Glucagon are two very important hormones involved in regulation of stored energy in the body, significantly in the form of fat. Insulin is secreted when your blood sugar level is elevated, allowing your body to use the excess sugar in the blood. Unfortunately, excess sugar that is not used is stored in the body in tissues and fat cells.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when blood sugar levels are low, Glucagon is released to allow the body to burn that stored energy.
Eating a diet high in protein helps to regulate blood sugar and allow the body to release more glucagon, stimulating the body to burn excess stored energy in the form of fat.
Protein vs. Carbohydrates
We will get into the importance of carbohydrates in a future post, but for now, we will talk about the caloric value of protein consumption vs the value of carbohydrate consumption.
Calorically speaking, carbohydrates and proteins are equal. So, changing one for the other in one’s diet can be a convenient switch to a more high quality, useful macronutrient. In other words, eating 10g of carbohydrates will net you 40 calories. Eating 10g of protein will also net you 40 calories. Relating to the hormone regulation effects mentioned above, this is important. Generally and practically speaking, what most people consume in a meal high in carbohydrates will significantly elevate the blood sugar, whereas protein will not. If you are used to consuming 2000 calories per day, and 40% of those are carbohydrates, you can bump that percentage down, allowing for an increase in protein while still maintaining the same daily caloric intake.
Ok, Can You Just Cut to the Chase and Tell Me What to Do?
Yep. A great, general rule of thumb is to consume 1g/pound of lean bodyweight of protein. You can use the handy dandy protein content of food handout pictured below. This daily protein content number may change depending on your goals, health, current status, etc, which we can discuss in person if you like. But 1g/pound of bodyweight is a great place to start.
If you are like most people, this will feel like a lot. It’s ok. Change can be difficult to implement, especially in a daily ritual like eating. Stick with it and track your results. If you’d like to get really in depth, and want to track your body fat, we can do that here for you. You will like what you see.