For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been pondering some interesting ideas about protein. We’ve all spent plenty of time arguing about fat and carbs — high, low, or none of each — but protein. We haven’t really talked about that.
I mentioned it in my recent post, Balancing Your Blood Sugar. If you haven’t read that yet, go back and read it. Especially the part about how protein affects your blood sugar.
Anyway, a lot of people seem to have fallen into this trap: “Protein is good…so more must be better!” They are constantly looking for high-protein snack and meal options and are even consuming protein shakes and buying protein powders….
That is not how it works. With anything. Let’s explore further.
If a Little is Good…More Must Be Better!
I really don’t know where we got this line of thinking, but it’s pervasive. For example, vitamin C. Vitamin C is some pretty great stuff and it’s true that even in large doses, it’s not actually toxic. The body will eliminate what it doesn’t need. Vitamin C has been linked to the ability to help clear infections and in some cases, even prevent them. It’s been used, successfully, in cases where even mainstream medical treatments have worked. But this has led to some people taking several grams of vitamin C a day, in hopes that this will make them healthier. The same goes with any other supplement, too.
However, too much vitamin C can have negative effects. If you take too much all at once, your urine can turn orange, and you will have serious diarrhea (as the body quickly tries to clear itself of the excess). If you take too much calcium, you can block iron absorption and become anemic. Too much calcium can also block magnesium, which can lead to neurological symptoms and weak bones. Too much iron can be seriously toxic — which is why you have to call the poison control center if children find and eat iron-containing vitamins!
I know most of you believe me on the above examples. But protein? Protein is just food.
Vitamins are “just food,” too. They are micro-nutrients. Protein is a macro-nutrient. If a little is good, that doesn’t mean more must be better. Instead, we should be looking at balance.
A Balanced Diet?
I know, strange concept, right?
Of course, when I say “balanced diet,” I am not talking about the same thing as the USDA. I don’t mean lots and lots of bread, some fruits and vegetables, and a little meat and dairy and almost no fat. That is not a balanced diet.
What I am talking about is finding the right balance of the macronutrients proteins, carbs, and fat.
None of these is evil and should be avoided long-term (there may be cause to limit or eliminate one of them in the short term due to a health concern). All of these are necessary for our health. All of these need to be in balance. We cannot gorge on protein any more than we can gorge on carbs or fat. In fact, we can do so less than we can gorge on fat, in many cases!
Everyone is going to have different ratios, depending on their individual needs. Pregnant women and body builders do need quite a bit more protein than others.
Here is a starting place:
- 50% fat
- 30 – 35% carbs
- 15 – 20% protein
That’s right…not too much protein! Why not?
Eating too much protein can be dangerous to your health. Most research shows that people should consume 15 – 25% of their calories from protein, and even those “high protein” diets recommend about 35% of calories from protein. Most say that about 0.36g per lb. of body weight is ideal, although this may double during pregnancy or other special times. What happens if you regularly consume more than 25% of your diet from protein?
- Kidney stones
- Dehydration (due to the kidneys quickly flushing the urea, a byproduct of protein digestion out of your system)
- Bone loss (due to calcium being flushed out quickly too)
Protein is essential in the body, used to make and repair all tissues. However, it is not an efficient energy source (fat and carbs are). This is why it is needed, but not in such high quantities. We need fat and carbs for energy more than we need protein to repair and build tissue. When our bodies are forced to use protein for energy (which is possible through a process called gluconeogenesis) because we’ve severely limited carbs and fat, this can cause blood sugar swings and also places a huge strain on the kidneys.
Protein’s definitely not a free-for-all, and more is not necessarily better. Consume your protein, but don’t overdo it.
Many people like to add protein powders to smoothies or shakes or use them as meal replacements. This is not really a good idea for most people. We don’t need to add extra protein to our drinks and snacks “just because” — see above! Not to mention that most forms of protein powders are highly processed and unhealthy for this reason.
Skip whey protein powders, soy protein powders, and other forms of protein powder. They are not whole foods anyway. If you truly believe you need extra protein in your diet, stick to nuts and nut butter, meats, cheeses, and other natural sources.
If you’re looking for a healthier addition, try coconut oil or another source of healthy fat. Most of us probably do not get enough fat in our diets. Fat helps us to absorb the important fat-soluble nutrients in the fruits and vegetables we should also be eating.
So What Do We Eat?
As always, I recommend an omnivorous diet. Long-term, it is not good to refuse to eat dairy, grain, meat, or any other food group, barring an allergy issue. Limited diets should be for recovery only, if you have a specific health issue, and then an omnivorous diet should be taken up again.
Strive to have your meals contain a good mix of carbs, proteins, and fat, and to overall eat quite a lot of different foods. Plan plenty of fruits and vegetables, and serve them with cream, vinaigrettes, or other fat sources. Consume meat or nuts with your meals, or add beans to your salads.
Most of the time, eat in the way that makes you feel best. Ignore all of the fad diets and the different voices out there telling you that you must eat a ton of this, or completely avoid that. This is not helpful. If you eat a balanced diet and avoid the supplementary “protein powders” or other snacks that are specifically “high protein” (most of the time) then you will do just fine.