Over the years, there has been significant controversy over protein and the role it plays in our diets. Is red meat harmful? Is a vegetarian diet the most beneficial? How much protein should you eat and how often? As I have mentioned in previous articles, we are all biochemically individual. Our body’s requirements differ, so there is no steadfast rule that applies to everyone when it comes to diet and specifically protein consumption. But armed with some knowledge and a few guidelines people can make educated choices to determine what is most beneficial for their own bodies. Here I will discuss what protein does for us, types and amounts of protein that can help or harm and typical problems people have digesting protein.
Protein includes red meat, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, beans (including soy), and legumes (including lentils). Seeds, nuts and certain grains contain protein though not enough to forgo the inclusion of the other types of protein in the diet. Seeds, nuts and grains contain enzyme inhibitors and unless soaked, sprouted or fermented can interfere with digestion and protein assimilation. Protein powders, drinks and snacks are not a substitute for the real thing.
Protein builds tissues. While all protein provides this function, the live enzymes in raw or rare protein can accelerate the process. The opening scene of the movie Rocky shows Sylvester Stallone cracking six raw eggs in a glass and drinking them just before his workout. This was to increase his muscle mass and help quickly repair the stress and deterioration caused by his vigorous training session.
Raw eggs are now frowned upon due to production methods and prolonged storage problems but you get the idea. If we don’t cook all the live enzymes out of our eggs, red meat, or fish, those live enzymes in the protein help us strengthen and repair our bodies at an accelerated rate. Live enzymes are what we see eating fruits, vegetables and meats away if we leave them out on the counter too long. Well-cooked meats don’t deteriorate at the same rate because the live enzymes have been destroyed in the cooking process. Rare red meat, rare tuna, eggs soft boiled or over easy, sushi, all help build muscle mass.
In France where it is considered barbaric to eat red meat cooked more than rare, you don’t often see older French women with the flaps of skin hanging under their upper arms. The rare protein helps keep them toned. This is not to suggest that meats like poultry and pork, that require thorough cooking, aren’t of benefit. Just that including rare protein in the diet is a good idea for healing and health.
Protein is essential to heal the body. In one year we are literally a new person. Other than some brain cells, every cell in our body has been regenerated. Our job is to provide what is needed to regenerate those cells quickly and efficiently.
Every time I treat patients for any type of health issue we evaluate the type of protein they are eating and if they are able to break down and utilize it. “Why are we discussing diet and working on digestion when I came in here for back pain?” one patient inquired. Because if your muscles, ligaments and tendons aren’t strong enough to hold all the bones and joints in place you go out of alignment. This triggers the initial problem, causing pain and sets the stage for recurring problems. Effectively treating back pain usually isn’t difficult. But preventing recurring pain means rebuilding the weakened tissues that caused the initial problem that triggered the pain. Treating the root cause of any health issue means addressing diet and digestion so the body can heal. Protein consumption and assimilation is a major part of the equation.
Protein feeds the brain and enhances mental clarity. In World War II German scientists were experimenting with various diets. In one prisoner of war camp inmates were given only protein to eat. When liberated, their rescuers were amazed to see prisoners who were not only alive but mentally acute, though they appeared to be merely skin and bone. Other types of starvation they had witnessed resulted in temporary or permanent cognitive impairment.
Instead of caffeine midday to improve mental clarity, energy and productivity, a little snack of protein with some vegetables can be much more effective, without the peak and crash popular snacks create.
Protein stabilizes blood sugar. Everything we eat, except protein, is converted into glucose, a type of sugar that the body uses as fuel. Protein is converted into amino acids which also fuels the body and brain. Think of your body and brain as a hybrid car that uses gas and electricity in a synergetic manner. Fueling a hybrid car without the electricity impairs efficiency much the same as people not getting or assimilating enough protein.
If you come home from work, running low on glucose and amino acids, you will be ready to rip the cabinets off the wall looking for something to get your blood sugar up quickly. That means junk food, which will cause a quick peak of energy and then crash. Enough protein, along with a wide variety of vegetables, three times per day, helps break this cycle and reduces cravings for sweets and junk food.
Protein supplies energy. When treating patients with acute or chronic fatigue, protein consumption and assimilation is an essential element. Eating protein three times per day keeps people energized. My patients that don’t eat three meals per day usually eat two meals and a snack. They typically find by eating protein and vegetables for their snack, a mini-meal instead of typical snack food, their energy improves.
Protein provides emotional stability. When working with patients with depression, anxiety and mood swings regular protein consumption is an important part of their treatment plan. Protein helps maintain blood sugar and energy levels which help regulate the emotions. If the body is depressed because it is not getting what it needs, people will be mentally depressed. If the body isn’t getting nutrients it needs then it’s literally starving. Starvation can trigger a panic mode that creates anxiety. Mood swings often occur when eating foods high in glucose or fructose that induce peaks and crashes in blood sugar. Without eating nutrient rich food, low on the glycemic index like vegetables, and without enough protein, blood sugar peaks and crashes causing erratic emotions. The digestive component, and the role protein plays in it, is typically overlooked when treating emotional issues.
So how do we know what kind of protein is good for us?
Early humans were hunter and gatherers. They ate whatever was available and were happy to get it. Eventually, instead of wandering around hoping to find food, people started gathering and preparing food for storage, raising animals, poultry and fish, and growing plants. Over the centuries our digestive systems adapted to suit what foods were available in various parts of the world we settled in. This explains why eskimos, whose diet consisted primarily of whale blubber, were able to extract the nutrients needed to survive. Long term, this diet could be detrimental to a person whose ancestors had not been eating this way. What your ancestors ate for thousands of years helps to determine what type of protein works for you.
Blood type can also be a consideration. Dr. D’ Adamo’s book Eat Right for your Type explains his blood type theory and lists proteins that are highly beneficial (or neutral), or proteins to be minimized, according to your blood type. But as he points out, ancestry is an important component. As most people in this country have such mixed backgrounds it often takes some trial and error to fine tune our diets. If you are tired after eating, chances are you are eating something that isn’t beneficial for your body. If you are energized after eating, and can maintain that energy, your body likes your food choices.
D’Adamo’s book explains why some people with blood Type O blood actually benefit by including red meat in their diets while it can impair other people’s health. Type A’s often don’t have the (have the) stomach acid to digest red meat. Blood Type B might feel better including raw dairy in their diets on a regular basis but for the majority of people, Blood Types O and A, dairy can impair digestion and their overall health. Blood Type A’s might thrive eating a diet rich in a wide variety of beans and legumes and while other blood types have a limited variety of beans and legumes they can digest. Blood type is just one of the nutritional tools I incorporate to help patients figure out what type of protein works for them. As I mentioned earlier there is no one rule or theory that applies to everyone.
A feeling of fullness after eating, fatigue, sluggish digestion, smelly gas or constipation are indications that you might not be adequately digesting your protein. Some people see this as a reason to avoid certain types of protein. This could be a valid conclusion, or it could mean you need help breaking down a type of protein that could be highly beneficial. Making sure you have adequate stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes, breaking down of fats, and eating foods that aid, as opposed to impairing digestion, are all necessary to protein utilization.
Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day: a saying most of us have heard. But how many people would eat for dinner what they eat for breakfast and consider it a healthy meal? When we break our fast, after hours of not eating we need nutrients and amino acids: vegetables and protein.
I tell my patients to get over the idea of breakfast foods. What ever you had for dinner is fine for breakfast. For a quick breakfast make extra dinner and heat it up in the morning. I always make extra protein for quick future meals. Soups make a lovely breakfast. Taking left over protein and vegetables, blending them up with some broth and spices makes a lovely cream soup, without using dairy.
So how much protein should we eat?
No more protein per meal than the size and thickness of the palm of your hand. We have all heard about the hazards of too much protein. Excessive meat can run too much uric acid through your kidneys causing kidney problems, gout and other health issues. But not enough protein in the diet is just as prevalent and detrimental.
So to build your tissues, accelerate healing, feed the brain, combat fatigue, stabilize blood sugar and emotions enjoy protein three times per day.
Health & Happiness,
Nancy Burton, L.Ac.