Why protein is just so darn important – Dr Wendy Davis ND

Why protein is just so darn important

Why Protein Matters for Metabolic Health

(modified content from a Levels Health)

Dietary protein comprises smaller molecules called amino acids attached in long chains. Your body needs 20 amino acids to function. Eleven are non-essential (your body makes them), and nine are essential (you must obtain them from food). 

When you eat protein, it’s broken down into individual amino acids, which are then absorbed into your circulation via the small intestines. These amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein—they are used to make new proteins within the body that help build and repair every type of cell and tissue, make hormones and enzymes, form antibodies, and so much more. 

A key role of dietary protein is forming skeletal muscle, which is crucial for metabolic health. Skeletal muscle is constantly being broken down and built up, and consuming a protein-rich meal enhances a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS). That is when amino acids are incorporated into bound muscle protein to create new muscle tissue. 

Remember this very important point -  protein alone can help preserve muscle mass, exercise (particularly resistance training) is needed to enhance MPS further and promote muscle growth. 

A higher percentage of muscle mass is great for blood glucose control since muscle essentially soaks up glucose from the bloodstream, using it for energy or storing it as glycogen. Depending on the circumstance, muscle can absorb glucose with or without insulin, the hormone that helps glucose enter cells. This can reduce incidence of Type 2 diabetes

Protein supports metabolic health in several other ways. 

Eating protein as part of a carbohydrate-containing meal stimulates the release of the hormone cholecystokinin, which helps slow digestion and the rate of glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream. 

Protein also stimulates the release of insulin, which helps clear glucose from the bloodstream. Together, these two factors can help curb post-meal spikes in blood sugar which keep your energy levels and moods more stable. 

How Much Protein Do I Need? 

Among experts, there are many different takes on the “ideal” amount of protein to eat per day. The current RDA of 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day (g/kg/day), or about 54 g per day for a 150-pound adult, should be viewed as a baseline, not an optimal amount. 

The RDA is based on the typical amount of protein needed to maintain nitrogen balance for the average sedentary adult. Nitrogen balance represents a balance between muscle protein breakdown and synthesis, while positive nitrogen balance is necessary for muscle growth, and negative nitrogen balance means muscle is being broken down and used for energy faster than your body can replace it. 

Exceeding the RDA may be needed to avoid negative nitrogen balance in a variety of instances, such as when recovering from surgery or burns, when on a low calorie diet, if you have cancer, or even if you’re under a lot of physical or emotional stress (interestingly, hormones released during stress, like cortisol, increase muscle protein breakdown). Additionally,MPS slows with age, so more protein is needed to optimally trigger this process and maintain and build muscle compared to younger adults. 

Here’s what the research and experts say about protein intake for specific populations: 

  • Physically active adults: Between 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg/day for physically active adults (82 to 136 g for a 150-pound person). Other research suggests 1.0, 1.3, and 1.6 g/kg/day for minimal, moderate, and intense physical activity levels, respectively.
  • People trying to lose weight: Reducing calorie intake, whether via a traditional diet or intermittent fasting, can contribute to a catabolic state that reduces lean muscle mass. 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg/day may support weight and fat loss and help preserve lean muscle. 
  • Older adults: The rate of muscle loss increases around age 40 potentially leading to sarcopenia (severe age-related muscle loss) if you don’t stay physically active and eat enough protein. Research suggests older adults benefit from eating 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg/day.

As important as your total protein intake is, how you distribute it throughout the day is just as important. A large body of research suggests that muscle protein synthesis is maximized with an intake of 20 to 25g per meal of a high-quality, fast-digesting protein such as whey protein. 

Your body can’t store the amino acids from protein for later use, so anything you eat beyond what your body needs must be appropriately processed. 

Additionally, if energy demands are low (i.e., you’re not active enough), your body may convert excess protein to glucose via gluconeogenesis and potentially store it as fat.

Animal vs. Plant-Based Proteins

The quality of a protein depends on two key factors: 

  • The types and proportions of amino acids present
  • The digestibility of the protein source

Animal-based proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and animal-derived protein powders are considered high quality since all (except gelatin and collagen) are “complete” proteins—meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to support biological processes such as muscle protein synthesis. Animal proteins are also highly digestible (around 90 to 99 percent), with their amino acids being easily absorbed.

On the other hand, plant proteins such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are often considered low quality because many are incomplete—meaning they have too little of one or more essential amino acids (exceptions: soy and hemp, which are both complete). 

However, eating a variety of protein-containing plant foods throughout the day should provide sufficient quantities of essential amino acids to reap the benefits of protein—you don’t have to get them all in a single meal. 

Exception? To optimize muscle protein synthesis after a workout, it is beneficial to choose [foods] with a complete protein profile and the amino acid leucine, which is well known for repairing and rebuilding muscle

Plant proteins also tend to have lower digestibility due to the presence of fiber and other plant compounds like phytic acid, so fewer amino acids end up being absorbed by the body compared to an equal amount of animal protein—potentially up to 10 percent fewer.

Depending on the plant food, you may also need to eat a lot compared to animal sources. For example, 3 oz of chicken has 26 grams of protein, but you’d need to eat almost 2 cups of black beans  to get that, which comes with a lot of carbs. Aim to find options like tofu and hemp seeds, which are good low-carb, high-protein options.

How to Get Enough Protein 

1. Have adequate protein at every meal

To reap the maximum benefits of protein, you want to divide intake pretty evenly among your meals—but many people struggle to hit that 20 to 30 g mark, especially at breakfast, which often contain the least protein.Here are some protein-rich ways to start your morning:

  • Egg, cheese, and veggie scramble: Three large eggs contain 18g of protein an ounce of cheddar cheese has 6.5g and non-starchy veggies like broccoli contain small amounts (around 1g per 1/2c) for a total of about 26 g of protein.
  • Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with nuts + berries: Low-fat (2%) Greek yogurt has 15g of protein (in a 5.3 oz cup), and low-fat cottage cheese has23.5g of protein per cup. Add an ounce or ¼ cup of almonds (6g) and a half cup of berries (0.5g) for a total of 21–30 g of protein. 
  • Tofu scrambles and stir-fries: For an entirely plant-based take on scrambled eggs a tofu scramble, which contains 24 g of protein, is made with firm block tofu. For lunch or dinner, try adding cubed or crumbled tofu to stir-fries
  • Chia seed pudding with nut butter: Chia pudding made with almond milk and some berries contains around 7-8 g of protein (good for a snack). But when you make chia pudding with protein powder, each serving can have 19 g. Top it off with a tablespoon of almond butter for around 22 to 23 g of protein. 
  • Grain-free “oatmeal”: For a protein-rich oatmeal alternative, chia pudding with a scoop of Paleo Protein Powder, which makes a serving with around 48 g protein.
  • Silken tofu smoothie: A tofu chocolate smoothie uses ingredients like soy milk, cocoa powder, almond butter, vanilla extract, and silken tofu, which creates a thick, creamy texture and provides the bulk of this recipe’s 22 g of protein. 
  • Protein pancakes: Blend your favorite grain-free pancake batter (like Simple Mills) with cottage cheese for a short stack that will keep you satiated. You can use Paleo protein powder, too.

2. Eat protein-rich snacks

You don’t need to hit a specific protein target with snacks but include protein (ideally along with some fat and fiber) to promote satiety and blood sugar balance. Great options include:

  • Hard Boiled eggs (6g of protein each ) 
  • Meat snacks like Epic Provisions Venison Sea Salt, Pepper Bars (12 g protein), Nick’s Sticks Beef Snack Sticks (10 g protein), Think Jerky Original Turkey Sticks (8 g protein)
  • Salmon Jerky from brands like Epic Provisions (7 g protein)
  • Crunchy roasted edamame (14g protein per ¼ cup), chickpeas (6g protein per 1/4c), or fava beans (7g protein per 1/4c). Try adding these to a trail mix. 
  • Peanuts (7g per 1/4c), almonds (7g per 1/4c), and pistachios (6g per 1/4c) are a bit higher in protein than other nuts.
  • Apple slices with whipped cottage cheese dip: Blend up or food-process cottage cheese with a bit of cinnamon. A quarter cup has about 6g of protein.
  • Veggie slices or seed crackers with a savory whipped cottage cheese dip (cottage cheese, onion and garlic powder, dill, salt, pepper). 

3. Sprinkle on some extra protein

If your meal or snack needs more protein, try sprinkling on more. Hemp seeds are especially high in protein at 9.5 g per three tablespoons, nuts add 5 to 7 g per quarter cup, and three tablespoons of nutritional yeast have 8 g.

4. Use protein powders to help fill the gaps

Animal and plant-based protein powders contain anywhere from 5-25g per scoop. 

The most obvious way to use them is in a smoothie or a pre- or post-workout shake, but consider adding them to chia pudding, grain-free breakfast porridge recipes, pancakes, and other low-carb baked goods. 

Keep in mind: Protein powder is not a one-to-one replacement for flour—at most, replace ⅓ of the flour in a baked good recipe for protein powder.