I would like to talk about an important building block of nutrition, specifically that of protein. Protein is a large molecule made up of smaller individual amino acids. The code of life is inscribed in protein links called DNA and RNA. Proteins also make up metabolic activators called enzymes. Additionally, proteins are responsible for growth and repair, hormone production, red blood cell production, maintaining an acid base balance to name a few properties.
While the word protein is a molecular description of foods’ composition, the human level experience of protein is with food itself, such as beef, chicken, whey etc... It is rare to find any food item that doesn’t contain a small amount of protein, however. When we were referred to a piece of food as a protein we are referring to the dominant amount of its nutritional composition. As an example, broccoli is approximately 17% protein. Yet, we do not think of broccoli in our list of protein-based foods. So, the subject of protein can go deep and in part two we will dive in deeper.
What you want to know about protein is how much you should get per day.
There are two different ways to think about protein levels per day:
- general guidelines for basic daily consumption
- specialty values for athletic performance
For daily nutrition, the average adult needs between 50 and 75 g of protein per day. This, of course, is a starting point. Yet, frequently people eat too little protein throughout the day causing metabolic disturbance such as increased sugar cravings, moodiness and fatigue.
For sports performance, the needs for protein usually go up considerably during training seasons only. In Part 2 we will discuss this topic specifically in more depth. Keep in mind that daily nutrition is more important than what you do on one day of an event. At this point in your training you are still focused on foundational activities like recovery and growth. So, keeping your daily proteins even is super important and a great way to start a season of athletics.
It’s also easy to get too much protein. Try not to go over 80 grams of protein per day during this part of your training. What if a breast of chicken had bacon and cheese with it! The protein amount is higher than the amount of protein we can absorb in one meal. This often times creates an acidic environment in the stomach and blood leading to inflammation and eventually disease.
Proteins that come from the animal kingdom come with a greater ability to grow tissue and build a hormonal base. Yet, these same proteins also increase inflammation in the digestive process. Proteins that come from the vegetable kingdom tend to down regulate inflammation in the digestive process, yet has a milder effect on hormonal balance. If one is choosing vegetarian only they will need to spend more time calculating their protein sources as vegetarians tend to have poor wound healing and low energy. While meat-only eaters often have acids stomachs, tendonitis, irritability, constipation and, in general, increased inflammation in the body. So, any combination of animal and vegetable sources of proteins tend to make up a varied and healthful diet.
Protein cannot all be digested in one sitting. You could not sit down and eat all 75 g of protein in one meal and expect your body to process all of it correctly. There is some disagreement on this number, but, a rough number of around 25 g of protein per meal is a good number to shoot for. If we eat three meals a day and each meal has approximately 25 g of protein in it we should therefore be hitting our daily requirement.
Protein-based foods however tend to be foods that don't digest easily. As an example, a chicken breast or slice of lean, grass fed beef have no ability to break itself down once it's been cooked and ingested. What I mean here is that our internally created digestive enzymes or naturally occurring enzymes within the food itself are needed here. If one ate only a chicken breast, as an example, the protein molecules themselves have no ability to break themselves down into the smaller amino acids necessary for a simulation. Therefore, protein-based foods need to be eaten with something that aids in the digestive process. Typically, this would be from the vegetable kingdom, the fruit kingdom and the kingdom of fermented foods.
Protein digests extremely well when paired with non-starchy vegetables that have been properly cooked. Raw salads may also be of great benefit for those with strong digestions. When protein is consumed in a powder form one may think that they are skipping this important concern. However, as a clinician, I have seen many people who have been harmed by consuming too many protein powders. If the individual will treat any protein, especially the powder form, with the general rule to help find what's going to break it down when you consume it, then things tend to assimilate better.
Poor combinations that make it very difficult for proteins to break down are when they are paired with starchy vegetables, grains, and grain products. So, the combination of meat and potatoes becomes one of the challenging combinations for the body to break down and extract useful nutrients from.