Lately, I have been getting a lot of questions about protein – how much, how often, what kind, is it all created equal, and so on. So I thought what better time for a primer on protein, and specifically what you do and don’t need.
If you’ve found this blog, you are likely someone who is open to consuming plants for their myriad of benefits, including amino acids – the building blocks of proteins in the body. There are many different amino acids that we get from food and that our body makes. Just like other animals, humans need a variety of amino acids from their foods to create proteins in their bodies (these proteins help form lean body mass, yes, but also other critical things like hormones). And when I say need to get these amino acids from our food, I actually mean “have to” and that is why they are called “essential” amino acids of which there are nine for humans. So when a cow eats grasses (not a turkey burger or a whey protein shake), it does so to get (among other things) amino acids that it’s body will turn into proteins.
But what about when a cow is fed corn or soy or fishmeal …and what about when any of those are GMOs? What kind of protein does the cow’s body make? The short, unscientific answer is …a different one. And that means a different muscle, a different hormone, which ultimately means different food for a human either eating the muscle or a different by-product (like dairy) resulting from a different hormone (i.e. the body’s messengers). But this really isn’t about cow body parts and products, what this example shows us is how our own bodies will be different inside when we consume different foods. Like cows, we have foods we are meant to eat and that produce regular reactions and functions in our bodies. Change those inputs and we get different outputs.
So back to proteins, and the fact that animals create proteins from the amino acids we consume. Thus, we want to consume a) the best quality aminos b) a variety, including daily consumption of the essentials c) the amount that our body needs without excess which will just go to storage (fat cells). So what are best quality aminos? I argue that it’s the ones the body recognizes – that would be those that haven’t been chemically produced or processed and those that haven’t been genetically modified.
And what of variety? How can we be certain of getting enough variety without overdoing our overall intake? In the last three plus decades we have learned a lot about plant proteins. We used to think we had to get all of our essential amino acids at every meal or risk the body not synthesizing them into the proteins we need (this is often expressed as getting a “complete” protein). Today, as our knowledge of the body’s functions deepens, we know that while we need all the essential amino acids, we can accumulate them during the day to meet our physiologic needs. But how much? I could throw back at you the nutrition response of .8-1g/kg body weight and watch your brow furrow (as would mine). I could tell you to consume foods at a meal that deliver 7-15 grams of protein and watch you relax as that’s ultimately easier to do, but then I would be left feeling I didn’t do my job because one food’s 7 grams could be equal to another’s 1 or 15 grams depending on levels of amino acids in the food and digestibility. Argh. Protein – the true nutrition conundrum.
But, then, let’s not forget about the cows, as there is good knowledge to be gleaned from our meaty friends. If we eat what we are supposed to (variety, quality, frequency etc) and we skip what the body doesn’t recognize, is it possible that we will get all our essential aminos, and as such sufficient protein? I, for one (and as some one who has worked directly with patients for over 10 years who has only seen ten out of thousands with some level of protein deficiency – worth noting that all ten were dealing with chronic disease), believe we can and will. My vegan pregnant moms have delivered healthy babies and themselves stayed healthy without analysis of their amino acids, but rather just encouragement to emphasize quality and add a little extra quantity during pregnancy and breast- feeding; my pro athletes build muscle, avoid excess body fat, avoid inflammation and stay healthy by attention to quality of their food and adhering to anti-inflammatory dietary principles which mandate more plant versus animal proteins without counting their daily amino acid profiles; my executives, flight attendants, stay home parents, and nursing home patients meet their personal health goals when we improve the quality of their intake and educate on appropriate portions, nutrient-balance and frequency…and I have yet to have an amino acid profile conversation with them.
Protein – is it in, you? Well, I hope with this blog post you now realize that’s the wrong question. You have protein in you; it’s whether or not what you are putting in you will build better quality proteins that build healthier bodies. And so I propose that instead: Protein Quality – how’s yours? as a better question for us all.
About Ashley Koff, RD
Author of Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged (September, 2011), Ashley Koff R.D. maintains a private practice, regularly lectures, and works to educate healthcare professionals and the media in an effort to improve the quality of food choices for consumers as well as on the sets of popular shows at networks like: ABC, CBS, HBO, FX and FOX. Koff regularly appears as a health and nutrition expert on national media outlets, including Dr. Oz, CBS’s The Early Show, Good Morning America Health, The Doctors, CNN and E! www.AshleyKoffRD.com