- Without fuel for the brain to think and function?
- Without muscle to run, jump, and play?
- Without hormones to send operating messages to the entire body?
- Without enzymes that catalyze nearly everything in the body?
- Without an immune system that protects from invading organisms?
- Without hair, skin, or nails?
- Without energy for the heartbeat, or to live life?
- Without the one thing that could feed us completely (with fat) if we ate nothing else?
And yet, many of us look upon eating protein as if it’s some kind of incidental activity that matters little, giving it only a passing glance in our scheme of food choices.
Where do we get protein? All muscle is made of protein, including the flesh of animals and fish. Other animal products are also largely protein, like eggs, milk, and anything made with milk like yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese. Of course, there are proteins in plant foods too, they contain less of the essential proteins (amino acids) -- more below on this.
Proteins are made of “amino acids." Amino acids are just the building blocks of protein. Different types of amino acids make different types of protein for different functions in the body. For example, the amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, the good-mood neurotransmitter needed by the brain. And there’s the amino acid cysteine, precursor to glutathione, which is a major detoxifier in the body. But don’t’ forget the amino acid lysine, which has a major role in the immune system.
There are about 20 different amino acids – all of them absolutely necessary . Most of these can be made in the body from other amino acids, but not all. Eight of these amino acids can’t be, so they are considered “essential” to get from food. All of these 8 amino acids are in animal-based proteins, such as meat/fish, milk, eggs, and cheese, and certain grains like soy, quinoa, and hemp but in weaker amounts.
All the amino acids (i.e., protein) need to be eaten often – because the body can’t store protein, like it can store fat. So what happens if you’re a vegetarian or vegan and don’t eat animal flesh or any animal products? Well, you need to have a basic knowledge of amino acids, so you can get the essential ones. This is where food combining comes in. For example, beans and rice each contain different of the essential 8 amino acids, so eating beans and rice together gives all needed amino acids.
Plant foods work this way too, but you need to know which they are, AND eat enough of them. Most foods contain some types of amino acids (protein) even if they are low quality.
How much protein do we need? Some people just seem to do better eating more protein, and some do okay eating less. That’s just the way it is. Call it “eating for your blood type” – that’s one way to look at it. So if you’re one of those who really need more protein, but are trying to eat less, for example as a vegan), then you won’t do well. You’ll have less energy, less necessary hormones, less immune system, less of everything that’s fueled by protein. And as we know now, that’s pretty much – everything.
Also, our needs for protein can differ a bit. During illness or extreme physical exercise, for example, we need more. If you want to just lay in bed most of the day and have your body perform all its basic metabolic functions just to survive, then you’ll only need about 40 grams of protein a day (or less). However, if you need to lay in bed due to illness, you need lots more -- especially if you want to get well.
Now, 40-50 grams protein may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. Those who are ill, especially with chronic illness, need probably double that – 80 grams a day. And the average woman should have no less than 60 grams protein a day, which is a bare minimum in my mind. Women have more hormonal needs (hormones are proteins!) going on, just to give one example.
Basic protein guide. If you eat animal products two or three times a day, then you're probably getting all the essential protein you need. If you eat mostly plant foods, then it’s important to make sure you're getting the essential 8 amino acids, somehow. Here’s a basic protein guide:
1 oz meat of any kind or fish = 8 grams protein
8 oz animal milk = 8 grams protein
1 egg = 8 grams protein
1 oz cheese (thin slice) = 8 grams protein
1 cup yogurt= 8 grams protein
1/2 cup beans= 7 grams protein
1/2 cup split peas/dal= 14 grams protein
1/4 cup nuts= 7 grams protein
2 T. nut butters= 7 grams protein
Can we eat too much protein? A big steak or 8 oz piece of meat (1/2 pound) for a meal would give 48 grams of protein just for that one meal. Which is probably a tad more than is needed at one meal. The body will just excrete any leftover protein because, remember, protein can't be stored. If someone ate excessive protein all the time, then the thinking is that it's hard on the kidneys over time. I don't know many who eat that much protein -- most people eat too little, especially women.
On the other hand, a vegan who relies mostly on nuts and vegetables for protein, or a vegetarian who eats low-quality grain proteins (unless they’re combined properly) would be lucky to get 40 grams high-quality protein in one day of eating, and maybe two! For them, their body will rely on either glycogen (carbohydrate) storage or fat storage (if there is any) to meet daily brain and body requirements. There’s always a bit of a deficit going on, unless one is very thoughtful about what’s on the menu.
Protein needs for illness. So how much protein does someone with a chronic illness need (especially low energy)? In my experience and practice, chronic illness needs no less than 60-80 grams HIGH-QUALITY protein a day. High quality means that the protein is "complete", and contains the 8 essential amino acids. Shooting for 80 grams a day may seem like a bit of work for someone not eating well – that’s where protein powders come in handy – whey, rice, or pea protein powders work great (soy is not recommended).
Amino acid functions. But getting back to the building blocks of protein for a minute – the amino acids. Each amino acid has lots of different functions. You’ve probably heard of many of them, like tyrosine, cysteine, lysine, and tryptophan.
Let’s take glutamine as an example – just to show the vast array of powerful functions that even ONE amino acid can contribute. Glutamine is popular with body builders and athletes because of its ability to fuel the muscles and improve endurance. Here’s what else it does: keeps the intestines healthy (repairs a leaky gut lining), makes neurotransmitters for the brain like GABA, increases cellular energy, helps with healing after surgery (protein synthesis), and on and on.
Every amino acid has at least five really important functions in the body – so if you missed getting just one amino acid, over time, you’d eventually be missing out on that function.
Amino acid therapy. More and more, we’re using amino acids therapeutically, which is one of my personal and professional areas of great interest. This isn’t exactly new. Twenty-five years ago, I did a research paper on using tryptophan (precursor to seritonin) for treating depression. But the wheels of progress take awhile.
What this means is that brain/mood issues like depression, anxiety, and even ADD can be treated with amino acids, for starters. With amino acids (proteins), we’re simply giving the body more of what it needs to perform the function, like a good mood, clear thinking and memory, more energy, more hormones, more enzymes, better immune function, more relaxation, stronger muscles, and on and on.
In the next 5-10 years, I really believe that treating many maladies with amino acids will be very commonplace. Many functional and anti-aging doctors do it now. And even average primary care doctors might suggest using lysine (amino acid) to improve immune function. Vets do all the time for animals! I use lots of amino acids therapeutically to keep improving my health, like tyrosine for the thyroid, taurine for GABA and relaxation, and glutamine for gut lining. The effects are truly astounding!
But even more importantly, we can get all these amazing amino acids just from the food we eat – from eating protein. They’re all there, all we need to do is eat them. The body does all the rest!
Let me know what you think about this post. And if you have any questions, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nutrition and Health Educator
B.S., Nutrition Science