One Simple Change: Pay Attention to Protein

Happy Friday and welcome to another week of One Simple Change! Today I want to talk about protein, and why you should pay attention to how much is in your diet.

I learned that it’s best to eat some protein with every meal and snack when I was in naturopathic school; I’ve subscribed to this “practice” ever since.

Protein is really important because it plays a number of structural roles in the body (including the maintenance of your muscle mass). It’s also essential to the formation of antibodies, enzymes, and hormones, and it helps you balance your blood sugar. Need another reason to pay attention to protein? It keeps your metabolism running strong.

Our bodies don’t store protein, so we really must eat some every day for protein to be able to do its work.

I want to zero in on what I said above re: protein helping to balance your blood sugar for a moment. This is a really key point, and it’s the reason why I always recommend you have some protein with breakfast every day (your blood sugar is particularly “fragile” after fasting overnight). If you struggle with sugar cravings- or cravings for any type of carbohydrates, really- then cutting back on refined carbohydrates and having some protein at breakfast (and then spread out through the day) should make a big difference. Having enough healthy fat in your diet will help you balance your blood sugar, as well.

How much protein should you eat at breakfast and your other meals/snacks? I personally try to have about 15-20 grams of protein at meals (including breakfast) and about half that amount when I have a snack. I am 5 feel tall and I am pretty active: feel free to adjust these numbers up or down based on your size, activity level, etc. Some may find they need a bit less, and others will need more. If you are eating a lot less protein than this and you’re not feeling great, you should definitely try adding more protein to your diet throughout the day and see how you do.

Please note that I am not at all recommending you eat a super high protein diet: what I am asking you to do is to make sure you eat a moderate amount. Be particularly careful not to eat a high protein diet that’s very low in carbs and/or fat. A high protein/low carb diet (like “Atkins”) is not good for you (the “ketosis” it causes is not a healthy state for your body), and a high protein/low fat diet isn’t healthy either (it can deplete your stores of vitamin A which will cause a variety of problems).

I know from experience that it’s incredibly easy to mess up your body if you don’t eat enough protein and/or healthy fats (and consequently eat too many carbohydrates). It is my feeling that each of us needs to experiment until we find our own personal sweet spot of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat consumption within the larger realm of a whole foods diet. When you find what works for you, good things can happen: your energy level should improve (if it was crappy) and your moods should improve, too. I don’t like to talk about weight loss on my blog (because I like to focus on health, not weight), but if you have weight to lose, this might happen, too. Also, your blood sugar being balanced means your insulin will stay in check, decreasing your risk for a number of chronic diseases.

To give you an idea of what twenty grams of protein looks like, it’s the equivalent of about 3 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish, 2 ounces of hard cheese, or 3 eggs. A cup of yogurt has about 9 grams of protein, and Greek yogurt has twice as much (18 grams!). I don’t actually weigh or measure anything to make sure I am getting a specific amount; I’ve been eating this way for so long that building meals around the amount of protein that works for me is just second nature.

Be aware that if you are choosing to eat meat, you should opt for organic/grass-fed/pastured/wild because the animals are raised in a more humane manner, and because the meat will be free of hormones, antibiotics, etc. Also, the fatty acid profile of these animals is much healthier than that of feedlot raised animals (ex. they have a lot more omega-3s). Pastured eggs are a great source of protein: they are high in omega-3s, as well as nutrients that support brain function. Grass fed organic dairy and wild fish are similarly superior to their conventional/farmed counterparts.

I eat a fair amount of animal protein because it makes my body happy. This could be because I am blood type O: there’s evidence that we just don’t make good vegetarians (folks with blood type A seem to have a better time avoiding animal foods). But I also eat a lot of plant foods that contain protein, like nuts and seeds. Because these contain less protein and more fat (albeit healthy fat) than animal foods, I think they’re really best used as snacks and not as your protein source in meals. Some seeds actually cook up like grains and can be a very nice addition to the diet whether you’re vegetarian or not: 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contains over 4 grams of protein; 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa contains approximately the same amount. Cooked legumes such as beans and lentils contain between 10-20 grams of protein per cup: these are very good sources of vegetarian protein, along with soy foods such as tofu and tempeh (I personally prefer tempeh to tofu health-wise). Whole grains contain some protein and so do some vegetables. One thing I don’t recommend: those vegetarian packaged foods that are advertised as being high in protein (because they are very processed). I also don’t recommend you consume protein powders or protein bars very often. These really aren’t whole foods and often contain a lot of questionable ingredients.

So there you go…my thoughts on protein. How do you feel about this info? Do you think you eat enough protein? I’d love to hear what you think about this week’s One Simple Change!

Sources Reviewed for this Post:

Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats
Nutrition-1-2-3: Three proven diet wisdoms for losing weight, gaining energy, and reversing aging
The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body
The Diet Cure: The 8-Step Program to Rebalance Your Body Chemistry and End Food Cravings, Weight Gain, and Mood Swings–Naturally