Possibly the only question more charged in fit-minded circles these days than steady state vs. interval cardio, is the classic and omnipresent Protein Question. The Protein Question, also known as the Great Protein Debate or the Protein Lecture depending on who is doing the speaking, is one of the most-asked, most-studied and least-satisfactorily-answered health questions of all time. In one corner you have PETA and the Skinny Bitches who’ve popularized their position with the erroneous but catchy “Have you ever seen anyone with a protein deficiency?!?” (Note to SBs: While it is not called a “protein deficiency,” there are many adverse health outcomes to not getting enough dietary protein.) In the other corner you have the other PETA, i.e. People Eating Tasty Animals who say that there is no such thing as too much dead flesh.
Being both a vegan and a low-carb meat-a-vore at differing times in my life, I have been subjected to hearing all the arguments on both sides, usually directed at me in an insulting and un-researched manner. Everyone has an opinion. Nobody seems to get it all right. So when I got the following e-mail from Reader N8 (U C D B 2??), I had to take a deep breath before answering.
I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to nutrition, but I’ve been trying to do a little better. I have been keeping a food journal, and tracking the amount of fat/carb/protein I’ve been eating. I’ve noticed that I don’t eat very much protein, and I’m wondering if you could offer some unbiased suggestions on increasing protein without increasing fat significantly (I know what the guy at GNC is going to tell me… I want to know what’s best, not what costs the most). I tried making a bean salad for lunch every day, and that lasted once. I’ve considered whey protein supplements, but does that provide all essential amino acids? Is there a downside to whey protein? Is there a better way to eat beans without gagging?
[Charlotte’s note: after further e-mails with N8, I discovered that his protein consumption falls around 12%. He attributes this to a lack of refrigeration at his office.]
The Simple Answer
For those of you prone to skimming or Protein Debate-induced migraines, here’s my short and simple answer:
You need protein. Eat it from whole foods sources. Don’t eat crap.
I realize that is not quite as pithy as Michael Pollan but it follows the same general rule. I think the human body has shown a remarkable resiliency over the past few thousand years of recorded history in surviving and thriving on a wide range of diets. You have the Masai who eat nothing but animals products including raw meat, blood and over a liter of whole milk a day and are amazingly healthy. You also have 7th Day Adventists who eat a vegetarian (sometimes vegan) diet with not much fat and they are some of the longest-lived people in the world. Neither group eats a lot of crap. (If you know of a society that subsists on eating fecal matter and is quite healthy, do share.)
The Complex Answer
Usually the simple answer will suffice a newbie for a short while but once one is accustomed to paying attention to macronutrients then one becomes curious about what tweaking their ratios will do. Rather than the question of “How can I be healthy?” it shifts to “How can I be healthiest?” Enter the protein research.
There is a significant volume of research into protein and its effects on the human body. Some diets, like the Zone, are based around a specific proportion of protein (30% in the case of Zone) while other plans like Atkins offer limitless protein but rather limit carbs, another macronutrient, instead. I will now attempt to summarize the current research on protein (after which I will run in a zig-zag pattern, ducking and weaving, until I arrive at my fox hole as I anticipate taking a lot of fire over this one.)
1. You can have too little protein. While protein deficiency to a severe effect is rare in the civilized world, not getting enough protein will cause brittle hair and nails, fatigue, slow-to-heal wounds, edema and decreased muscle mass. As a random aside that I learned from one of my most erudite readers Dr. Jon, in severe cases protein deficiency can cause the hair to lose pigment and look reddish. Not to mention that eating protein with every meal has been shown to increase satiety and decrease caloric intake overall. The recommended daily allowance (a number, by the way, that almost every group from every diet mindset hates with a passion normally reserved for serial killers and people who write in “Mickey Mouse” on the presidential ballot) is 0.8 grams/kg of bodyweight per day. Personally, I shoot for about 30% of my calories to come from protein. And I’m a vegetarian people. If I can do it, so can you. If you don’t lift a lot of weights, even 20% is a reasonable number.
2. You can have too much protein. Atkins and Primal lovers, try not to pass out from ketogenic shock. It’s true. And you know what happens when you eat too much protein? Besides causing liver and kidney issues, the excess calories get stored as fat. The SB’s are right on one point: Americans have a costly – both in terms of health and money – obsession with protein. You probably don’t need as much as you think you do. (Although, N8 – 12% is too little, buddy. Amp it up.)
3. The source matters. Now here is where I expect a lot of argument from you guys. I’m not an expert. I’m wrong probably more times than I am right so feel free to correct me. But my theory is that the closer it is to its natural source the better it is for you. If you like meat and want to eat it, then fine. I’m not going to try to talk anyone into vegetarianism. But choose cuts of meat that if you can afford it are organic, grass fed and finished and spit-polished by angels. If you can’t afford the royal cow’s behind, then at least choose lean whole cuts (the nasty toxins that the animals eat are stored in their fat) and stay away from processed sausages, hot dogs, lunch meat and anything you must squeeze from a tube. However, you can get plenty of protein without butchering a sentient being. Eggs are so good for you that they are actually the standard of protein that everything else is compared against! Not only is the whole egg not bad for you (all you stuck-in-the-’90’s egg phobics) but they have lots of good things for you in the yolks and the whites. Greek yogurt, plain yogurt, fish, cottage cheese are other good vegetarian options. In fact, whey protein has been shown in studies to be superior to animal flesh protein.
4. Soy protein is dicey. A lot of vegetarians and most vegans rely on soy to meet their protein needs. Soy, from my research, is tricky. Its a natural estrogenic compound which means that it works on the body sort of how estrogen does. One one hand, many studies extol the benfits of soy. On the other hand, soy products, particularly soy infant formula have been shown to have detrimental side effects. My theory is to eat it as close to the natural source as possible. I regularly enjoy edamame, mukikame, tempeh, and miso. I don’t eat a ton of tofu. I never buy processed soy products like protein bars, soy protein powder, soy-enriched breakfast cereals or soy “meat” products of any kind.
5. Protein powder is processed. N8 asked a good question about using a protein powder. I think this is a matter of personal preference. I don’t like all the extra junk that gets thrown into it, like artificial sweeteners (often used to keep the carb count low) colors and flavorings. I don’t need my protein to taste like candy. But if you do like a nice protein smoothie or a scoop in your oatmeal in the morning or a post-workout protein shake, you’ll get no judgement from me. Although if you want my advice, stay away from the soy powders and stick to whey or pea or rice. Be sure to read the labels. Most offer a “complete set” of amino acids. To me, I’d rather get my complete sets in complete foods but a powder can be a nice compromise. Especially if you are refrigerator challenged like N8.
6. Beans, seeds and nuts are not really a protein source. I’m sorry but they’re not. Beans are primarily a carb, albeit more protein heavy than most carbs. Seeds and nuts are mostly fat. Don’t get me wrong, I love my beans and nuts and eat them every day but I count them as a carb and a fat, respectively.
So, how was that for more than you asked for? Any of you have suggestions for N8 on how to up his protein intake without the benefit of modern appliances? (Ergo, no fridge or microwave although I imagine we could talk him into using an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack.) How do you all feel about protein? Overrated? Can’t get enough of it? Hit me baby, one more time. (Oh yeah, I just quoted vintage Britney at you!)