In nutrition, we call something “essential” when the body cannot produce it on it’s own. There are 9 such aminos found in protein that cannot be synthesized by the body. There are 6 more conditionally essential aminos that can be synthesized, but poorly in infants or individuals under catabolic stress (meaning the body is metabolizing it’s own proteins for whatever reason). And then there are 5 that are pretty easy to make, so we sometimes refer to these as “dispensable”.
We use aminos to carry out many bodily functions. We build our own proteins out of them, muscle, bone, blood, cartilage, skin, hair, and nails are some main examples. We also use them to make neurotransmitters.
Serotonin and melatonin are neurotransmitters you may remember from our last discussion on sleep. Without the essential amino acid tryptophan, the body can’t make enough serotonin and melatonin. Sometimes just a lack of protein can lead to symptoms of deficiency such as depression, worry, insomnia, and many other fun ones of a similar category. A lack of protein may be affecting your mood and cognitive function, especially if you have any compromised receptor function and need all the help (and tryptophan) you can get. Many antidepressants (SSRI’s- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) act on the body’s handling of serotonin.
Amino acids are also used in the production of enzymes and hormones, which either dictate or facilitate most of what goes on in your body. Hormones are like directors or managers, and enzymes are like the keys needed to run all of your fancy equipment. None of your stuff would work without enzymes, or know what to do with itself without hormones.
Who feels like having a steak right about now?
Another gold star for protein is it’s rating as the most important macronutrient for building muscle and also for maintaining it while dieting. Dietary protein helps spare muscle by increasing muscle protein synthesis and also by giving your body extra protein to convert to glucose for processes such as muscle glycogen storage and brain fuel when it’s needed. Protein is also said to be “thermogenic” because it is an expensive molecule to burn for energy. It yields less ATP per molecule than carbs or fat- ATP is the energy currency of the cell. It’s like burning your coffee table for heat instead of sticks and logs you collect in the woods; it would really heat up your wallet. These are the main reasons why fitness buffs and competitors revere their sacred protein, since they are constantly trying to maximize muscle mass and minimize body fat.
Speaking of dieting, protein is the most satiating macronutrient per calorie and personally, a dietary lightbulb went off when I upped my protein and lowered my carbs. Before I upped my protein, I was hungry and cranky every few hours and craved something sweet in the afternoon and evening. After upping my protein, my appetite seemed to become that of which I had always considered a normal person would have. My moods and hormones improved too!
Ok, back to dieting. One of the most critical elements of a successful weight loss plan is creating high satiety levels. There is nothing more likely to sabotage your weight loss scheme than not being satisfied by your meals. Feeling hungry or starving or just having a wicked appetite is not really livable for the duration of time required to lose some weight.
Protein, as if it can get any better, also has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar. Protein consumed (especially in the morning) can reduce jitteriness, agitation and mood swings, improve cognitive function, and improve sleep.
Protein is also helpful to a stressed out body: “ If you’re chronically stressed, the tissues in your body literally start to break down. Stress researchers call this “wear and tear” on the body allostatic load. The tissue breakdown is caused in part by collagen proteins being used up faster than they are replaced. So if you’re under a lot of stress, it’s especially important to eat proteins that contain collagen.” ~ Kresser
So now you may be putting on your hunting outfit (which may also mean grabbing your purse or man satchel) and ready to head out the door in search of protein. At least I hope so! I’m really trying to sell this thing! But before you go loading up, let’s discuss what makes up adequate protein intake so you know how much of what to hunt for.
The reality is that you can survive on a wide range of protein intakes, but low protein diets are not recommended for optimal health, balanced hormones, or optimal body composition. You can also get your protein from a variety of sources, but animal products are the smartest choice. Sorry vegetarians, the proteins found in animal products are more bioavailable and have a more complete profile. This means they are easier to absorb and put to use by our bodies. Therefore, they (animal products) are the clear winner over the proteins found in plants and grains, which are often tougher to digest and absorb.
The studies linking processed meats and meat consumption to cancer are much too weak to base recommendations on, some of these are even sponsored by the owners of vegan protein powders. People have been eating widely varied amounts of protein and NOT getting cancer since the dawn of mankind. The claims that meat is bad for your health have already been debunked by thousands of years of human history. It seems hard to prove that an essential part of nutrition in its most bioavailable form, would be the cause of health problems. It doesn’t make any sense. Protein is good for you!
Protein is so important to the body that the brain has some pretty strong mechanisms in place to make sure you crave it when you need it. Protein does so many critical things in the body, that optimizing your protein intake is likely to affect some big improvements to your health and longevity. It’s at least worth giving a solid try for the next 90 days!
Optimal protein intake depends on a few life factors that differ individual to individual. This can vary depending on what’s going on in your life. In general, aiming for somewhere between .6 - 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass should cover most of your bases. It’s not necessary to obsess over the specifics here, you can estimate your lean body mass. You can also aim for somewhere between 20-40% of caloric intake from protein, whichever is easier. If all of that is too complicated, try to eat a piece of protein the size of your palm 2-3 times a day!
Some people feel better the more protein they eat, and others feel like they have to gag it down. Don’t force it, just be cognisant and TRY to hit a more optimal quantity. You can’t really overeat protein; it produces such a strong satiety signal that you just won’t be able to do one more bite once your body has had enough. There’s no need to try and override this sign from your body.
There are a few scenarios that you may benefit from with a slightly higher protein intake. As you get older, protein requirements go up a little, and it can prevent the muscle wasting that starts to set in as early as your 40’s. The same holds true for those suffering from chronic illnesses. If you are training really hard and trying to build or maintain as much muscle mass as possible, protein is your buddy. Also, as mentioned earlier, people who have blood sugar regulation problems, people on a diet, and people who are under a lot of stress all benefit from increasing their protein intake even a touch beyond the recommended levels, or at least staying closer to the higher end.
If you have a psychological aversion to protein based on a more vegetarian belief system, and you tolerate dairy, whey protein shakes may be more your style. Whey protein is very well absorbed and well researched as an excellent source of protein and strikes no resemblance to animals.
If you’re really low in protein and struggle with aversions, try upping it a little at a time, don’t gag it down… I’m pretty sure that will make your aversion worse. Add as much as you’re comfortable with and support locally raised, pastured meat producers when you can. Pay attention to how your body feels over the next few weeks; look for changes in appetite and mood, and over a longer period of time, body composition.
Hopefully by building this new habit, you will reap the benefits that having enough protein in your diet can bring! Please let us know if you have any questions or would like help dialing this number in more specifically for where you are at this time in your life.
Extra Credit: Protein and Major Hormones Affecting Satiety
The main hormone responsible for the regulation of energy status in the body is Leptin. Leptin is released by adipose tissue (body fat) and signals the entire bodyʼs nutritional status, metabolic status, and endocrine status to the brain at all times. The brain in turn uses leptin to regulate total glycemic control, energy balance, and all neuroendocrine function in all systems in humans. This is crucially important for making sure we donʼt run out of energy and die. People without much fat mass ironically release a lot of leptin in response to a meal, telling the body that the stores are good to go, which turns down signaling to eat by producing a feeling of satiety, and keeps signaling to store (release of insulin) in check. Highly satiating foods, like protein also seem to have the effect of releasing a lot of leptin. Foods that are hyper-palatable cause a temporary form of leptin resistance and have been proven to be the fastest route to weight gain. Itʼs referred to in studies as the “cafeteria diet”. Most processed foods fall into this category and may very well be largely responsible for the current obesity epidemic.
This hormone can sometimes be managed with a period of eating a really high protein diet, especially eating a huge whack of it within a half hour of waking... like 30-70 grams of protein! You wonʼt want to eat for a while after that. Peptide YY (PYY) is a peptide released by cells in the ileum and colon in response to a meal and has been shown to reduce appetite, possibly by improving the central nervous systemʼs sensitivity to leptin. Obese people secrete less PYY than non-obese people. The consumption of protein boosts PYY levels, so some benefit was observed in experimental subjects in reducing hunger and promoting weight loss. This would help explain the weight-loss experienced with high- protein diets.
Chris Kresser article referenced: