Protein is very trendy these days, and for good reason.
A high protein diet has been shown to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in the elderly. It also has been shown to lower blood pressure. Protein is satiating and may even help you listen to your body’s true fullness and hunger cues. And, most pertinent to this article, protein intake is a huge predictor of muscle mass, and you want muscles, trust me. Muscle raises your resting metabolic rate and increases insulin sensitivity.Muscle protects joints and decreases injury risk.Muscle can save your life by serving as a reservoir of amino acids to help you recover from major illness or injury. Not to mention that muscle makes you strong, which can lead to dramatic improvements in your quality of life, allowing you to install your own a/c, stow your carryon, toss your nephew around in a pillow fight, deadlift double bodyweight, or pull a New Yorker off the subway tracks. Plus some folks like the way it looks. Okay, so we want muscles, and protein will help us get muscles. Hence, protein is trendy.
(There are a number of people on this planet who know more about nutrition than I do. I am a student in this realm, not an expert. However, since I am constantly interrogated about protein by the people in my life, I thought I would do well to offer what I have learned in an easy-to-understand article. Perhaps most importantly, I want people to become smarter consumers of information and I think few fitness or nutrition articles teach this.)
Let’s do a little case study on the peanut. Recently, the National Peanut Board has launched an ad campaign to restore the peanut’s dignity. Most of the ads show athletic-looking people doing athletic-looking things. Or, if the person does not look athletic, the copy qualifies them as an athlete. For instance, what appear to be a mom and her crying child are accompanied by the words, “Peanuts have more protein than any nut, which is a good thing because parenthood is an endurance sport.” All of the ads in this campaign have bracketed fine print that reads, “Peanuts have more energy-boosting protein than any nut.” It’s not really clear what they mean by energy-boosting. Protein is the preferred macronutrient for tissue-building. It actually takes more work to “burn” protein than carbohydrates or fat, so it would seem to be more energy-draining than the other macronutrients.Here are some things that boost energy better than protein: sugar, caffeine, cocaine, crystal meth.
Also, while the claim that peanuts have more protein than tree nuts is true, it’s also not really saying much since nuts are a horrible source of protein, despite what you might hear or read. To illustrate this point, here is a chart of the macronutrient breakdown by calories of several nuts. I got all this information from the incredible database at self.com.
NUT | Carbohydrate | Fat | Protein | Completeness
Peanut 15% 71% 14% 70/100
Almond 13% 74% 13% 55/100
Hazelnut 11% 81% 8% 55/100
Walnut 9% 83% 8% 55/100
Pecan 7% 88% 5% 61/100
All nuts, whether peanuts or tree nuts, are primarily a source of fat. That’s fine. We need fat too. The issue is that nuts are often touted, especially to vegetarians, as a good protein source.
But what is that completeness score about? It has to do with the amino acid profile of the food’s protein, and there’s one amino acid in particular that we’re interested in: leucine. Leucine catalyzes muscle protein synthesis (MPS, or building muscle). However, there is a threshold that must be reached in order for MPS to begin. In younger people, this can be somewhere around a gram of leucine, whereas for older folks, it can take over two grams of leucine to stimulate MPS. Twenty-eight grams of peanuts, or a serving of raw peanut butter, has about half a gram of leucine, so if you are a teenager and you eat a PBJ with a double serving of PB, yes, you’ll derive some benefit. However, an elderly person would need to eat 4 servings of peanut butter, which comes out to about 752 calories. That’s an entire meal’s worth of just peanut butter. Sounds appetizing, right? But because peanuts do have a higher completeness score (and more leucine) than almonds, almond butter fares even worse. It has 325 mg of leucine per serving. If you want to hit your threshold with almond butter as your protein source, you better be eating out of the jar with a spoon.
I don’t want to oversimplify. Leucine isn’t the most important thing. In fact, studies have shown that a common supplement—branched chain amino acids—that includes three amino acids, of which leucine is one, doesn’t do much for those trying to gain muscle. You need all the aminos, but leucine content is a good indicator of protein quality in foods. Animal proteins tend to be much higher in leucine; generally speaking, if you’re eating plant-based proteins you’re going to need quite a bit more of it to get the desired effect.
I’m currently undertaking the Beginner’s Mind Mentorship in nutrition and functional medicine offered by Dr. Ben House and in it he offers some very simple recommendations that I can stand behind. Those are that younger people who consume animal protein should aim to get .3-.4 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight three to five times per day. (You can convert your weight in lbs to kilos by taking the number and dividing by 2.2.) So take me, for example. I weigh about 72 kilos. That means I should aim to get between 22 and 29 g of protein per meal. That would be half a chicken breast with skin, or two eggs with a couple strips of bacon. (If you’re not comfortable weighing yourself or getting involved with grams of protein, that’s okay! A good rule of thumb is a piece of meat the size and thickness of your palm.)
However, if I were vegan or elderly, Ben’s recommendation would be .5 g per kilogram of bodyweight. At my bodyweight, that’s 36 grams per sitting! If you are elderly but eat animal protein, you will need a larger cut of meat. You will likely no longer be able to rely on eggs as a primary protein source since, at 7 g per egg, you’d need FIVE to meet your quota. And if you’re vegan, your meals should really be organized around getting protein. Herein lies the difficulty. The argument has been made by some folks that since a huge, muscular bull gets all the protein he needs from plants we can do the same. (I’m looking at you, Juice Press.) This argument is appealing, especially when we consider the ecological and, in some views, ethical toll exacted by animal agriculture. Unfortunately, it’s a stretch. Our physiology is very different from that of a ruminant. We evolved as omnivores, so while you can hit optimal protein intake on a vegan diet, it will take an enormous amount of care. An example of a vegan meal that would meet these requirements would be 5 ounces of tempeh (26.2 g protein) with a cup of brown rice (4.5 g) and a cup of black bean soup (6 g).
A word on supplementing protein: If you are able to eat only whole foods, that’s awesome. I personally am not up for cooking breakfast in the morning and I usually like something sweet first thing. I mix a protein powder in with my cereal milk (coconut milk for me) and have granola and berries. If you can tolerate dairy, whey protein isolate is the gold standard and you can get grass fed varieties. If you want to use a plant-based protein, check and see if they have an amino acid profile on the tub. I can’t tolerate dairy and use Vega Sport. It seems to work well enough and I have noticed that I carry more muscle when I use it in my breakfast every day.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that sitting down to eat full meals is optimal. If you don’t do this, you probably won’t get enough protein at one time to hit your threshold. So take this as an invitation to really care for yourself. Set aside at least half an hour 3-4 times a day to sit down and enjoy a real meal. Your digestion will likely improve, as will your mood.
(But please don't do it the way Garfield does.) If you really want muscles, though, you still have to pick up heavy stuff. That's where I come in. Email me to set up your free consultation.