Habit: Eat Protein at Every Meal

For this habit, we are going to ease into it step by step. Start with eating protein at two or more meals every day. As the next two weeks go by, eat protein at more and more meals until you are eating protein at EVERY meal!

Why You Need To Eat Protein

Protein is one of the three Macro-Nutrients that make up our food.  Whole food is made up of these three macro-nutrients.  Each has a different amounts of calories per gram    (cal/g).  The Macro-Nutrients are:

  1. Protein – 4 cal/g
  2. Carbohydrates – 4 cal/g
  3. Fat – 9 cal/g

As you can see, Protein has the same number of calories per gram as Carbohydrates., but it is used in the body very differently.

Protein is, literally, the building material of our body.  Proteins are essential parts of our bodies and participate in virtually every process within cells. Many proteins are enzymes.  Some have structural or mechanical functions, such as the muscle fibers in muscle tissue.  Other proteins are important in cell signaling, immune responses, cell adhesion, and the cell cycle.  In other words, you can’t live without it.

Once a food containing protein is eaten, the digestion process breaks the proteins down into its building blocks, amino acids.  These amino acids are then used by the body to create all the different proteins that our bodies need.

Because digesting protein is a complex task, it takes the body a while to do it, which means that you feel full longer.  This is a great benefit because it means that you won’t get hungry for a while, and this is why the habit for this week and next week is to eat protein with every meal.

How Much Should I Eat?

It is recommended that adults obtain 10-35% of their calories as protein, or roughly 11–39 mg of protein per calorie per day.  For an adult who should be consuming 2000 calories per day, that comes out to 22-78 g of protein.

Need to know how many calories YOU should be consuming?  You can use this basic calorie calculator to find out.

Let’s say that you should consume 60 g of protein per day.  What does that look like?  This example adds up to 63 g protein:

  • Breakfast: egg (10g), 5 oz. oatmeal (6g)
  • Snack: celery with 2 Tbsp. peanut butter (7g)
  • Lunch: large salad with 1/2 cup of black beans (9g)
  • Snack: small whole wheat pita (3g) with 2 Tbsp. Sabra hummus (2g)
  • Dinner: 1 cup broccoli (4g), 4 oz. salmon (21g)

(Using a food tracking tool like MyFitnessPal is a great way to see how much protein, and other nutrients, you are consuming.)

You may have heard that eating too much protein is detrimental to your health or damages your kidneys.  There are three main problems with high protein consumption:

  1. If you are filling up only on protein, you won’t have room left for vegetables or whole grains, which are foods that contain needed nutrients and fiber.
  2. Many protein rich foods that Americans eat also come with saturated fat. While saturated fat per se is not harmful to your health, an over-consumption of this kind of fat in comparison to the other kids of fats can be unhealthy.  (We’ll learn more about fats in a later lesson.)
  3. Just like anything you eat, if you eat more than your body needs, the excess is stored as fat.

As you can see, if you can balance your vegetable intake and overall calorie intake, these should not be serious concerns for a healthy adult.  Eating a lot of protein does make more work for your kidneys, although if you are otherwise healthy, you should be OK.  All in all, consuming the recommended amount of protein is beneficial for you and your body.

Where do I Get Protein?

The foods that contain the highest density of protein are … plant or animal sources.  In the American culture, we most often think of animal sources as the main source of protein: foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and cheese.  In this regard, America is vastly different than the rest of the world.  Most of the world’s population gets 60% of its protein needs from plant sources; Americans get 70% of our protein needs from animal sources.

Interestingly,  common vegetables contain adequate protein, and often more protein per calorie than some animal sources, although fruits do not contain much protein.  For example, 100 g of raw broccoli provides 28 calories and 3 g of protein, so it has 107 mg of protein per calorie. An egg, for comparison, contains roughly 90 mg of protein per calorie.  Note is that an egg also contains five times as many calories as broccoli, so you’ll need to eat roughly five servings of broccoli to get the same amount of protein as an egg.

Examples of plant sources of protein: legumes (e.g. soy beans, lentils, other beans), nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, pecans), seeds (e.g. pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds), leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables, and whole grains (e.g. whole wheat).

Examples of animal sources of protein: meat (e.g. steak, pork), poultry (e.g. chicken, turkey), fish and shellfish (e.g. salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp, scallops), dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese, yogurt), eggs.

The advantage that animal sources have over some plant sources is that they are complete proteins, meaning that they contain all 20 amino acids.  Also, when compared ounce to ounce, most animal sources have more protein than plant sources.  However, plant sources of protein also provide fiber, a wider range of vitamins and minerals, and phyto-nutrients, which animal sources do not have.

What Exactly Is Protein?

(optional reading)

At the very basic level, protein is built from amino acids.  Think of amino acids as Lego blocks.  There are 20 amino acids used as building blocks in humans.  Just like Lego blocks, you can build them together in endless combinations.  Nine of the amino acids are called “essential” because they cannot be synthesized in the human body and we need to get them from dietary sources.

Note: One amino acid that you have probably heard of is Tryptophan, and tryptophan is found in turkey.  People accuse tryptophan of making them sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner because it is a pre-cursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a calming effect.  It is more likely that people are sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner because they just ate a huge meal that results in “food coma” (see earlier lesson on why to eat 4-5 meals per day).

If you are not getting enough protein, this can affect all of the body’s organs and many of its systems, including the brain and brain function of infants and young children; the immune system, thus elevating risk of infection; gut mucosal function and permeability, which affects absorption and vulnerability to systemic disease; and kidney function.  If you have dull skin, and thin and fragile hair, it could be caused by a protein deficiency.

Note: The other amino acids are: essential: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine; non-essential: Alanine, Arginine, Aspartic acid, Cysteine, Glutamic acid, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline,  Serine, Tyrosine, Asparagine, Selenocysteine.

This week, work on adding a protein source to each of your meals and snacks, and notice how you feel.  You will probably feel fuller longer, and hopefully will not eat as many simple carbs as a result!

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