Understanding Food: Proteins

Last week, I gave a layman’s breakdown of dietary fat — that perennial bogeyman — and what types are out there and what you should and should not eat. Up this week: protein.

I will first say this: if you eat meat and some occasional legumes, you’re probably getting adequate protein levels for a sedentary activity level. Protein is very important to create a favorable glucagon-insulin balance. (Glucagon is a peptide hormone that is stimulated by protein, or decreased blood sugars, via fasting and exercise. Insulin, on the other hand, is released in response to elevating blood glucose and/or amino acids. What we don’t want is consistently high insulin levels, as that leads to a condition called insulin resistance (aka Metabolic Syndrome), which is bad stuff. Boo.)

Anyway. I digressed. Holy cats.

Let’s just put it this way: unless you are active or an athlete, you probably don’t need to supplement with protein. You don’t have the recovery needs of an athlete. You just need to make sure you’re getting enough.

Actually, it gets easier: eating the right type of protein is easy if you simply eat whole, unprocessed foods (especially wild-caught fish and farm-raised animals) and eat your fair share of the healthy fats I talked about last week (monunsaturated fats, Omega 3 polyunsaturated fats).

Where can you get protein outside of meat? Secondary sources include nuts, beans/legumes and some grains. I don’t recommend too many legumes and nuts, as these have biological defense mechanisms (anti-nutrients like phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors) that can damage function of the human gut. I think these are OK in moderation, but really moderate: way too much of the FDA dietary guidelines are driven by grains and ‘vegetables’ like beans.

What about nuts? They’re delicious, right? Well, yes. But that’s not the point. As I touched on last week, we want to eat more Omega 3s and less Omega 6s, and those salty nuts are often high in Omega 6s. We really need to keep our Omega 3:Omega 6 ratio sane so we can keep inflammation at bay, so let’s be careful not to allow nuts to be the cornerstone of our protein intake. Double danger alert: walnuts are especially high in Omega 6 fatty acids. Give them the side-eye no matter how loudly they’re singing to you.

We’re down to two protein superstars: animal meat and milk. Here, meat means seafood as well as poultry and meat from grass-fed ruminant animals, and milk means milk from cows and goats, as well as their associated butters (and even some cheeses). If you buy high-quality meats and dairy products (grass-fed beef, farm-raised chicken, ghee, butter from gress-fed cows), the protein is easy to absorb, healthy as can be and swimming in healthy fats. Seafood is in the same boat (get it?): easy to digest, great for Omega 3s. If it’s sourced well, go crazy.

Oh, I lied: there’s eggs, too. I love them. I eat them just about every morning. If you have cholesterol concerns, go with one or two eggs mixed with egg whites, and enjoy. I scramble mine, but then again I have the cooking talent of a car battery. You can probably do better.

Again, there’s no magic to getting enough protein: ideally you should eat meat, source your food intelligently, and don’t be afraid of the healthy fats I yammered on and on about last week. From there, you’re good. You don’t need whey or other protein supplements unless you’re putting heavy physical/metabolic demands on your body and need enhanced tissue recovery. (Note: supplements are good if you want a quick protein source, but I prefer real food over drinking your calories any day. But I do understand you can only eat so many eggs/egg whites in the morning.)

Up next week: the new bad guy — carbs.

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