I started this series on Friday with Bioenergetics and then last time I talked about Carbohydrates and Hunger. Today I'm going to talk a little about protein. If you're on the ball you may be able to guess that my next post will be about fat, but we don't need to get ahead of ourselves.
There are a lot of misguided ideas about protein, let me straighten some of those out. Protein is made up of amino acids which are a group of molecules that make proteins. There are twenty-some amino acids which combine in different orders and lengths to make proteins. Some amino acids are made in the body, but many have to be consumed in the diet. If you don't consume an amino acid that can't be made by your body you will not be able to build proteins. That's bad.
Proteins are found in high quantities in every cell of your body. The functional part of muscle is protein and that is a source of much of our misguidance. If you go to a gym and hear people talking about protein, cover your ears, start chanting "nanananana" and get out of there as soon as you can, they don't know what they're talking about.
Lets talk about why we eat protein and how much we need. Protein is the most long-term satiating type of food that you can eat. That means that when you eat protein it is the best at helping you feel full for a long time. Now don't jump to conclusions and say that you need to eat a lot more protein because your problem is that you're always hungry, that won't work for you. Do remember that you should include a little protein in every meal or snack.
How much protein do you need? about .8g per kilo of body weight. That calculates to 56g protein for the average 70 kilo (150 lb) man. Burn victims, pregnant or breast feeding women or those recovering from serious injury may benefit from eating more protein than that, but for the average Joe, or even the average weight lifter trying to get really big, eating more protein really won't do that much for you. Most people get plenty of protein without even trying, but it may be a good idea to look at food labels and estimate how much you get each day.
Up to this point I haven't said anything bad about protein, but there is a dark side to protein. Almost always, high protein foods are also high in fat. Skinless chicken breast, beans and lentils are high protein foods that are low in fat. I can't think of any others. Oh, fat free dairy products (I try to forget about those) can be high protein, low fat, BUT when they take fat out of a food they almost always replace it with simple carbohydrates (those that make you hungry). Oddly enough low sugar foods are generally loaded with fat. There are foods on the market where both the fat and sugar have been removed, but in order to give those foods taste they are loaded with chemicals that otherwise mess with your body.
Oops, I got a little off topic there. Protein generally comes with fat (which is the least satiating type of food) and makes for high calorie, not filling foods. Nuts, yogurt, cheese and meats can have their place in the diet, but generally they are more part of the problem than part of the solution. (I should point out that of the foods I listed, nuts contain good fats while the others don't... more about that next time). That leaves beans, lentils and nuts as the best high protein foods. If you add those to a diet with plenty of vegetables and whole grains you will get all of the required amino acids without consuming much fat.
In summary, you need protein for life, and to help you feel full longer. You may have caught on, I'm not a big fan of animal products, but I'm trying to be objective here. I don't think that meat is a nutritious part of a diet, and I think that it is better to do without from a nutrition standpoint (and there is a lot of evidence to support that). I also recognize that most people aren't ready to be vegetarians so I would counsel them to eat meat sparingly (once a month is plenty, weekly isn't too bad and daily is probably too much). It also makes a huge difference what types of meat you eat. Wild game is far better than cow. OK, anything is better than cow. skinless poultry is good, and fish is probably the best (just beware of mercury). Processed meats aren't any good (right there with cow), so sausage, bacon, lunch meats, etc. are poor choices. Eat lots of beans, lentils and whole grains. Have the occasional nut (including nut-butters) and lean meats (emphasize nuts, de-emphasize meats). If you want good bean recipes give me your email address and I'll send you some.