The Truth About Protein

holistic health nutrition Nov 23, 2018
Let’s start with a little true or false quiz.      

T/F – You need lots of protein to build muscles.

T/F – If you don’t get enough protein, you’ll be weak and frail.

T/F – You need to eat meat to get a complete protein.

T/F – If you are vegan/plant based, food combining is important to get a complete protein.

T/F – High protein diets are the best way to lose fat and build muscle.

T/F – If you are vegan/plant based you probably need protein bars/powders to supplement.

So, which of the above statements are true?

None of them!

I’m going to take this time to go into a little greater depth about what is fact and what is fiction with regard to protein. There is a lot of information to dispel here, as the protein industry is highly contaminated with fallacy and has been for decades. These protein myths have been created by the meat and dairy industries years ago, and still have quite a tight hold on many of us. 

Let’s start at the beginning – what exactly is protein?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients that nourish humans. In addition to carbohydrates and fats, proteins are a fuel source that helps power physiological processes. But more importantly, proteins are used to create pretty much every physical structure in the body. Hair, skin, muscle, bones, nails, you name it. It’s all protein. Even the little machinery inside individual cells (enzymes) along with cellular receptors and and cytoskeletal elements are proteins. Some estimate that there are about 1 billion (1,000,000,000) proteins in every single cell of the body! Multiply that by 30 trillion or so cells, and you get LOTS of proteins. Since proteins are so important when it comes to the structure and function of your body, they are actually the last resort when it comes to a fuel source. You don’t want to break down proteins to create energy, unless of course your body is deep into a starved state.

Each protein is made of a unique strand of amino acids. While there are literally billions of different proteins, there are only 20 different amino acids. Each one of these 20 amino acids is a nitrogen-based compound (as opposed to the carbon-based carbohydrates) with a unique molecular structure. Think of the amino acids like letters of the alphabet, and proteins like words or phrases that are spelled out. Of the 20 amino acids, 11 can be synthesized within the body with raw materials, and 9 must be taken in from dietary sources. These 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

A moment for protein metabolism
Whether from plant or animal sources, when protein enters your mouth you chew it up. The start of protein metabolism is mechanical, using your teeth. Your teeth obviously are not able to split a protein into individual amino acids – this happens further down the digestive tract. After swallowing your bite of protein, the food makes its way down the esophagus and into the stomach. Hydrochloric acid continues to break down proteins into smaller fragments, though the real metabolism is accomplished through various proteolytic enzymes. These enzymes are like scissors, breaking specific bonds between amino acids. This process continues in the small intestine as enzymes are secreted by the pancreas to accomplish the digestive task at hand. Amino acids continue to be snipped until there are individual molecules that make their way into the cells of the intestinal lining, and ultimately into the bloodstream. As with everything absorbed through the gut and into the bloodstream, the amino acids make their way to the liver where they are filtered, assembled into new proteins, and sent throughout the body to carry out their unique tasks.

Where do these amino acids come from?

With most things in nature, the production of amino acids is an incredibly complex miracle. As I mentioned, amino acids are nitrogen-based compounds. The nitrogen to create amino acids comes from the earth. Nitrogen is taken up through the roots of plants and ‘fixed’ into amino acids by bacteria. Our existence on this earth is dependent upon the symbiotic relationship between these soil borne bacteria and plants. Most plants contain all 20 of the amino acids, synthesized with the help of the nitrogen fixing microbes. The amino acid content in plants is obviously dependent upon the nitrogen content in the soil. Side note: When farming/gardening, this is the reason why composting is so crucial, as it reintroduces nitrogen back into the soil, along with other essential minerals and bacteria that support this process.

If you’re still with me, I hope you are asking yourself, “but, I thought protein is in meat, not plants.”

If you’ve followed the basic facts about amino acid production, then you can come to the conclusion yourself that eating meat is not necessary to get dietary protein. If you do eat meat, it is simply a middle man to your protein source.

Don’t I need a “complete protein?”
Have you heard that eating meat is the only way to get “complete protein” in the diet? If you’ve made it this far, then you’ll probably know the validity of this statement. Since animals eat plants, they are ultimately getting their protein from the amino acids harnessed by plants. Just like you and me, they chew up these plants and assimilate amino acids to maintain and rebuild the proteins necessary for their health. Just like you and me, animals accumulate these proteins in their flesh/muscles. When you eat animal flesh/muscle, you do certainly get more protein. And, this protein is indeed “complete,” as it contains all 20 amino acids that have been harnessed by the soil-borne bacteria that fix the nitrogen in plants. But, just as all other animals on this planet, it is possible for you to acquire all amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids, from eating plants alone. It is true that there are only a few plants contain all 20 amino acids (soy, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, spirulina, and probably some others…). I would advise against only eating any one plant food for more than a week or so.
 
If you feel like chowing down on carrots every day for a week, you may become deficient in an amino acid or two. But who the heck does that? If you are eating even a moderately rounded diet (greens, grains, beans, other veggies, fruits, etc.) you are absolutely not at risk of being deficient in any of the essential amino acids.
Plant vs Animal Protein
When you look at a plant and then look at an animal you will likely notice many differences. Just as they appear different from the outside, they are also obviously different on the inside. One reason for this blatant distinction has to do with the amino acid profile in animals vs plants. Animals are known to have higher levels of a variety of amino acids compared to plants, including glutamine, aspargine, arginine, methionine, and cysteine. It turns out these amino acids are more strongly associated with cancer growth than any others. Also, animals simply have much more protein than plants, as they concentrate amino acids in their flesh. 

It has been known for over 100 years that animal products are associated with acid production in the body. This is due to the shear volume of amino acids in meat, as well as the high prevalence of sulfur containing amino acids, methionine and cysteine, which create sulfuric acid when broken down. Chronic exposure to such “acidic foods” (as in the standard american diet of our times) causes a low grade metabolic acidosis. This physiologic state is far from optimal. In fact, it is known to result in increased calcium and phosphorus loss from bones, ultimately leading to osteopenia/osteoporosis and increased fracture risk. Additionally, a state of metabolic acidosis from diets high in animal protein actually cause breakdown of muscle! Muscle proteins are broken down to release ammonia to buffer the acid and excrete through the urine.

Can I get enough protein from eating plants alone?

The better question is, “How much protein do I really need?” This is a great question! The RDA for protein is .8 grams per kg body weight. They used to say that the average man was about 70kg/156lb (I don’t know how long ago this statistic was determined!). Nowadays, the average male is 195.7lb. Humans are growing, and it is not in height or muscle mass! Do we need to increase protein requirements to meet our increased body mass? I don’t think so. In fact, doing so can be detrimental to health.

Protein deficiency is a medical condition known as kwashiorkor. This condition simply does not exist in the western world. Protein excess, on the other hand, is an epidemic in today’s world.  Whether from plant or animal sources, diets that are high in protein naturally lead to elevated protein levels in the blood. Since every drop of blood is filtered by the kidneys, the high protein content of the blood strains the kidney filtering mechanism. After years or decades of this chronic stress, the result is decreased kidney function, which leads to, or exacerbates, a number of conditions including hypertension.
So I don’t need protein bars or protein powder?

If you’ve made it this far, you have learned that protein supplementation is not needed, and could, in fact, be counterproductive and detrimental. Even if your goal is muscle building, it is important that you fuel your muscle cells with their preferred fuel source, glucose from carbohydrates. You will not be deficient in the amino acid building blocks required to build muscle.

The protein and supplement industry continues to capitalize on a brainwashed society. When you look at almost any food label you may see high protein as a selling point for many products. Don’t be fooled! While protein is not inherently bad, you now know that excess protein is simply not needed, and can actually be detrimental.

A big high-five to the vegan athletes of the world
More and more high performing athletes, including endurance athletes and bodybuilders, are choosing to go plant-based, eating a diet inherently lower in protein. Hearing and seeing their reviews of such a shift is always inspirational and affirmative to everything we brought forth today.

When I eat food, my main consideration is how is my food going to create cellular energy. Knowing that carbohydrates/glucose is the preferred fuel source by all cells of the body, I choose foods accordingly. I eat foods that create cellular energy while also bringing vitamins, minerals, and essential phytochemicals into my body. Protein is never a focus for me, as I trust the foods that I eat will provide the amino acids my body needs for growth, repair, and optimal physiologic function. 

In summary…

The RDA for protein is .8 gram per kg body weight (about 50 grams for a 150 lb adult) – this amount is very easy to obtain with plants alone!Protein needn’t be the focus of any healthy diet. Instead, simply shift the focus to whole plant foods – you surely will NOT be protein deficient. High protein diets are associated with most every chronic disease as well as decreased kidney functionMinimize animal protein consumption to achieve your health goals – these protein sources are highly correlated with cancer and heart diseaseProtein is not needed to build big muscles – instead focus on whole food sources of carbohydrates, minerals, hydration, and most importantly, using your muscles!

Blessing of Health,

Dr. Benjamin Alter

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