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Unless you’re living under a rock right now, you see high protein meals, products, and snacks, being pushed everywhere. I’m a fan of a high protein breakfast and high protein meals myself, but it’s not because of the latest trend. Historically, protein needs and research was done primarily on men, but it’s SO exciting that new studies are finally being conducted on women. I think this is a game changer for hormone health as well since we’re now finding that women have different protein needs depending on what phase of life they’re in. One of the reasons so many health and wellness experts are pushing adequate protein intake, is because it’s finally been widely studied.

One of the biggest questions I get all the time is what’s better / different / necessary – plant protein vs animal protein? I spent some time doing the research, dug into my old functional medicine doc and nutrition certification notes, and read about a gazillion publications to help you make an informed decision. Here’s what I found:

As you already know, your body needs three macronutrients to provide it with energy needed to keep functioning: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Carbohydrates include fiber, starches, and sugar. Fats can be both “good” and “bad”: some examples are omega-3 fatty acids and triglycerides. Proteins are made from chains of molecules called amino acids and serve a wide variety of purposes – from building muscle and tissue to balancing your hormones. Adequate protein positively affects our muscle, metabolic, skin, hair, nail, and immune health. It also promotes satiety, which means you’ll feel less hungry throughout the day – quite helpful for when you’re trying to lose weight. If you’re fairly active, enough protein will support injury recovery, may decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure, and here’s a big one for us ladies: it may also help reduce the risk of developing sarcopenia (the loss of skeletal muscle mass, related to aging). If you think that skeletal muscle mass is not something you need to be worried about, consider that it affects cognitive health and insulin regulation as well. As someone with a family history of diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, this is my #1 reason for ensuring my protein intake is what it needs to be. Not sure what this means? Read on! The human body needs 20 amino acids, out of which your body makes 11. Nine amino acids are considered essential or indispensable and these are the ones that your body can’t make, so your goal is to get these from the foods you consume. This is where the debate comes in:

Plant Protein vs Animal Protein

Animal protein is considered complete because it contains all 20 amino acids. While not a single plant source contains all 20 amino acids, we can find all 20 of them in plant-based sources. In other words, if you eat a wide variety of plant sources, you’ll be able to get all 20 amino acids from plants. If a food contains all nine amino acids, we call it a complete protein. You’ll find this in high-protein foods such as quinoa, eggs,  beef, poultry, dairy, and soy. You will need to eat a larger quantity of plant-based foods since animal foods tend to be more protein dense. Animal protein is also more easily absorbed than plant protein and is generally better at supporting muscle growth due to an amino acid called leucine. Plants contain leucine, but animal-based protein is believed to contain higher quality leucine. Leucine helps with muscle synthesis, which is why animal-based protein is preferred by many when the goal is to build lean muscle mass. Plant-based protein is also wrapped in fiber, which means you don’t absorb as much protein since fiber doesn’t break down as easily.  However, the absorption rate is fairly minor and plants provide us with a ton of fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and vitamins that animal protein may not have. When it comes to gut health, we know that about 30 different plant sources per week help nurture the microbiome. You also already know that animal protein can be high in saturated fats and omega-6, which is not always ideal.

Ultimately, what you incorporate into your diet is a very personal decision. Over the years and by working with clients, I have learned to honor traditions and belief systems, but also present everyone with the science, which means that we were taught to nourish isn’t necessarily the right way. If you’re not sure about what you should be doing or have a difficult time selecting a combination of proteins, be sure to reach out so I can give you some guidance!

How Much Protein is Enough?

Another topic with much debate is the actual protein quantity you should be consuming. The RDA on protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight, but this is really the minimum for sedentary adults. If you’re even moderately active, and especially if you’re trying to lose fat and build lean muscle mass, I would recommend between 1.2 and 2.0 grams of quality protein per kilogram of body weight. I think this is one of the biggest changes for most of my clients, especially those who are used to eating a vegetarian diet focused mostly on carbohydrates and fats. It’s more protein than many of us are used to, but if you focus on variety and very high quality (i.e. pastured meats, wild-caught seafood, organic vegetables and grains), I promise you’ll see a difference in your hair, nail, skin, immune health, energy levels, focus, body composition, and athletic performance. Note, however, that you don’t necessarily need animal protein in your diet, and you can never go wrong with eating more plant-based foods. If your goal is weight loss, you may find it more difficult to lose weight on a strictly plant-based diet. I like to point out watching portion sizes here and being more mindful of starchy and more carbohydrate heavy proteins, such as beans, nuts, and seeds. On the animal protein side, you’re obviously better off staying away from processed meats such as bacon, sausage, deli meats, and hot dogs as well. Keep in mind, however, that processed plant-based meat alternatives are not necessarily better either due to ingredients that cause inflammation, such as seed oils, GMO soy, and other fillers and subpar ingredients. As always, you will want to check with your doctor or primary care provider on the amount of protein you should be consuming as this will vary by your body size, composition, goals, and any kidney conditions you may have.

Signs You Need More Protein

If you’re not one to count calories or grams of protein and would rather eat more intuitively (I feel you on this one), there are a few signs that could potentially point to a protein deficiency. If you’ve noticed brittle hair and nails, you have trouble building lean muscle, you’ve got a lot of brain fog, you’re always hungry and tired, you get sick often or your joints ache, it may be beneficial to track your protein intake for a week or so and make sure you’re getting in enough protein. I’ve created an easy chart for you to start thinking about what protein translates into in terms of actual food.

When to Increase Protein

As more research is being done on women (amazing!), we are learning that women may benefit from additional protein intake during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (that wonderful phase right after ovulation and before your period). Check out the best foods to eat during your menstrual cycle here to get some protein ideas:

The best foods to eat during your menstrual cycle.

Protein needs also increase during pregnancy as you grow more muscle and tissue, and during breastfeeding, when you’re providing breast milk rich in fat and protein. During perimenopause and menopause, when age-related muscle loss increases, you’ll want to increase your protein intake as well. Resistance training goes along with this as well. More research is being done on this, so stay tuned as this is finally being studied (I’m literally learning more about this as I type – exciting, right?!).

How to Get More Protein In

For myself, I aim for around 100 grams of protein per day, split across my three meal and usually an afternoon snack. I make sure I eat at least 25 grams of protein at breakfast and split the rest between lunch and dinner. If you’re a chronic snacker, you’ll find that this makes a huge difference. I snack much less, sometimes not at all, but usually add in a protein rich snack when my luteal phase rolls around. I also make sure that all my snacks include some protein and a whole food (usually a seasonal fruit). If you’ve gotten your doctor’s clearance, I think eating the number of grams in protein equivalent to your ideal body weight is a good, but rough, rule of thumb to go by. Of course, people with kidney issues and anyone else with health issues would have to consult their doctor first. Ok, so what does a high protein meal actually look like? Here are some really simple and basic ideas (read across for the combos, so: “Roasted veggies” + “Wild-caught salmon” + “Quinoa”.

 

If you like easy, flavorful, and nourishing recipes, check out: https://wellandgreat.com/recipes-on-repeat/. I’m in the process of testing out a TON of different plant-based protein powders, so stay tuned for reviews of these!

What questions about protein do you have? Share them with me in the comments!

 

 

 

Sources and references:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022316622080579?via%3Dihub

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7360447/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26797090/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30427277/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/

 

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