Protein: The Real "Superfood"
What in the world is a superfood?
The term superfood, is generally used to describe whole foods that are nutrient (vitamins and minerals) dense and generally seen as good for your health. However, I have found that this term seems to be misleading for many people. They see “superfood” and think “oh I can eat as much of this as I want and I’ll be healthy. Some example foods are blueberries, avocados, chia seeds, almonds, and acai. Now I’m not about to get into where the research stands on each of these and whether or not they’re healthy (hint: most claims are overstated or misrepresented). Unfortunately, the majority of these have enough fat or carbohydrates in them to be detrimental when eaten in excess. In other words, calories count.
So what’s so special about protein?
Unlike the other macronutrients, protein has the special role of being the building blocks of our body first and foremost, and only contribute as an energy source in a small way. Protein also requires more energy to digest than carbohydrates and fats. Because of this, some recent studies have looked at how higher protein diets affect body fat and health. Researchers found that higher protein diets, when added to resistance training, led to greater fat loss. They also found that if you are eating at a caloric deficit to lose weight the higher protein group maintained their muscle mass better than the normal protein group.To make it better, none of these high protein studies have found any detrimental effects on health, even the kidneys (a common misconception).
But what about vitamins and minerals, you may ask.
Well animal meat is actually a great source of many B vitamins, zinc, heme iron (a more usable kind), Vitamin D3, and creatine. In fact, many of these nutrients are not available from plant sources and so must be obtained through meat or supplements (with the latter being less effective). That being said, varying your protein source is key. Beef, pork, fish, eggs, chicken and even shakes, all have a place in your diet.
So how much protein should you eat?
The standard dietary recommendation is only 0.8 grams per kilogram bodyweight (g/kg) a day. This is the equivalent to a 110 lb person eating only 40 grams of protein. While this may be enough to survive, this is not optimal. The “high protein” used in the studies I mentioned were as high as 4.4 g/kg/day or about 220 grams for that same 110 lb person. For most people that is excessive so the current recommendation would be 1-1.5 grams of protein for every pound you weigh (110-165 grams for that 110lb example).
So what can you expect when you increase your protein intake?
Protein is very satiating, so expect yourself to feel more full. This may lead you to break up your food into more meals throughout the day. If you do find yourself still hungry after a meal, try to go back for more protein first. Another great way to add protein to your day is a shake immediately post workout. This has the added benefit of helping you recover as well. During exercise your muscles get damaged, causing them to rebuild stronger. At the end of a workout, your body needs a signal to stop breaking down and start repairing. This signal comes in the form of food. So if you work out in the afternoon, take your time driving home, shower and then eat, that whole time your body is still breaking down. By throwing back a quick protein shake immediately after your workout, you jump start the repair process which will help you feel better in the long run.
A note for vegetarians/vegans
Many people choose to not eat meat or animal products for various reasons. While this may make getting enough protein in your diet more difficult, it is not impossible. You should take the time to find higher protein plant sources, such as nuts and beans and incorporate them into your meals often. Like meats, plant sources of proteins need to be mixed and matched as well. Plant based protein shakes are also a great option to boost your intake. As for those vitamins and minerals I mentioned, vegetarians and vegans should be supplementing these in pill form and be asking their doctors to do bloodwork to regularly check their levels to prevent deficiencies from occurring.
Eat as much protein as you can in as many forms as you can and often! Feel free to ask me any questions you may have and if you’re interested in looking up more details on your own, a great place to start is this position stand from the International Society of Sports Nutrtion (ISSN): https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8