Monday, June 30, 2014

Got protein?

Turn on any TV channel and you're sure to come across a news program with a segment on healthy eating that includes eating a large amount of protein. You may even come across a commercial for a product with added protein, such as the one I saw the other day from Cheerios. New! Cheerios with added protein! Really?

I'm not indicating that protein is bad and we shouldn't eat it. Far from it. Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients that round out our diet, along with fats and carbohydrates. But honestly, there's a bit too much emphasis on getting enough protein. Why? Because the average person actually gets TOO much protein, and not from the best sources. Without all the added protein to cereals, protein drinks, protein bars and protein shakes, we can actually get enough protein from good old fashioned real food. More on the real food thing in a bit.

How are we eating TOO much protein, you may ask? Let's back up to determine your actual protein needs. According to the Institute of Medicine, the average person needs about 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. To convert your weight in pounds to kilograms, take your weight and divide by 2.2. Or, if you're not feeling the math, you can estimate your protein needs at 0.36g of protein per 1 lb of body weight. For a 150lb person, your protein needs are about 54g per day. Remember, this is for the average person. If you're reading this blog, chances are you're not sedentary and your protein requirements are a bit higher. Before you go eat that 30oz steak, your needs don't increase dramatically until you enter endurance athlete, triathlete or bodybuilder territory. But for the average runner, running a few hours in total a week, increasing your protein intake to 0.5-0.6g per lb of body weight is sufficient. This means for a 150lb person, you should be eating around 90g of protein per day. Of course, your needs will change based on the time on your feet, the intensity of your workouts, your weight, menstruation for women and more.

Now that you can determine your protein requirements, you can see where you may be getting more protein than necessary. So many people are adding protein bars and shakes to their daily foods. In theory, this is good. You need protein to build muscle and it's especially important to have protein after a workout. However, it's important not to have too much protein. A protein bar or shake can have over 20g of protein per serving. For the average person, this can equal 1/4 of their total protein requirements for a day. And that's just in one snack. Add eggs for breakfast, a chicken breast for dinner, peanut butter sandwich or other protein source for another snack, and you're well over the needed amount of protein. This doesn't mean you don't have those other protein sources in order to have your protein shake. It means you don't need that much protein in one single snack. Have half a serving right after your workout and the other half later in the day.

What happens if you eat too much protein? First and foremost, eating more protein that what your body requires is the one of the best ways to gain weight. Excess protein is not stored as protein in the body; it's stored as fat. So excess amounts of protein, in addition to normal dietary calories, will likely cause any weight gain to be in the form of fat (instead of muscle). What's more, if you continually eat more protein than what your body needs, it may affect your kidney function. Protein metabolism is dependent on water consumption to not only metabolize the protein but to rid the body of the by-products of metabolism, all of which involves the kidneys; excess protein intake increases your need to hydrate, which is not usually taken into consideration as one increases their protein consumption. The result is stress on the kidneys, dehydration (something runners already have a hard time dealing with, especially here in dry San Diego) and depletion of important minerals such as calcium, increasing your risk of stress fractures in the short-term and osteoporosis in the long-term. The potential kidney issues from excess protein isn't that much of a concern for healthy athletes, but the dehydration and mineral-loss issues are.

I always tell my clients they should get the nutrients they need from real, whole foods. Getting their nutrients from items with "added" anything, indicates it's not a natural form of that nutrient. This includes protein. Having a protein bar, drink, shake, supplement, etc., is not having protein in its natural state, whether animal- or plant-based. Getting your nutrients from natural sources also ensures you're getting all the vital vitamins and minerals your body needs to function properly. If you rely too much on protein supplements and powders, commercially-made products with added protein and consume them in addition to your regular foods that naturally contain protein, you may run into some excess protein problems. Instead, rely on real, whole foods for your protein needs and use the supplements, bars and powders for when real food isn't an option (for times when you're stuck in a submarine, perhaps).

Here's a list of great real-food protein sources (according to the USDA):

Animal Products
3 oz white chicken (breast, wing) - 25g
3 oz lean beef - 21g
3 oz white fish (cod, mahi mahi, tilapia) - 20g
1 large egg - 6-7g

Soy Products
4 oz firm tofu - 20g
1/2 cup tempeh - 16g
1 cup soy milk - 10g

Beans and Legumes 
1 cup cooked lentils - 18g
1 cup cooked kidney beans - 17g
1 cup cooked black beans - 15g
1 cup cooked chickpeas - 14.5g
2 tbs peanut butter - 8g
1 cup cooked peas - 8g

Nuts and Seeds
1 oz almonds - 6g
1 oz cashews - 4.5g
1 oz pumpkin seeds - 8.5g
1 oz chia seeds - 4.7g
1 oz hemp seeds - 10g
1 oz ground flax seeds - 5g

1 cup, low-fat milk - 8g
1 container low-fat Greek yogurt - 17g
1 mozzarella string cheese - 7g

1 cup cooked spinach - 5g
1 cup cooked broccoli - 5-6g

1 cup cooked quinoa - 8g
1 cup cooked oatmeal - 6g
2 slices whole-wheat bread - 8g (check your label)
1 cup cooked bulgur - 6g
2 slices sprouted grain bread such as this one that you can get in Trader Joe's- 10g
1 cup asparagus - 3g
1 cup Brussels sprouts - 3g
1 medium potato - 5g
1 medium sweet potato - 4g

There are plenty of foods here that will ensure you get 100% of your protein requirements with out an ounce of protein supplement!

Happy eating!

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