As we shift the discussion to protein, its importance cannot be overstated. Most Americans are getting far too little protein and have been misinformed about the best sources for it.
If you want to succeed in changing your body composition, lose unwanted fat, and tone up your muscles, you must eat enough protein. Protein provides your body with vital amino acids, which are the building blocks required not only for building muscle but also for tissue repair.
Unfortunately, the average American diet is substantially lacking in quality protein. While most Americans do consume meat, many have been scared into limiting their consumption of meat because of slanted stories that ascribe meat consumption to increased risk of heart disease, obesity, and other health problems. This is unfortunate, since meat is a complete protein that delivers amino acids and important vitamins to the body.
The issue with meat contributing to increased risk of disease is only a factor when consuming animal proteins from sources that have not been properly fed and raised organically, or whose diets have included added antibiotics and hormones. Improperly fed animal products will disrupt your hormones, create inflammation, and contribute to obesity and disease and should be avoided.
COMPLETE & INCOMPLETE PROTEINS
Before discussing where to get good protein in your diet and what sources should be part of your nutrition plan, we need to establish the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. A complete protein is a protein source that contains sufficient amounts of the essential amino acids needed by the body. By contrast, an incomplete protein is a protein source that contains some, but not all, of the amino acids we need.
Most animal proteins like grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and eggs, wild-caught fish, and raw milk from grass-fed cows or goats are complete proteins with all necessary amino acids. These proteins require a longer digestion time for maximum absorption.
Most plant proteins, which primarily consist of legumes and nuts, are incomplete sources. Soy protein, which is a complete protein that has become extremely popular, is the “go to” plant protein for most vegetarians and vegans. However, it’s one that should be consumed with extreme caution as an acceptable plant protein since most soy products today are genetically modified. The exception to this would be organic, fermented soy products, which can be good options if used in moderation.
Just because plant proteins are mostly incomplete doesn’t mean that they aren’t beneficial. It just means that you need to make sure to get all of the amino acids your body needs through varied plant sources.
As we’ve already established, meat (and red meat specifically) has developed an undeserved reputation as an unhealthy food. Red meat is an excellent source of amino acids and contains important vitamins and minerals that are not found in other foods. Unfortunately, because of the poor quality meats that most Americans eat, red meat has been associated more with inflammation and heart disease.
However, grass-fed beef has less inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids with more anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Overall, there have been no studies linking grass-fed beef with increased inflammatory markers. In addition, grass-fed beef and other animal products offer great sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and vitamin E, which are both very beneficial for our health.
Assuming that we purchase organic, grass-fed beef, the real culprit for inflammation that we need to avoid is not red meat, but the processed carbs and sugar we’ve already discussed in your curriculum. We just need to be sure that we confirm the “grass-fed” or “pastured” label on the meat we purchase.
Often, people buy organic beef with the hopes that they are getting healthier meat. While it’s true they are avoiding added hormones and antibiotics, these animals are likely fed inappropriate diets and still do not offer the health benefits that properly fed animal protein would, which is what you get with grass-fed (and finished) or pastured meats.
One additional note: red meat is easier to digest if it is not overcooked. The beef packaging will usually recommend medium-rare, which should also help the meat to maintain more flavor and avoid being dry.
Wild-caught fish is a great source of protein and can be an excellent source of omega-3 fats, particularly salmon, which has the perfect ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. Other wild-caught fish can include halibut, tuna, and mackerel. It is always best to avoid farm-raised fish like tilapia because farm-raised fish are generally fed unhealthy and unnatural diets. Also, be sure to check the mercury levels of each particular fish you consume. We’ve provided a chart of mercury levels earlier in your program material.
While dairy is a complete protein, it also carries a host of issues that you need to be careful to avoid. Unless dairy is specifically noted as “raw,” then it is processed dairy that has been homogenized and pasteurized. This process changes the body’s ability to digest and absorb its proteins and fats and renders it an unhealthy source for you to consume. Please note that just because something says, “whole milk,” doesn’t mean it is not processed.
If you want dairy to be a part of your diet and a protein source that you consume, request more information from our team about finding whole, raw milk. This is only recommended if processed dairy was already a common staple in your household.
Pastured chicken is a great source of protein and, especially when consuming dark meat, can provide an abundant source of healthy fats and a more nutrient dense profile than white meat. Both are great options for consumption, as they offer quality protein with all nine essential amino acids. Chicken also tends to be easier to digest than red meat.
As mentioned people when discussing red meat, people also buy organic chicken with the hopes that they are getting healthier meat. But the same issues exist with organic chicken, as they are typically fed inappropriate diets as well. Even if you buy chicken without added hormones or antibiotics, these animals do not offer the same health benefits and protein quality that properly-fed, pastured chickens do.
When choosing eggs as a source of protein, you should always try to find pastured eggs as this means that the chicken was able to eat a natural diet without being confined to a cage or fed only grains. When cooking eggs, it is always best to leave the yoke a bit runny and cook it slowly so you will not denature the proteins as much. This makes the eggs easier for the body to break down and digest.
Sometimes, people worry about the cholesterol in eggs, however, this is a myth that was debunked long ago. No one develops high cholesterol by eating eggs. In fact, whole eggs contain high levels of lecithin which actually reduce LDLs, or what is typically referred to as “bad” cholesterol.
In actuality, eggs are nature’s near-perfect food, as they contain protein that is used very efficiently by the body. The amino acid ratios in eggs are nearly perfect for assimilation. The bad rap given to eggs, specifically the egg yolk, is just not true.
One additional note: while egg yolks are high in cholesterol, that does not convert to high cholesterol levels when digested. Your cholesterol levels are determined far more by processed foods, sugar, and stress. In addition, eggs are actually heart-friendly because they contain very high choline, which is used by your body to protect against plaque formation in the arteries and to reduce homocysteine, which is a known risk factor for hardening of the arteries. Just remember, soft-boiled or over-easy is the way to go with eggs.
As we previously discussed, it’s important to avoid genetically modified soy, which is the most abundant type of soy in America today. If you choose to consume soy products, be sure that they are organic and not protein isolates. This would include items like whole soy bean edamame. Other acceptable soy products are fermented soy, which is the best option. These include natto, miso, tempeh, some fermented soy sauces, and fermented tofu. Be advised, however, that soy is extremely cheap and is used in most processed foods and is often disguised under an alias. Also, remember that soy is a phytoestrogen so you will want to avoid or significantly limit if you have hormonal imbalance with estrogen dominance as a female or low testosterone as a male.
This whole grain (seed) is rich in nutrients like copper and magnesium and also offers 8 grams of protein per cup. In addition, it can be a great source of fiber. Most commonly substituted for rice or pasta, quinoa has become very popular in specialty bowls that contain other superfoods. If cooking at home, it’s important to soak and rinse your quinoa prior to cooking. Quinoa can also be used as a breakfast item.
Despite the name, buckwheat is not a type of wheat at all. The most common way buckwheat is used is to eat the seeds as “groats,” which is similar to oatmeal. Often, people will use buckwheat flour to make substitutes for items that contain regular flour, such as gluten-free pancakes. In addition, the Japanese have used buckwheat to create noodles that are referred to as “soba.”
Lastly, a final note when consuming animal protein: many have been led to believe that the saturated fat they contain increases the risk for heart disease. While it’s true that diets high in bad saturated fats can increase the risk for heart disease, the saturated fats in properly fed animal proteins are helpful for most people. We have mentioned this before, but we will also revisit this topic some in the next section on fats.
As for plant proteins, they can be an excellent source of amino acids as well. It is somewhat difficult to build muscle with plant proteins unless you are combining them to supply all the essential amino acids necessary. Otherwise, these proteins will be used as fuel instead of muscle building.
Most of us, being omnivores that eat meat and plant sources of protein, will have no trouble getting the essential amino acids necessary for optimal muscle building and health. If you are vegan or vegetarian, it is important for you to learn how to combine your plant-based proteins to form complete amino acid profiles, as most plant proteins are low in lysine, methionine, or cysteine. It will take a little homework, but it won’t be difficult once you get the hang of it. The key factor to remember with plant proteins is that you opt for sources from legumes or nuts and that you avoid most soy.
The most popular types of plant proteins are:
Lentils, Chickpeas, Almonds, Spirulina, Chia seeds, Hemp seeds, Beans, High-proteins veggies (broccoli, kale, mushrooms) and Peas
GETTING PROPER AMOUNTS OF PROTEIN
With these sources in mind, how much protein do you really need in a given day to have a healthy nutrition plan? Like carbohydrates, proteins offer four calories per gram and the best recommendation for most people is to consume 0.8 – 1.0 grams per pound of bodyweight, which should equate to around 25-35% of total daily calories.
If you are less active or significantly overweight, less protein will be needed and can be consumed at about 0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight. If you are a bodybuilder and truly wanting to bulk up, you will need as much as 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight. If looking to build muscle, total calories will need to increase as well, but we’ll discuss that in a later section.
An easy way to get additional protein, especially if trying to add muscle, is by choosing a healthy protein supplement powder.
CHOOSING HEALTHY PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTATION
Most adults do not need protein supplementation if they have a healthy diet that includes eating complete proteins regularly. But for those really focused on building muscle (for a lean body, not bulking up like a bodybuilder), it may be helpful to have protein supplementation to get to the required amount of protein needed.
If looking at protein supplements, it’s important to choose wisely since there are many options available, but most options are not truly helpful for your body. The best options to consider are egg proteins, whey protein, brown rice protein, pea protein, or hemp protein, making sure that the protein supplement does not contain any artificial sweeteners. Be sure it offers a complete amino acid profile. In addition, many protein powders come in the form of isolates, which are different than the whole food form of the protein. If you can find whole food products, those will be the best.
One of the biggest reasons that protein supplements are popular is the fact that you can easily mix them with cold water in a shaker bottle and immediately have additional protein when you need it. It will likely be important to test different options to see which ones you respond the best to.
One last note as we finish up discussing protein: while initial weight loss will be found with high protein and low carb diets, in order to increase your metabolism and develop the fit and toned body you really want, it will be important to utilize both protein and carbs to build muscle.