The Protein Debate

The Protein Debate
One of the most popular props in my office is a white 9″ plate on which I’ve drawn portions for the major food groups in black sharpie marker. On half of the plate I’ve drawn a semi-circle labeled “1 cup or more of non-starchy vegetables.” On one quarter I’ve marked as grain or starchy vegetables, and on the remaining quarter I’ve written “3-4 oz of animal protein or 1 cup of beans.” In the corner I’ve written “1/2-1 teaspoon of fat.”

These portions are not ideal for everyone. Obviously a larger person will need to eat more than a smaller person. A physically active person will need more protein and omega-3 fats and antioxidants to build and repair the body. A person with a gallbladder flare up might give their liver a break by avoiding animal protein and fat until the inflammation calms down.

While most fellow health professionals who have seen my plate give me a thumbs up, there is the occasional practitioner who doesn’t agree, particularly on the issue of protein. While nutrition is a science it is also experiential, and our experience affects how we interpret studies. A person who found relief from airborne allergies by choosing a vegan diet will naturally be more interested in studies that promote the vegan philosophy, because the vegan diet made a powerful impact on this person’s life. However, a person, like myself, who is allergic to beans would be more open to studies that support the importance of meat and protein. While I respect those who follow a vegan diet, I admit that I am biased towards a diet that includes animal sources of protein.

Many of my clients suffer from yeast and bacterial overgrowth, which thrive on carbohydrates. I recommend that these clients avoid high carbohydrate containing foods and consume more protein to provide the raw material to repair the digestive tract. Protein also contains specific amino acids that curb sugar cravings and that are required for detoxification.  Even a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet isn’t appropriate for most of these people, since dairy and eggs are the two most common food sensitivities according to their blood tests. While I do know healthy strong people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, and I have known people who have made themselves sick by eating too much protein, it is much more common to meet clients who show signs of protein deficiency, especially here in the Bay Area where vegetarianism/veganism is fashionable. It is particularly worrying when I meet clients who show signs of B12 deficiency, since these symptoms may be irreversible. While it is important to follow a diet that agrees best with your body, I also believe it is safest to eat a variety of foods to gain the benefit that each food provides.

Here is a short summary of how protein functions in the body, as well as the benefits of different protein-rich foods:

Protein is made up of 22 different amino acids and each has a number of different functions. Some of these include the production of hormones, antibodies and enzymes, and providing structure to tissues in our body. Amino acids shepherd nutrients and oxygen into cells, regulate energy and are converted as neurotransmitters to support brain function and mood. If you eat meat, a good guide for most people would be a portion the size of your palm at least once a day, plus protein from other foods such as nuts, seeds, grains, beans and vegetables.

Popular protein rich foods
1 cup each of black beans and brown rice = 20 g protein, 3 g fat, 88g carbohydrates
3.75 oz sardines = 23g protein, 11g fat, 0g carbohydrate
3 oz steak, fat removed = 23g protein, 6g fat, 0g carbohydrate

Here are a few benefits of each food:
·      Black beans and rice contain 19 grams of fiber and a nice range of minerals and B vitamins. Always soak dried beans overnight and discard the soaking water to improve mineral absorbability and to reduce gas.
·      Sardines are one of the few food sources of vitamin D, and contain a whopping 1362 mg of omega 3 fatty acids and a nice dose of B12 for the nervous system. A great food for anyone who wants dietary support for inflammation or mood.
·      Steak contains heme iron, the most absorbable form, important for menstruating women and those who suffer from anemia. Beef also contains carnitine, which helps to convert fat into energy as part of the Krebs cycle.

One argument against a high protein diet is that it can upset the acid/alkaline balance in the body. Our blood needs to be maintained within a narrow pH range of 7.35-7.45 for our bodies to function properly and our body will sacrifice alkaline minerals, if needed to keep the blood pH in check. Many substances that are known to be unhealthy, such as alcohol, caffeine and processed foods, do cause our bodies to become more acidic, whereas many foods which are considered to be beneficial, such as most vegetables and fruits, are found to promote alkalinity. Protein, especially animal sources of protein, are acid forming. It’s very tempting to divide everything into “bad” acid-forming foods and “good” alkaline-forming foods.

However, human health is not that simple. Exercise is acid forming. So are Brazil nuts and pomegranates, both of which are antioxidant powerhouses. It is also good to remember that, although uncommon, it is possible to be too alkaline. So we need to strike a balance by choosing a variety of healthy, whole foods, and ensure we eat enough alkaline-forming foods, and avoid the acid-forming ones that are truly detrimental, such as processed foods and alcohol.
Ultimately, it is important to be aware how different types of food and portion size affects us individually. Nutrient demands range dramatically from one person to the next, and while lab tests can identify individual needs, it is less expensive and more practical to recognize patterns and tendencies. Protein demands vary from one person to the next, and different protein sources offer different benefits. It’s up to you to experiment and find a balance that serves you best.

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