Why Is Protein Such a Big Deal?

Protein IS a big deal! It is one of the macronutrients in our food plan, meaning we need a lot of it.  Protein is needed for many different functions all throughout our body.  It carries nutrients, it makes up enzymes which we need for 100s of chemical reactions in the body, it is a part of hair, skin, nails, muscles.  Protein is in every cell of the body.

Yes, I am a “vegan-ish” eater.  I do consume honey, I probably have some leather in my home, so I am not a vegan. I do NOT eat any meat, chicken, fish, eggs, pork, cheese, sour cream, …. 

Do I worry about protein?

No.  You see protein is needed for all of those things, but those proteins are created from the amino acids in our foods and/or created in our liver.  If we are healthy and we eat a varied diet of whole foods (and eat enough to meet our caloric needs), we can easily meet our amino acid requirement.  THEN, the body uses those amino acids to create the transporters, enzymes, etc. It doesn’t matter where the amino acids come from.  An amino acid is an amino acid.

I like to use the example of Legos.  Think about those yellow, green, blue, red, and white blocks of Legos.  They come in different heights and lengths.  If I hand you a house, a car, and a boat all made of Legos, and I tell you to use those items to make me a tree, you break them apart and reassemble them to make the tree.  It doesn’t matter where you got the blocks. Some of them still stayed together, some of them came all the way apart, and some may be leftover.

If you eat a piece of meat, the body does NOT use that chewed piece of meat to make muscle in your body.  The chewed piece of meat starts to break down while you are chewing.  Enzymes in the mouth help to remove the fats and carbohydrates from the meat, it passes into the stomach where it is broken down into smaller pieces by pepsin and gastric acids. The smaller pieces, peptides, move into the small intestine and more enzymes break it down into amino acids, so it can get absorbed into the blood. THEN, the amino acids are carried to the liver who decides what to do with it.

If you eat a plant, (Beans, Seeds, Nuts, Grains, Greens, Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs), the plant starts to be broken down in the mouth by chewing and enzymes, it passes into the stomach.  The proteins in the plant are removed by gastric acid and pepsin, the peptides and amino acids pass into the small intestine and are acted on by more enzymes.  The amino acids are absorbed into the blood and carried to the liver.  The liver decides what to do with it.

You see, it doesn’t matter where it came from.

Do I worry about getting enough protein?

No.  Study after study has shown that a well-balanced diet provides all of the amino acids needed for a healthy body.  There are some conditions that require more amino acids, BUT there are some conditions that require less, as well.  If we aim for extra protein and end up eating extra calories, the extra is stored as fat. The body doesn’t have a way to store protein, so it converts it to fat, so it can be used for energy later. Our body was created in a time when we had a surplus of food and then times of famine.  It is designed to store excess for when we need it. 

When we eat animal products, we usually eat them cooked.  The heating of these proteins coagulates them. If you put a piece of meat in a skillet, you notice that it shrinks.  This coagulation binds the proteins together and makes them more difficult to break apart in the body. The digestion and metabolism of animal products creates more acid in the body than the digestion of plant proteins.  If we eat too much protein from animal sources, the extra creates an acidic environment and puts a strain on the kidneys.  This strain leads to high cortisol, which leads to high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and can lead to heart disease.

Dairy also creates an acid environment.  Here in the U.S., stores can only sell pasteurized dairy products.  These products have been heated to kill any bacteria, which can be a good thing if there is a harmful bacterium in there, BUT it kills all of the natural enzymes that can be healthful for some people.  Now, 70% of the world’s population lacks the enzymes to digest dairy, so I do not suggest it for anyone. Back in the day, milk was delivered at back doors and left for hours and it didn’t spoil.  Today, milk can spoil very quickly.  It all has to do with the microbes and enzymes that were present and that we now kill.  When we drink pasteurized milk or eat pasteurized cheese, those contain coagulated proteins which create acid in the body.

A poor diet can lead to a protein deficiency, AND poor health can lead to a protein deficiency.

A diet that is too restricted or that has too few calories can lead to a protein deficiency.  Undereating to try to lose weight can lead to protein deficiency AND stress on the body which can lead to increased appetite and weight gain.  Populations who have limited food supplies or rely on rice are usually low in protein. Junk food diets are low in protein.  Many vegans who still eat junk food in the form of vegan cakes, chips, cookies, etc are usually low in protein. Raw fruit vegans are usually low in protein.  While fruit does contain amino acids, it is a very low percentage.  It is very difficult to get the RDA on fruit alone.

Protein is broken down in the stomach by gastric acid and enzymes, then it is broken down again by more enzymes as it passes into the small intestine.  As we age, stomach acid and enzymes decrease.  It becomes more difficult to break down these proteins, so they can be absorbed.  Someone may be eating enough protein but unable to breakdown enough.  If someone is taking antacids, they are lowering stomach acid! This makes it even more difficult to break down the proteins.  

A high fiber diet can also limit the amount of protein absorbed.  Even after all of the gastric acid and enzymes, some fiber binds to proteins and fats carries them out of the gastrointestinal tract. If you eat a high fiber diet, you may need to increase your protein to account for the fiber.

If you supplement with a single amino acid, you may be blocking yourself from absorbing other amino acids!  Amino acids come in different classes. One class has the Branch Chain Amino Acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine.  These are essential amino acids that we must get from our foods.  These are very popular in the body-building world. All of these are in the same class.  If I take just leucine as a supplement in larger amounts, it will block my uptake of isoleucine and valine.  All of them fit into the same receptors, so taking just one of them will prevent the others from being absorbed.  The same thing happens in other classes of amino acids, as well.

Health conditions such as cancer and some autoimmune illnesses limit or restrict gastric acid and/or enzymes that are needed for protein digestion and absorption.  

Many pharmaceuticals interfere with gastric acid and enzymes which prevents absorption.  PPIs, proton-pump inhibitors, lower hydrochloric acid.  These include Nexium, Prilosec, Prevocid, and even OTCs like milk of magnesia and TUMS.  Steroids like prednisone increase cortisol, which slows digestion and decreases stomach acid and enzymes. All of the medicines can decrease the amount of protein broken down and absorbed.

STRESS is the biggest culprit of ALL.

Stress can prevent the digestion and absorption of proteins.  Stress slows digestion. Our stress response is based on primitive needs. Our stress response is ALWAYS a flight or fight response. We are built to react, fight or run, and recover.  We were NOT built to be on alert and stressed out at our desk all day long.  Or run for our lives all day long.  Or lift hundreds of pounds all day long.  When our body senses stress, many body systems are affected, but the gastrointestinal system slows.  Gastric juices are lowered, because we don’t have time to eat and digest food.  This system prevents us from breaking down and absorbing proteins.  We are not meant to be eating on the run.  We are not supposed to stop and eat while we are fighting or escaping. 

Eating too Fast Leads to Poor Protein Absorption

#1 We do NOT have teeth beyond our mouth.  

You must chew thoroughly to break down foods before they pass on to the stomach.  This is why green juices and smoothies are so great for someone who has been under stress for too long, or who has gastrointestinal issues, or who is recovering from an autoimmune condition or cancer.  The fiber has been removed in a juice and the particles are pre-chewed in a smoothie.  

#2 When we eat too fast, it is usually because we are in a hurry.  

We are stressed, we know we should probably eat something, so we rush through the whole activity.  The body senses this stress, and the enzymes are not released and the gastric acid remains too low.  You end up burping and with heart burn and tell me you have too much stomach acid.  Au contraire!  Your body doesn’t have enough stomach acid to break down the protein, so it is churning and churning trying to get enough acid to break everything down.

Protein is a BIG deal!

Protein is needed for enzymes, hormones, muscle tissue, to transport chemicals, and so on.  If is a macronutrient, meaning our diet must provide it.  All plant foods contain the essential amino acids, and when we eat a variety of plant foods we can be sure that we are eating all of the amino acids we need in a day.  Our body is constantly building and repairing, reassembling and recycling amino acids.  We do not have to consume certain combinations to get our needs met, because of the recycling.

Eating a diet that is high in a variety of plant foods will meet your amino acid needs.  Choose different fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, sprouts, herbs, grains, and pseudo-grains each week for different nutrients and phytochemicals and to make your meals more exciting.  If you are a body builder, a senior, or recovering from some sort of trauma like surgery, you may need to eat more protein-rich sources, but it doesn’t take that much more. I’ll talk more about this next week.

If you need help with your meal planning, adding variety to your meals, or just transitioning to a more plantbased diet, I can help.  Schedule a time to talk to me.

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