When the topic of vegetarianism comes up, the most common complaint I hear is “does that mean I’ll have to eat tofu all day long?” Unfortunately, the idea that vegetarians and vegans live a 90% soy-filled lifestyle is a pretty outdated view of plant-based eating. But even if you do have a meat-friendly diet, should you incorporate soy into your diet for health reasons?
During the holiday season, I need three things from my recipes: ease, deliciousness, and health.
Deliciousness is usually not too difficult to work in, and I’ve incorporated ease and health into many savory recipes and main dishes. Desserts though? I usually find myself making dessert recipes that, while delicious, are not necessary that easy or healthy.
If we had to name the most beloved macronutrient in our society today, it would have to be protein. Important for building muscle, innocuous for our blood sugar levels, and generally packaged in delicious foods like hamburgers, nuts, and eggs. In contrast to carbohydrates and fat, protein is never demonized by the popular press. A life without protein? No thanks.
That doesn’t mean, however, that protein is the end-all, be-all savior for our health, and that we should eat as much protein as possible every day. For example, our brain, arguably one of our most important internal organs, relies on glucose for fuel! In times of great starvation, yes, it can use some amino acids, the building blocks of protein, for energy, in truth, your brain craves sugar.
And while protein is critical for building our muscles, bone, body tissues, and enzymes to keep our body running, too much protein can do the exact same thing that too many carbs or too much fat can do — turn into excess weight.
How much protein do our bodies need?
The recommendation is 10-35% of your daily calories from protein, or 0.9g per kg of body weight. What this equals out to is 63 grams of protein (or 9 oz of steak) for a man weighing 154lbs. Deficient protein intake is the cause of kwashiorkor, an debilitating disease found in Africa or other developing countries. Too much protein? Some studies suggest it can adversely affect bone health, while others point to excess protein as a cause of kidney damage and dehydration. But as with anything else, our bodies are very forgiving and can accommodate wide fluctuations in our protein intake.
What about animal versus vegetarian sources of protein?
The traditional literature lists dairy, eggs, and protein as the “best” sources of protein, because by weight, they have a high percentage of protein content (approximately 30%). However, many vegetable and plant-based foods have a protein content as high (and even higher!) than meat sources.
Some particularly high plant-based sources of protein:
- Nori Seaweed (55% protein)
- Spirulina (50-70% protein)
- Soy beans (40% protein)
- Peanuts (25% protein)
It’s also important to note that all vegetables have protein, albeit in smaller amounts than found in meat. This means that even if you are eating a plant-based diet, you are not completely deficient in protein, and are likely doing just fine.
What’s the deal with complete vs noncomplete proteins?
As I’ve talked about before, many people previously believed that animal proteins are better than plant-based proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids. However, the great diversity in the amino acid profiles of plant-based foods, and the fact that we all eat a reasonably varied died (i.e., more than just lentils), you shouldn’t worry about getting your protein requirements from plant-based sources.
When should you rethink your protein intake? If you’re feeling lethargic, experiencing muscle fatigue, or other symptoms that something’s “not right”. In that case – definitely talk with your doctor to figure out what’s going on.
In summary, the literature shows that individuals living in America or other Western nations probably don’t have to worry at all about not getting enough protein. Between our penchant for meat products, and the fact that we eat varied diets filled with foods that contribute at least some protein, if you’re getting enough calories to sustain your weight, you are likely getting enough protein as well.
But let’s turn to reasons why you would want to intentionally monitor or add protein to your diets.
Benefits of protein: stabilizing blood glucose levels
A well-known and oft-cited benefit of consuming protein during a meal or snack is that the protein acts to slow down your digestion through the release of pancreatic hormones. What this means is that you’ll absorb the carbohydrates from your meal slower as well, resulting in a smaller spike in your blood glucose levels and keeping you fuller for longer.
Benefits of protein: retaining muscle and bone mass when losing weight
Another interesting benefit of protein is for retaining muscle and bone mass when you are losing weight. When you do have a deficit of calories (a pre-requisite for weight loss), you are not losing weight only as fat – you are also potentially losing muscle and bone as well. Researchers have found that maintaining a high protein diet in the midst of weight loss can actually protect your bones from that loss, ensuring that the weight you are losing are the much less important fat cells in your body.
Benefit of protein: reducing cravings
Have you ever felt a craving for protein? For me, it usually manifests as a desire for a meal that is a little more satiating or filling. Often, that means that the meal or snack was a little too heavy on the simple carbohydrates, and didn’t include enough protein and fat. Protein helps us feel full! The presence of protein and amino acids in our stomach leads to the release of specific hormones like peptide YY (PYY) that tell our brains that we are full.
There is also a certain set of practitioners who believe that we crave protein because it is a nutrient-rich source of food that can make up for a high consumption of nutrient- and vitamin-poor, but energy-rich foods like refined sugars and flours. It’s an interesting point to consider given that proteins truly are the building blocks of our bodies, and if we are eating too many calories of foods that aren’t providing anything besides calories and sugar, we actually could be needing more protein to have optimal function in our muscles and cells.
What this means is that our bodies are not just craving protein, they’re craving nutrient dense food.
This notion falls in line with literature that examines the effects of protein intake on calcium balance and bone health. Potentially, high protein intake results in lower bone density because it is acidifying for the body and the blood. Foods like fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, have an alkaline quality and help the body retain calcium and nutrients. Researchers suggest that the association between high protein intake and poor bone health could actually be more strongly related to the low levels of alkaline foods, rather than the fault of the protein.
For both of these cases, increasing your general intake of healthful foods, rather than focusing on protein intake persay, could help reduce your cravings for extra calories and keep you feeling energized, but not over-full.
The NoMeatAthlete has great advice for getting your protein fix that I love – “Make sure you include a decent protein source, even if just a little bit, in every meal or snack”
To put this into practice, this means serving your apple with a scoop of peanut butter, or refraining from drinking sugary beverages in between meals. Eat a varied, whole-foods diet, and your protein needs will be met, and you’ll be feeling full, energized, and healthy.
What is your experience with protein cravings? Do you intentionally add protein to your meals and snacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Happy Thanksgiving week!
While I delightfully dream up recipes for Thanksgiving dinner, I have also been thinking about ways to avert the post-dinner fatigue. There are some years where I walk out of Thanksgiving or other holidays feeling great, full of energy, and happy for the relaxation time I had with loved ones. Other years….I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, not motivated or excited to do much of anything besides sit on the couch.
I decided it’s time to make sure I walk out of each holiday excited and refreshed instead of drained and exhausted. If you’re with me…tips for a healthy Thanksgiving are after the jump!
Thanks for keeping up with happenings here on the blog. It’s been a blast talking and writing with you all. Please keep your questions and comments coming – it only serves to make the blog and business better!
Wanted to let you know about a few cool things going on in recent months:
-The folks at Somewhere did a feature article about my work and business. They are an awesome crew.
-I offer health and wellness office hours for the smart & motivated entrepreneurs at HQ Raleigh. It has been an amazing group of people to get to know, and we’ve addressed many diverse issues to bring better health to members.
-I am available for speaking engagements about goal-setting, healthy habits, and staying healthy at home and at work. I love the power of speaking with groups about these issues, and it is so much fun!
-I’ve been teaching vinyasa yoga for private and corporate clients around the Triangle area. It’s been such a gift to watch the students grow together and to stretch in ways they never thought possible.
I spent all of last weekend huddled inside my house because of the freezing temps and some work deadlines. While I enjoyed and needed this break, after 2 days, I was ready to re-enter the world again. The only problem? Even though my brain was ready to get moving, my body was NOT having it. I felt tired and lazy in a way I haven’t felt in a long time…well actually…in a way I hadn’t felt since last winter! We all know it’s true….
It’s hard to be active and exercise during the winter.
No one wants to be out in the cold. I learned the hard way this week that the winter wind is that much worse when you’re going 10 mph on the bike, and even more importantly, it can be downright dangerous to run or bike in icy conditions. Then there’s that whole daylight savings thing…it’s dark when many of us leave work, which puts a damper on post-work outdoor time.
But it’s not just the weather that’s holding us back. Our body’s seasonal clock and attitudes can dampen our motivation, too.
Yes, yes, yes, stress is important, nay, necessary for survival. Despite being a biological system critical for our health and wellbeing, however, the human stress response is a rather blunt instrument. We have the same surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine each time we encounter a stresser, whether it be an injury, a verbal attack, exercise, or anxiety about a future event. Even though these very different situations require different responses, our body’s chemistry treats them essentially equally.
What do Erik Carlson and Jason Derulo have in common?
Well, not much. But they do share an appreciation of a good wiggle.
Today, I’m not talking about rap or insects, I’m actually talking about the random movement generator used in computer algorithms and robotics.
Okay stick with me, this actually does relate to your health.
Day 1. Riding my bike to work this morning was a dream. Cool breeze, the rush of speeding down hills, and I made it to work in half the time of my usual commute. This just might be the new favorite part of my day. I found myself telling anyone who would listen – “This is the best thing ever…Couldn’t imagine my life without it.”
Day 60. Okay. A little less fun now. I’m sleepy, I’m wearing gloves, and I am now bargaining with myself: do I work harder so I go faster, or do I slow down so there is less wind resistance? I still love riding my bike to work, but it’s definitely lost that luster and shiny new feeling that caused a surge of adrenaline every time I rode.
Day 1 was totally the honeymoon phase. The new joy of riding sustained me through sore legs, sweltering afternoons, and car-dodging that is a part of any active commute. By Day 60, me and my bike have a comfortable routine. He’s good to me, and I to him. I still fill up my tires with care, give him an appreciative pat when we arrive at our destination safely, but I’m not energized and excited to get on the bike every morning.
This transition from the honeymoon phase of excitement to the normal day-to-day is the case with most things in life because our brains are wired to like new. New things are more stimulating for our brains and produce a bigger response – for good or bad. Over time, our body becomes used to what we are doing, and we lose some of that excitement and motivation to keep on going.
It’s so important to stick with health habits and routines through this lull in the relationship though, because after the lull comes the true signs of a sustainable and lasting relationship. After the lull, these habits become so ingrained that they become our default, and thus, take a lot less energy and motivation to actually do day after day, week after week. So how do you stay motivated to stick with your health routines and habits as you leave the honeymoon phase?