Protein is misunderstood. A necessary building block of human health that occurs in almost every food in varying amounts. As it is broken down into its smaller parts, amino acids, it is shuttled around the body to serve various different roles. Everyone needs protein in their diet, yet the amount that is needed varies widely depending on an individual’s health goals.
In this article I am going to explain why protein is so important, how to use it to meet your health goals, and what the best sources are for you. I will say one thing up front, not all protein is created equal, so be careful where you get yours.
Benefits of Protein
As I mentioned briefly already, everyone needs some protein in their diet. Once digested, it is broken down into smaller building blocks called amino acids when digested. These amino acids are used for various functions around the body.
For example, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), Valine, Leucine, and Isoleucine, are responsible for providing energy and repairing damaged muscle after exercise. Cysteine, on the other hand, plays a role in the formation of glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant.
This is just an extremely limited example of the many roles amino acids play in the body and without adequate amounts of them, several aspects of health would suffer.
Balance Blood Sugar
The tendency for your blood sugar to fluctuate is determined by a foods glycemic index score. Most people consume large amounts of carb-rich, high-glycemic foods on a daily basis which massively contribute to blood sugar imbalances. Protein-rich foods tend to have lower glycemic index scores.
In fact, consuming a protein-rich food along with carbs can help to lower the blood sugar response a given meal has on your body (1). While reducing carbohydrate intake overall is probably a more powerful way to stabilize blood sugar, strategically combining blood sugar stabilizing foods can be powerful as well.
Protein-rich foods tend to be more filling than carb-rich or even certain high fat foods. There is evidence showing that increasing your protein intake can actually help you to feel full for longer after a meal and prevent the tendency to indulge in frequent snacking.
Additionally, consuming protein stimulates a process in the body called thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is basically just describes the regulation of temperature in the body (2). Increased thermogenesis will often also be associated with increased fat burning.
Finally, having lean muscle mass on the body is a great way to boost fat burning potential. Consuming enough quality protein with branched chain amino acids is a great way to ensure maintenance of lean muscle mass.
Increase Muscle Mass
Speaking of muscle mass, if you are someone who is physically active (or even if you are not) your body is constantly going through a balance of breaking down and repairing. Having adequate amino acids in the diet is critical for building muscle and repairing damaged tissues.
Your personal protein intake needs will vary slightly depending on your daily lifestyle. If you are highly physically active, especially lifting heavy weights, then higher amounts of will be needed in order to build and repair muscles. Specifically, the branched-chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are critical for rebuilding muscle after exercise (3).
Promote Emotional Stability & Brain Health
Many people don’t realize this but protein is actually needed in order for someone to feel emotionally balanced on a day-to-day basis. This is because certain amino acids are turned into neurotransmitters for the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals regulated within the brain that actually regulate our behaviors and feeling in a way.
For example, GABA is a neurotransmitter that allows us to relax and go to sleep at night while glutamate is the gas pedal that prepares us for high mental acuity. Both GABA and glutamate can be derived from glutamine, an amino acid found in many different foods.
Another example of this is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released after we accomplish a task or perform an action that makes us feel good. Dopamine regulates our motivation and tendency to form habits around certain behaviors. This critical neurotransmitter is created by phenylalanine and tyrosine which are both amino acids that can be derived from protein-rich foods (4).
True, life-long bone health has to do with the dietary nutrients calcium, magnesium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin K. It appears that protein intake also plays a major role in this equation. Recent preliminary research suggests that there is a positive association between protein intake and bone health (5).
Not consuming protein-rich foods on a daily basis may contribute to poor bone health over time. This might be because it interplays with insulin-like growth factor to regulate calciumand phosphate metabolism in bony tissues.
There are many theories of aging. One of the more prominent theories is the theory of oxidation. There is a constant battle between oxidative stress and antioxidant systems in the body. If oxidative stress gets too high, we suffer chronic inflammation and damage to our tissues. One of the most prominent examples of this in our society is heart disease, most often due to chronic inflammation of the arterial lining.
Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant that protects our cells from oxidative stress and toxins. Many people don’t realize this but glutathione is actually created with the help of three amino acids; cysteine, glycine, and glutamine. Receiving these amino acids from a high-quality protein source is critical.
Many of the previous benefits mentioned in this article all lower risk of heart disease as well. For example, improved calcium metabolism (bone health) will ensure calcium does not end up in the arteries, such is the case with atherosclerosis.
Optimizing glutathione levels to mitigate inflammation can also be powerful for preventing heart disease. As I mentioned, glutathione is formed by combining amino acids in the body. Additionally, optimizing blood sugar and reducing excess body weight both have a powerful impact on heart disease risk.
Problems with Too Much Protein
While protein is vitally important for your body, there are problems with consuming too much. Depending on your current health goals, your intake needs will vary. Protein activates certain metabolic pathways and while this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, we must look at the context in which the person is consuming this excess protein.
The following two issues are contextual reasons why you would not want to consume too much protein and then we will get into specific intake recommendations for different health goals.
- Increases insulin and blocks ketone production, and
- Activates the mTOR pathway.
If you are following a ketogenic diet or are attempting to use natural healing methods to combat cancer, you will want to limit your protein intake. This is because excess amino acids in the body can be converted into glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis.
Essentially, consuming too much protein can prevent your body from entering a state of ketosisby providing the body with a source of glucose to be burned as energy instead.
This will also be important to consider if you are attempting to achieve weight loss on a ketogenic diet.
Protein intake stimulates a physiological pathway in the body called mTOR. mTOR stands for Mammalian Target of Rapamycin and is associated with the regulation of growing tissues in the body. While temporary elevations in mTOR are great for building muscle and burning fat, chronically elevated mTOR is associated with increased cancer risk and chronic disease.
This will be especially important if you are dealing with cancer as limiting the mTOR pathway will be an important strategy toward helping the body inhibit the further development of cancerous growth. Fasting and a ketogenic diet are also great ways to inhibit the mTOR pathway (8, 9).
Using Protein for Your Goals
People often ask me how much protein they should consume in a given day. My answer is always, “It depends”. That is because your daily requirements can vary greatly depending on your lifestyle and health goals.
Here I am going to outline how you can determine your personal sweet spot depending on what you are trying to achieve.
To get this number, simply take your weight in Lbs. and divide it by 2.2. For example, a 160 Lb. individual is about 72 kilograms.
Weight Loss (combined w/exercise)
Eating the right amount of protein for weight loss, given that you are also an active person, is important. Too much could prevent weight loss while too little might not be ideal for retaining lean muscle mass.
If your goal is to lose weight while maintaining an active lifestyle, then you would want to shoot for 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight.
If you are engaging in strenuous exercise that leads to increase muscle hypertrophy, then you will need a higher daily protein intake. Those engaging in bodybuilding, frequent weight lifting, (4-6 days per week) and high-level athletics will typically fit in this category.
If your goal is to build muscle during an intense workout regimen, then 1.0-1.6 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight is a great target. Reserve the higher end of that range for hard training days.
If you find yourself grinding for 2-3 hours a day, 5-7 days a week, you will absolutely need to up your protein intake a bit higher. Additionally, it may be advantageous to utilize an essential amino acid complex (such as this one) to provide an easy to use source of muscle-repairing amino acids. Extreme athletes will also tend to have digestive issues, in which case Bone Broth Protein can be amazing (also great for the joints!).
If you are challenged daily to the point of exhaustion and need to constantly push the boundaries of your fitness, 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight is where you should aim to be.
Many people do not exercise on a regular basis. This could be due to choice or due to time restraints and work habits. Either way, these individuals will need much less protein than most people as they do not incur as much muscular damage.
If you are mostly sedentary and do not partake in any form of strenuous exercise, you will likely do just fine in the range of 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight.
Those with chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, or metabolic syndrome will receive tremendous benefit from following a ketogenic style diet. This is where you train your body to burn fat as energy instead of sugar (learn more here).
Lower amounts of protein are needed on a ketogenic diet because this style of eating actually provides a muscle sparing effect. Additionally, too much protein can prevent someone from entering this fat-burning state.
If you are enduring some type of chronic disease, a ketogenic diet with 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight can be powerful.
Speaking of chronic disease, cancer is something that emerges due to chronically dysfunctional mitochondria that are stuck in sugar-burning metabolism. Cancer cells, unlike healthy cells, do not have the ability to burn ketones (fats) for energy.
Additionally, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the mTOR pathway in the body is closely linked with cancer growth. The mTOR pathway can be stimulated by a number of different things. The intermittent stimulus of this pathway is important for the body, however chronic stimulation may aggravate cancer growth.
Following a ketogenic diet and reducing protein intake to 0.3-0.5 grams per kg of bodyweight is an important consideration to make if you are fighting cancer.
Best Types of Protein
Not all proteins are created equal. This is because, depending on the source, different proteins can have different balances of amino acids. The specific balance of amino acids contained within a particular source of protein can have different benefits for the body.
Muscle Building Proteins
The best sources of protein for building muscle are those that are high in what are called Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA). That is because the BCAA’s (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) have been documented in research to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Proteins that are high in BCAAs can be found in muscle meats, eggs, and dairy. Preferably these would come from pasture-raised and organic sources. For those who can tolerate it, grass-fed, non-denatured whey protein is a great muscle building choice.
Using an Essential Amino Acids supplement, which also contains BCAAs, can be great to sip on before, during, and after workouts.
While some proteins are good for supporting healthy muscles, others are much better for helping to maintain healthy joints, skin, hair, and nails. One of the best proteins you can find for this purpose is a high-quality collagen protein or collagen-rich foods.
Bone broth is a great source of naturally-occuring collagen proteins. There are also great collagen proteins powders that contain the full array of collagen proteins (yes there’s more than one type!). The collagen powders can be added to water, juice, coffee, or even your favorite recipes because it is tasteless.
One of the best sources of plant-based protein is peas. It is a great complete protein for building muscle while also being a great hypoallergenic protein for those who struggle with other powders.
Using a pea protein along with other anti-inflammatory and gut healing nutrients can be powerful for someone with leaky gut or for doing a digestive reset.
Keto Protein Powder
If you fit into one of the groups that would do better on a ketogenic diet, or if you use a ketogenic diet for a higher level of performance on a daily basis (like me), there is a new line of proteins designed to assist you in your pursuits.
There are particular things I always tell people to keep in mind to maximize the benefits of a ketogenic diet:
- Eat Enough Fat
- Don’t Eat Too Much Protein
- Use MCT Oils
- Increase Antioxidant Consumption
- Nourish the Gut
Now there is a protein powder that can fulfill every single one of these tenants every time you use it. It is an organic bone broth protein powder, featuring coconut-derived MCT oil powder, collagen peptides, and powerful superfoods like ashwagandha, ginger, and reishi mushroom.
Sources for this Article Include
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3. Negro M, Giardina S, Marzani B, Marzatico F. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation does not enhance athletic performance but affects muscle recovery and the immune system. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2008;48(3):347-51. PMID: 18974721
4. Guilarte TR. Effect of vitamin B-6 nutrition on the levels of dopamine, dopamine metabolites, dopa decarboxylase activity, tyrosine, and GABA in the developing rat corpus striatum. Neurochem Res. 1989;14(6):571-8. PMID: 2761676
5. Kerstetter JE, Kenny AM, Insogna KL. Dietary protein and skeletal health: a review of recent human research. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2011;22(1):16-20. PMID: 21102327
6. Appel LJ. The effects of protein intake on blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2003;14(1):55-9. PMID: 12544662
7. Raygan F, Bahmani F, Kouchaki E, et al. Comparative effects of carbohydrate versus fat restriction on metabolic profiles, biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress in overweight patients with Type 2 diabetic and coronary heart disease: A randomized clinical trial. ARYA Atheroscler. 2016;12(6):266-273. PMID: 28607566
8. Dogan S, Johannsen AC, Grande JP, Cleary MP. Effects of intermittent and chronic calorie restriction on mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) and IGF-I signaling pathways in mammary fat pad tissues and mammary tumors. Nutr Cancer. 2011;63(3):389-401. PMID: 21462085
9. McDaniel SS, Rensing NR, Thio LL, Yamada KA, Wong M. The ketogenic diet inhibits the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway. Epilepsia. 2011;52(3):e7-e11. PMID: 21371020
About The Author:
Dr. David Jockers is a doctor of natural medicine, functional nutritionist and corrective care chiropractor. He currently owns and operates Exodus Health Center in Kennesaw, Georgia. He has developed 6 revolutionary online programs with thousands of participants.
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