While trendy diets come and go, what does not change is how the human body functions and the nutrients required for optimal health. There are disagreements and various interpretations of how much of each nutrient one should consume. Search the internet and you can find a study to support most any opinion. Ultimately this has led to mass confusion. As one of my clients recently said to me, “It’s kind of interesting when you think about it – how we are the only animals that do not know what to eat!”

Last month I provided an overview of each macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, and fat). This month we begin a deeper exploration, beginning with protein.

Protein provides the structural basis for our body: building and repairing our muscles, ligaments, tendons, nails, hair, organs, glands, blood, hormones, neurotransmitters, cell receptor sites, antibodies, and enzymes.  As you read and learn about what protein does in your body, please consider this question – are you eating enough protein?

Let’s take a closer look at the functions of protein:

Building and repairing muscles, ligaments, and tendons – this is obviously extremely important for all of us.  Be aware that building and repairing is a continuous process.  Exercise breaks down muscle and then the body builds newer, bigger, and stronger muscle in its place via the repair process.  Protein is essential for a strong body.  One of the key proteins utilized is collagen. For more information about healthy exercise, please visit my blog at: Exercise.

Nails and hair – for beautiful glowing hair and robust nails protein is important. Collagen also plays an important role here. For more information about collagen, please visit my blog at: Bone Broth and Collagen.

Organs and glands – these are at the basic operating systems of your body.  The heart and lungs for breathing and circulation; the stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and pancreas for digestion; the liver for hundreds of functions including keeping the blood clean; the endocrine glands for producing the hormones that regulate and monitor how your body functions.  Protein keeps these systems up and running! For more information about digestion, please visit my blog at: Digestion.

Hormones – regulating and controlling all the key processes of your body.  This includes blood sugar control, stress response, metabolism, and the menstrual cycle to name a few.  Along with neurotransmitters the hormones determine how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally at any given moment. For more information about hormones, please visit my blog at: Hormones.

Neurotransmitters – neurotransmitters are very important for our mental health.  There are two types of neurotransmitters.  Excitatory neurotransmitters energize, excite, and stimulate us helping us to focus, learn, and remember.  Inhibitory neurotransmitters keep us happy, relaxed, and peaceful.  As with most areas of life, it is all about balance.

There are six key neurotransmitters: For focus – dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine; for learning and remembering – acetylcholine; for feeling relaxed – GABA; and for being happy – serotonin.

For a more detailed discussion of neurotransmitters, please visit my blog at: Neurotransmitters.

Antibodies – a critical part of our immune system to keep us healthy. For more information on the immune system, please visit my blog at: Immune System.

Enzymes – the catalyst to all the chemical reactions in our bodies.

Where does protein come from?

Proteins come from both animal (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs) and plant sources (whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds).  When we eat protein we are actually consuming amino acids.  Different proteins have different amino acid compositions.

Among the amino acids there are nine that are considered “essential.”  Anytime you hear the word “essential” in nutrition it means we need to eat that specific nutrient because our body does not manufacture it.  Other “essentials” are some fatty acids, Vitamin C, and minerals.

You will also hear the term “complete” as it relates to protein.  This means that the specific protein source contains all of the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to sustain human life.  With few exceptions, only animal based proteins are complete.  Non-animal based proteins considered to be complete include spirulina and quinoa. This is why vegetarians are advised to combine foods (such as rice and beans) to receive all the essential amino acids.

Since our body is constantly building and repairing itself, it requires a constant supply of protein.  Therefore, I recommend protein be consumed with each meal.

What proteins should I eat?

It is best to consume grass fed meats, free range fowl, wild fish, and organic foods. Also, these are general guidelines. If you have a food sensitivity or allergy to any of the following food(s) you should not eat them. For further specific guidance I recommend you consult with a qualified nutrition consultant.

Eat these foods for protein:

MEATS:  Beef, bison, lamb, veal, lean pork; POULTRY:  Chicken, turkey, duck; SEAFOOD:  Any wild caught fish or shellfish, fresh or frozen. Bone broth from any of the above.

OTHER PROTEINS:  Legumes (beans and peas); NUTS & SEEDS:  Nuts and seeds such as: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raw or dehydrated. Natural nut butters where oil rises to the top – avoid commercial brands (containing hydrogenated oils and sugar), best is almond butter.

DAIRY: Eggs; Butter; Cheese, Cottage cheese; Yogurt without added sugar.

Practice balance and moderation of these foods for protein:

GRAINS (Limited quantities ONLY – 1-2 times per day maximum): Sprouted grain bread; Whole grain breads/crackers; Whole grains – brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, millet, wild rice; Whole grain cereals, pastas – i.e. oatmeal, health store cereals. Organic is best as conventional grains contain pesticides.

Avoid these protein sources: Lunch meat or cured and processed meats with nitrites or MSG; All soy that has not been fermented (miso and tempeh are okay); Wheat if you are gluten intolerant or sensitive.

How much protein should I eat?

This is a difficult question to answer.  You will see all kinds of answers depending upon the belief system of the practitioner.  The USDA’s guidelines tell you protein should be about 10% of daily calories which works out to about 45-50 grams of protein per day.  This is for the average 16-70 year old female.  That is a wide range and you are certainly not that!

I recommend the following rule of thumb: you should consume one-third of your body weight in grams of protein for the average person and one-half body weight for an active person. And the simplest rule of thumb is to have some complete protein with each meal. For an individualized program I recommend you see a qualified professional.

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Mequon, WI. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at bernie@brwellness.com, call (262) 389-9907 or go to www.brwellness.com.