Food as Medicine Series: Proteins

protein

Proteins are worshiped like a god in the diet industry. They have been dubbed as the key to achieving that model-like physique so many of us have dreamed about. But from a scientific standpoint, what really are proteins and are they truly the answer to all of our weight-related issues?

Proteins are not just a single, whole substance. They are actually made up of a little something called amino acids. I bet you probably heard about these fellas in 7th grade science class.  In order to keep our bodies running in tip top shape we need a total of just 20 different amino acids. Since our bodies are pretty amazing, we can actually make 11 of these amino acids. What about the other 9? Well, we have to get those from our diet.  If you are consuming a balanced diet, you have no need to worry about getting those other 9 amino acids.  But if you are letting your diet fall by the wayside and you aren’t consuming enough of just one of those 9 amino acids, you are going to have a problem. Your body will first do its best to try to conserve the most of the amino acid it can, but that’s obviously not a long-term solution. Soon your body will slow down the production of proteins and then eventually it will begin to break down proteins faster than it can build them. That’s when your health is going to start heading south.

Alrighty, now that you understand what proteins are made of I bet you are just dying to know why on earth our body needs protein. You can think of proteins as little bricks, making up important structures in your body.  They also have some other additional jobs like helping to balance water, pH, acids, and bases as well as forming hormones and enzymes, playing a role in our immune system, and forming glucose when your body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to use.  The one function I want to touch on that relates to eating disorders is the formation of glucose from the amino acids that make up proteins.  You see, our bodies main source of fuel is carbohydrates and our bodies use those carbs to make glucose so our cells have energy. But in times of starvation, sometimes our bodies just don’t have enough carbohydrates to utilize. This results in our bodies having to take amino acids from muscles to use as glucose, which not only wastes one’s muscles but also can produce edema.  Another thing proteins do is after you eat them, they cause a feeling of satiety or fullness.  This is especially attractive to individuals looking to drop a few pounds and it may cause people to think that loading up on protein will be their saving grace. But before you start eating a big lump of steak at each meal and mixing protein powder with everything, here’s what you have to know . . .

The foods that our highest in proteins tend to be from animals. A lot of animal proteins are laden with unhealthy fats and lack the important nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber found in plant-based sources of protein. Also studies have suggested that high-protein diets suck the calcium right our of your bones. This is especially dangerous for those of us with eating disorders, since an effect of starvation is osteoporosis or osteopenia.  Lastly, there has been evidence that suggests the a diet overflowing with protein can really take a toll on your kidneys because of the extra nitrogen that they are forced to excrete.  The key thing to remember is that most women just need 46 grams of protein per day and most men require about 56 grams per day. To put that in perspective a 3oz piece of chicken breast provides a whopping 26.7g of protein and fresh 3oz piece blue-fin tuna provides 25.4g. So as you can see, getting the right amount of protein isn’t hard at all and it’s actually really easy to get MORE than what you need.

So just remember that protein is an important macronutrient needed for a variety of functions in your body, but that doesn’t mean loading up on it is the healthiest thing to do. Even though it does contribute to a feeling of fullness, eating too much protein has some negative side effects that can really take a toll on your health. I guess the moral of the story is to not see high-protein diets as a miracle weight-loss method and to instead see it as a vital macronutrient that should be eaten in an amount that is right for your body.

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