Most people know protein simply as one of the main food groups like fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, etc.. We’re told how important protein is, but we don’t always understand just how ubiquitous it is in all living creatures. In reality, protein is just as important for us as water and even oxygen. But not all protein is created equal, and some of us might need more in our diets than others. There are so many different supplements and powders on the market and so many different people in the media telling you what you should and shouldn’t be eating—so what’s the truth about protein?
First off, proteins are literally the building blocks of life. Our very DNA is all about instructions to make protein. All the tissues in your body are made of protein, including your hair, nails, ligaments, tendons, and the lens of your eye. Even tiny living things like viruses and bacteria are made of protein.
While proteins are the building blocks of life, amino acids are the building blocks of a protein. When you eat a protein-rich food like chicken, for example, your body will break down that poultry protein into its individual amino acids, then reconstruct those amino acids into a new protein for the body’s own purposes.
Most people need about 15-20% of their calories to come from protein. If you’re an athlete, trying to lose weight, in older age, suffering from stress/adrenal exhaustion, or recovering from illness, you’ll want about 30-35%. I think the best rule is to listen to your body—if you’re craving protein, then you should eat some! Your body is pretty good at knowing what it needs, and protein is typically not something to skimp on. Protein, in addition to carbs and fats can be used for energy; protein and fats can be used for repair; but only protein can be used for growth. If you aren’t getting enough protein through your food, then your body will start to break down tissues to get the protein it needs. Therefore it is vital that we eat protein-rich foods on a regular basis. But we also need to choose ones that are easily digested, ones that are easily broken down by our bodies, and ones that don’t come with a bunch of toxins.
Which brings me to my next point: not all protein is created equal. There are many different kinds of protein that come from many different sources. Some proteins are highly processed or can cause an allergic reaction in the body because they are hard to process. Unfortunately, there are a lot of different sources of protein (plant, animal, etc.) on the market right now that fall into this category. That’s why I want to take this newsletter to help you understand which proteins are best for the human body.
Let’s take a look at each of the main types of protein and see how they compare to each other:
Poultry Protein: this includes chicken and turkey. Poultry tends to be very high in protein and is also relatively low-calorie. Our bodies are good at breaking down poultry protein, so we say it is very “bioavailable.” Buy it organic to avoid added hormones, antibiotics, etc.
Meat protein: basically, beef. This is a complete protein and non-allergenic for the most part, so it has a much smaller potential to upset your stomach then, say, milk protein. Just make sure you buy grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef.
Fish protein: fish is very high protein and also very bioavailable, not to mention super low-calorie and full of healthy fats. But the problem with fish is, if you buy it wild-caught, its full of mercury, and if you buy it farmed, its full of antibiotics and dioxin.
Pork protein: a great choice, like beef or chicken and, contrary to popular belief, not significantly unhealthy. However, free-range pork is remarkably rare.
Egg protein: Eggs are a fantastic source of protein, and not to mention nutrient-dense. I consider them a super food. However, they do have a high sulfur content, which can lead to gas with a foul odor.
Milk protein: while milk does have a lot of protein, the worldwide presence of lactose intolerance makes it a bad choice for a lot of people. Even if you’re not outright lactose intolerance, it’s still very possible that you’ll suffer some form of stomach upset, like bloating, gas, etc. from drinking milk.
Whey: Whey protein seems to be the fad right now, especially for body builders and athletes. But I strongly advise against this type of protein. Whey was once considered nothing more than a waste product of the cheese industry. Today, it is highly processed and sold to the unassuming public as a protein powder. It’s highly allergenic (with side effects like gas, constipation, and general digestive upset) and almost always of terrible quality.
Soy protein: Please do not eat this type of protein. Soy protein was once considered a waste product of the soy oil industry and used almost exclusively as cattle food. Today, it is one of the most genetically modified crops in the world. It is very high in allergens, causing excess gas, and is disruptive to the body’s hormones—especially estrogen. Soy protein is also hard for our bodies to absorb and utilize, meaning it has a very low bioavailability. Next time you’re at the grocery store buying a protein bar, make sure to check the label for soy.
Beans: beans are not a great choice. While they do contain protein, they are also full of starch, which pushes your glucose level. As a strong proponent of the Paleo diet, I would advise you to eat fewer beans and other starchy foods in general.
Hemp seed protein: this kind of protein, unlike soy, is very bioavailable. It is easily digested and absorbed and great for immune system building. Some even consider Hemp seeds to be a super food.
Chlorella: a great source of protein, if you can tolerate it (about 30% of the world cannot). Its one of the most bioavailable sources of protein out there and not to mention one of nature’s detoxifiers. However, it’s not cheap.
My recommended protein sources are animal-based protein (so long as it comes from grass-fed cows, pigs, and sheep!) and plant-based protein, specifically hemp seed and chlorella. Next time you’re at the store, skip the Whey protein powder and instead try to incorporate more chicken, beef, or pork into your diet. If you feel like you have to have a powder, I really like the Great Lakes Gelatin Collagen Hydrolysate—it contains 90% protein and comes from all grass-fed animals. Eggs are another great protein source and are a complete food in general. But if you don’t tolerate dairy well or are a vegan, then opt for a plant-based protein like Chlorella.
Everyone has different tastes, schedules, health conditions, and budgets, and some of these proteins will appeal more to some than others. Remember that it’s okay to follow your cravings, as long as you make smart choices.
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