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Making Sense of Protein

Are you confused about healthy vs. unhealthy sources of protein and how much you should be eating on a daily basis? Before we address these issues, let's take a look at what protein is and what it does in your body.

Protein provides structure to all of your organs, nerves, hormones, muscles, antibodies, and enzymes. If vitamins and minerals are analogous to workers who help to construct and maintain a building, protein represents some of the concrete and steel that provide a building with its foundation and structure.

Protein is made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. More specifically, 22 different amino acids combine in numerous ways to make up the tens of thousands of different proteins found in your body. Of these 22 amino acids, eight are considered to be essential, which means that they cannot be made by your body from other nutrients. These eight essential amino acids must be obtained from food.

Plant foods like vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and even fruit come with some amino acids. But there is no single plant food that comes with all eight essential amino acids. You can get all eight essential amino acids from a plant-based diet, but only if you eat a wide variety of plant foods.

All animal foods like eggs, fish, chicken, red meat, and dairy come with all eight essential amino acids. In other words, one serving of just one animal food will provide you with all eight essential amino acids.

Here are some recommendations on choosing healthy sources of protein and eating the right amount for your situation:

1. When you eat protein-dense foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and all animal foods, it is essential to chew them until liquid. Doing so will make it easier for the acid in your stomach to break protein down into amino acids and make them available to your blood stream via your small intestine. Chewing until liquid also decreases the potential for food-allergic reactions, as many of these reactions are a result of incompletely digested protein entering your blood stream.

2. Beans, nuts, seeds, and grains should be soaked in water for at least a few hours, preferably overnight, before eating or preparing to eat. Soaking these foods in water helps to deactivate compounds in these foods that can cause mineral deficiencies and digestive disturbances.

3. Organic animal foods are best eaten raw, lightly cooked, or braised in broth or water. High cooking temperatures increase the likelihood of making the protein and fat in animal foods harmful to your body.

4. It is best to avoid luncheon meats and bacon that have been preserved with nitrites or nitrates. These preservatives have been closely linked to many different types of cancer, particularly throughout the digestive tract, bladder, and lungs.

5. It is best to avoid charcoal grilled meats, as these meats come with chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are used by scientists to induce cancer in animals.

6. It is best to avoid isolated protein products, usually made from soy, egg whites, whey, and casein. These isolated protein products are typically made with high-temperature processes that can make protein unusable and even harmful to your body. I highly recommend that you avoid all products – even those that are marketed as health food products – that contain any protein isolates. Many health food bars, energy bars, muscle-building supplements, and dietary shakes fall into this category.

7. When you eat animal foods, it is important to eat them with a large serving of vegetables. The fibre from the vegetables will help to prevent constipation and endogenous toxaemia. The large numbers of natural antioxidants found in all vegetables will help to protect your body against some of the free radicals and other harmful substances that come with cooked animal foods.

8. In general, the more you exercise, the more protein you need to help replenish and maintain your cells. But no matter how much you exercise, your health is best served by eating no more than half of your body weight (in pounds) in grams per day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you can safely eat up to 75 grams of protein from whole foods per day.

9. If your current health status is such that you need an objective way to monitor how well your body is responding to the amount of protein that you are eating, ask your doctor about monitoring your blood urea nitrogen (BUN). Whenever you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids that contain nitrogen. Nitrogen separates from amino acids and combines with other molecules to form urea. Ultimately, urea is eliminated from your body when your kidneys filter it out of your blood and into your urine. A healthy range for BUN is between 4 to 17 mg/dL. Anywhere between 18 to 21 mg/dL is a sign that you may be eating too much protein, and possibly that your kidneys are under excessive strain. More than 21 mg/dL is a strong sign that you need to significantly reduce your protein intake.