Protein is the building block of all bodily tissues.
With protein, there are some critical points to understand. Protein is most often how a meal is described. It’s foundational to meal planning for most people. “We’re having salmon for dinner.” Or sayings like, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” BBQ’ing is an American past time. Protein is found in all types of food. It’s probably the least contentious of the 3 macros in terms of fat loss. No one specifically sets out to do a low protein diet to lose weight.
There’s a lot to unpack though. In this article I’d like to address protein quality and the best protein sources. I’ll also be addressing some common objections from the vegetarian and vegan communities about how eating meat specifically affects health. Finally I’ll finish with a handy infographic illustrating how much protein we should be eating based on goals and population.
Protein Quality: 3 Different Factors To Consider
There are 3 things to look for when choosing the highest quality protein: Amino acid profile, bioavailability and toxicity. In other words, the optimal choices will have all essential amino acids, in a bioavailable form with the lowest risk for potential toxicity.
- Amino acid profile: Complete proteins contain all essential amino acids whereas incomplete proteins are missing at least one or more. Most plant foods fall under the latter category. (* there are few exceptions which I will address)
- Bioavailability: I wrote an article that goes into more detail on bioavailability but essentially the point is, it doesn’t matter how much protein you eat and from what sources. What matters is how much you actually absorb.
- Toxicity: Certain protein sources have a higher likelihood to create an immune response or allergic reaction. The increase in environmental toxins has exacerbated this effect further due to gut permeability becoming more ubiquitous. (Gluten being the most salient illustration.)
Here’s an acronym for ya: PDCAAS – Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score
That’s fun. Essentially what PDCAAS does is measure the amino acid profile of a protein (complete or incomplete) with the true fecal digestibility of the protein (how much is actually absorbed). I bring up this industry insider jargon because it’s usually what is used to assess the quality of protein. You should care because there’s a fairly large shortcoming in using this tool. It doesn’t account for anti-nutrients.
* This brings me to my point earlier about the fact that there are some plants that are considered “complete proteins”. They do have all the essential amino acids necessary to make a complete protein. But what’s rule #2 when considering the quality of a protein? Bioavailability – which is always going to be lower in foods high in anti-nutrients. So while some plant foods appear to be high on the list, if anti-nutrients were taken into account, they’d actually be much lower (*ahem* soy).
Without exception, animal proteins are always going to be higher quality than plant proteins. That said, grains and legumes that are properly prepared will mitigate the anti-nutrients that inhibit absorption. And by properly prepared I mean they’ve been soaked, sprouted or fermented.
So what are the best sources of protein?
- Animal based protein should be the majority: Meat, Poultry, Seafood, Dairy & Eggs.
- Seafood, poultry and red meat are the most concentrated protein sources.
- Raw, pastured dairy products should be the only consideration. Avoid pasteurized.
- Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds contain low amounts of absorbable protein but are rich sources of micronutrients.
- Again, grains and legumes, if well tolerated and properly prepared, can supply protein although animal sources are preferred. It’s interesting to note there’s a lot of anecdotal testimonies from ex-vegetarians & vegans describing a noticeable difference between animal and plant based protein in how they felt.
Some final notes on Protein Quality (maybe a little “ranty”).
CAFO and battery cage raised animals create very unhealthy food. Most of the backlash about eating animal foods comes from the mistreatment of animals in these factory operations. These animals are loaded with synthetic hormones, antibiotics and GMOs from their feed. I only advocate animal products from the highest quality sources possible. There are many great online sources today as well if you can’t get anything local. Yes, it will cost you. Pay up front now or pay later in medical costs.
- Grass fed and finished, pastured ruminant animals only (cows, sheep, etc.). Organic isn’t as important as grass fed and finished.
- Raw, pastured dairy only. Preferably 100% grass fed. Again, organic not as important as grass fed.
- Pastured, organic poultry only that isn’t eating grain and soy. Chickens are omnivores. They need to be eating bugs. Good eggs have neon orange yolks.
- Pastured/forested heritage breed pork only. With pork I highly recommend you buy local and get to know the farmers who raise them. Otherwise make sure it’s what they claim it to actually be online. Do your due diligence because pork can be a great source of protein and lard is high in Vitamin D but pigs that aren’t raised in a very specific way by people who know what they’re doing are better avoided. Even if it’s organic.
Here’s a couple online sources:
Obviously all this is in a perfect world where everyone has tons of money in their budget for food and actually has the time to cook every meal they eat. This is a larger discussion I intend to have on this blog, but for now, just start somewhere. I eat Trader Joes bacon a couple times a week so please don’t think I’m some food saint just because I’m writing an article. I’m just relaying what I know to be the best route for folks in a perfect world. Which we are not living in currently.
Health Risks From Eating Animal Foods? 3 Recent Assertions vs. The Actual Evidence.
What’s the first and most important thing to remember with the perennial attacks on eating meat?
We should be avoiding factory raised animal products the same way we avoid candy, smoking and lead based paint.
The straw man argument is a common one but alas is a logical fallacy. No one is arguing that eating these abhorrent animal products is not detrimental to your health.
One thing that tends to be conspicuously missing from a lot of these studies are all the other lifestyle choices that also contribute to high rates of mortality. We would do well to do what over 90% of the population (I’m being generous here) doesn’t do when these “studies” come out: actually read them. You’d be amazed at how often the studies used have little to do with what’s being purported. I’ll be writing more about scientific studies in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that we ALL need a little scientific studies 101. Or scientific studies for Dummies? In fact, just do yourself a favor and listen to this podcast by Chris Kresser about the subject.
#1 – The Proposed Connection Between High-Protein Diets & Cancer
- The theory is that higher protein intake increases IGF-1 (Insulin like growth factor 1). High IGF-1 levels encourage cancer cell growth.
- BUT what’s really going on is that the amino acid methionine is the primary driver of the elevated IGF-1 which is primarily found in muscle meats and eggs. Not all protein.
- Glycine, another amino acid found in more gelatinous cuts of meat and bone broth actually reduces IGF-1. Maintaining a healthy ratio of methionine-to-glycine nullifies the purported risks.
- This is why our ancestors and traditional cultures always ate “nose to tail”. Bones broths were a staple in most diets. Plus, fat wasn’t villainized so glycine rich cuts like oxtail, shanks & brisket were eaten regularly.
#2 – Assertion That Eating Meat Increases Levels of TMAO, Which Increases Risk for CVD
- If TMAO (Trimethylamine N-Oxide) increased CVD (Cardio Vascular Disease) we’d expect to see people who eat lots of fish having heart attacks left and right because there’s a LOT more TMAO in fish than in red meat. Oops. That actually doesn’t happen at all.
#3 – Humans No Longer Produce the Neu5Gc Sugar & Have Neu5Gc Antibodies
- Neu5Gc sugar is found in red meat and milk products. The conclusion is that because we have antibodies to this sugar in our body, it reacts with it in our tissues and creates chronic inflammation.
- The Maasai people in East Africa have a diet that mostly consists of meat, milk and blood from the cows they raise. All foods high in Neu5Gc.
- Oops. Chronic inflammatory conditions like heart disease are virtually non-existant in the Maasai people.
Wrapping Up & Recommended Protein Intake Amounts
Keep in mind that these are general recommendations. As always, listen to your body. If you feel better on a higher protein diet, eat a higher protein diet. The nice thing with protein is it’s pretty hard to not get enough. Your body will tell you when you need more. Most people will naturally eat the right amount of protein for themselves without thinking about it. Keep in mind everything else in this article and you’ll do just fine.
So that’s it for macros! At least at this point. I’ll update these if the evidence warrants. Feel free to use the 3 articles on macros as a resource. Print them out because it’s a lot of information. Leave a comment with any questions! Were these articles helpful? Let me know in the comments as well!! Lastly, if you like the content and haven’t signed up for the newsletter, go here to sign up!