Many of my patients are concerned about getting the right amounts of vitamins and minerals. And rightfully so because the vitamins and minerals that we consume allow our bodies to function well. Vitamins and minerals are known as micronutrients because they are required in a small amount in terms of weight or mass. On the other, there are macronutrients (needed in larger amounts) which consist of fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Unless a person has a very specific problem that can easily be reversed with a simple micronutrient such as iron, molybdenum, folic acid, vitamin B12, etc.; I usually begin by making sure the patient has the right amount and ratio of macronutrients. Think of it like this: if you have a car with a hole in the piston, you’ll probably want to take care of that before making sure there is the perfect amount of air in the tires. Now, if you have a flat tire, you’ll need air right away… My point is, it’s generally best to take care of the “big stuff” first. Now let’s discuss protein.
If you have a chain, and named it “protein”, you would name the individual links that make it up “amino acids”. This is why amino acids are referred to as the building blocks of protein. It is not necessary for me to delve into each amino acid’s role at this time; let’s stick with the big picture.
Just about everything in your body requires protein. Your bones, muscles, skin, cartilage, hair, nails, etc. are made up of protein. Additionally, protein is required to make hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and other vital biochemicals. So not only are you made of protein (like a house is made of wood), you need protein-derived biochemicals to function properly as well. As you may already know, the foods richest (or most dense) in protein are from animals. These include beef, fish, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, eggs, goose, duck, pheasant, squab, venison, milk, cheese…you get the picture.
Plant-based foods are not very high in protein. Although some plant-based foods may have a high percentage of protein, the total amount proves minuscule when judged by serving size. For example, one of the most protein-dense plant-based foods, spirulina, may contain about sixty-percent protein. Wow, that’s more than beef, you say. However, in order to get the amount of protein you need on a daily basis, you would need much more spirulina than you would probably be willing to eat. I know this doesn’t sound great to the vegans and vegetarians out there; but that is the reality. Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly get a fair amount of protein from other plant-based sources. These mainly include legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, and grains. A potential issue with obtaining all your daily protein requirements solely from plant-based foods is the fact that they also generally contain large amounts of carbohydrates. An excessively high carbohydrate load can contribute to weight gain and blood sugar imbalances. And excessive weight and blood sugar imbalances are often the beginning of many (degenerative) diseases. If you are vegan or a strict vegetarian you may want to supplement your diet with a high-quality protein powder.
So now the question is: “How much protein do we need on a daily basis?”. This amount will obviously vary from person to person. And factors that influence daily protein requirements are typically dependent on stress levels. Stress is a vague term so I’ll expand on that a bit. Stress in this case refers to, but is not limited to: recovering from an injury, trauma, or surgery; exercise intensity; and hormone levels. The first two are straight-forward. When I mention hormone levels, I’m generally referring to catabolic (or breakdown) hormones. If you have high levels of catabolic hormones (e.g.: cortisol), your body may be breaking down more than it’s building up. As a result, you may require more protein than normal.
The minimum amount (to stay healthy) of protein on a daily basis is roughly 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight. However, I generally recommend 1.0 g per kg of body weight. The formula for this is simple: divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kg. So a 150-pound person would need (150/2.2=68.18) about 68g of protein every day. Consider about 1.2-1.5 g of protein for every kg of body weight if you are trying to build muscle or recovering from an injury. Some research states that 1.5-2.0 g of protein for every kg is necessary for severe stress (as in recovering from surgery).
Another thing to consider is that you need to consume all the eight (sometimes considered ten) essential amino acids in your diet. If you don’t do this, your body will not be able to synthesize the other amino acids necessary to fuel your body. This can be a problem if you are vegetarian and don’t get protein from a variety of sources. Interestingly, certain common vegetarian food combinations will provide all eight essential amino acids. Two popular ones are rice and beans, and sesame seeds and chickpeas (hummus).
Lastly, you are NOT what you eat. You are what you digest and absorb. When it comes to protein, you need adequate amounts of hydrochloric (stomach) acid in order to properly digest protein. By the way, lack of sufficient amounts of hydrochloric acid is an extremely common condition, especially if you are over the age of fifty.
Surely there have been days when all of us haven’t consumed the recommended amount of protein. So what happens when you don’t consume enough protein every day? Simple, your body will prioritize as it strives for survival. Again, you need amino acids to run the biochemical pathways necessary for everything from producing hormones and neurotransmitters to detoxifying harmful chemicals. So if you don’t eat them, where do they come from? Your skin, hair, muscles, etc. (protein-rich tissues) may not be deemed a priority over making (say) thyroid or adrenal hormones. So your body will “rob Peter to pay Paul”. That is, your body will break down what’s deemed “less important” to build what’s “more important”. So your body may “steal” amino acids/protein from your skin (perhaps resulting in wrinkles) or muscle (increasing your percentage of body fat by default), etc.. Don’t get me wrong, you can obviously still have muscle and maybe no wrinkles even though you are deficient in amino acids necessary to make neurotransmitters and detoxify chemicals. So there is a good chance you might not notice where the protein is being “robbed” from by simply looking in the mirror. But you can be sure something in your body will be breaking down if you do not eat enough protein.
FYI – In terms of body composition (or what we are composed of), protein is the second most abundant substance, after water.
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology