Protein can improve your immunity, your gut, your liver, your well being, and everything else.
So often in my consultations I tell clients that they need more protein. We all think of healthy diets in terms of greens, fermented foods etc, but many people overlook the vastly important role of this macronutrient.
The following is a quick run down of all of its major functions. There are, of course, many others but I can't include them all in one blog.
Skip to the bottom if you would like an easy guide to protein sources and how much you need.
The key to good immunity
Everyone these days is rushing to the pharmacy or health food store to buy vitamin C, zinc, quercetin, etc. These are all great ways to promote activity of white blood cells, which are responsible for killing off viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that can make us sick.
However, you can't make white blood cells without protein. For this reason, you are more likely to have infections if you're not getting enough.
Your digestive system is effectively one long tube and is exposed to the outside environment from the food you eat, the drinks you consume, and pathogens transferred from hands and anything else that touches your mouth. So your immunity needs to be particularly strong in the gut.
A weak army of immune cells here leads to nasty invaders taking hold, such as viruses, parasites and bacterial pathogens. Your immune system also prevents overgrowths of yeasts and bacteria that normally reside in safe numbers in the digestive system.
Looking after your gut
Keeping up with gut cells
You will have noticed that when you burn your mouth from hot food or drinks it heals very quickly in the space of a a few days. This is because the cells lining your mouth have a very high rate of turnover and are renewed every 3-6 days.
The same thing is happening in the stomach and intestines. Cells lining the small intestine have the highest rate of turnover of any cells in the body.
To keep up with this constant renewal, you need amino acids, which come from protein. Eating more of it really does make a difference - higher intake boosts the manufacture of particular proteins responsible for healthy gut integrity and for preventing leaky gut.
Studies also show that increasing intake during flare-ups of the inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, heals the gut and reduces the likelihood of future inflammatory episodes.
Blood sugar and the gut
Protein is very helpful for balancing blood sugar as it slows down absorption of glucose from food. High blood sugar can have many ramifications in the body but its effect on digestive health is often overlooked.
Among other things it can:
Slow gastric emptying
Encourage SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
Cause reflux and GORD (gastro-oesophageal reflux disease)
And contribute to poor digestion
Crucial liver detox ingredient
Newspaper reports claim that juice fasts and tea fasts may have contributed to cricketer Shane Warne's untimely death. There were a lot of other factors, but I think this tragic event illustrates that some so-called health regimes can sometimes be exactly the opposite.
These types of fasts are not good practice because you are starving yourself of adequate protein. Your liver cannot perform its task of detoxifying without amino acids. The fact that a protein-rich meal can be remedy for a hangover is a case in point, as it will help your liver clear the toxic byproducts of alcohol more efficiently.
I have already mentioned that blood sugar becomes dysregulated if you don't have enough protein in meals. Peaks in blood sugar mean you release more insulin and insulin is a fat-storage hormone. If this happens often enough, you'll find yourself putting on weight even if you aren't eating any more calories!
On top of this, dips in blood sugar that inevitably follow the highs make you feel hungry and increase your cravings for chocolate and other sugary foods, as part of your body's natural mechanism to quickly bring blood sugar up into the normal range.
We need protein to make neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain. These include the feel-good hormones, serotonin, dopamine and GABA. A shortage of amino acids can be a factor in depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
And again, blood sugar comes into play. Peaks and troughs in glucose levels can make you feel agitated, tired, depressed, and unable to concentrate.
How much protein to eat and what to eat
It is very important to eat adequate protein every single day as it is not stored in the body,
There is a simple way to find out how much protein you need. As a rough guide you need 1 g of protein for every kg you weigh. For example, if you weigh 70 kg, you will need around 70 g of protein daily.
Keep in mind that meat does not contain 100% protein. As you can see in the guide below, 100 g meat will actually only give you about 25 g of protein.
Approx amount of protein
Poultry and red meat
25 g per 100 g
20 g per 100 g
6 g per egg
20-30 g per serving
16 g per 100 g
9 g per half 400 g can
The simplest way to ensure good intake is to include protein in every meal.
For example, replace toast and cereals at breakfast with protein smoothies, a 3-4 egg omelette, minced beef, scrambled tofu, or traditional eggs and bacon. If time is an issue in the morning, I encourage my clients to save leftovers from their previous dinner (which for most people tends to be more protein oriented) and have this for breakfast.
Lunches again can be leftovers from dinner, or salads with cold meats, tuna, cheese, or legumes. Legumes are lower in protein than animal sources, so it's sometimes helpful to supplement with a plant-based protein bar if you want a vegetarian meal.
Try not to skimp on protein if you are eating pasta or other carbohydrate-based meals at dinner time. Add meat, legumes, tofu or cheese.