Did your mom ever have to force you to eat your vegetables? Yup, mine too. I had no problems eating my chicken, or bread, or even fresh fruits – but those little peas & carrots? Yuck. A lot of our meals started out with a salad and I remember the phrase “You have to eat some vitamins!” So for maybe 20-or-so years I really thought of food as breads, meats and vitamins. Well, ok maybe not that drastically simple, but almost.
Fast forward a few years and I learned from all those great diet miracles that there are fats, proteins and carbs. Most of them taught me that carbs are bad, protein is good. No, wait – fats are bad, carbs are good. Right? Or was it good carbs vs bad carbs? Sugar is bad – apples are good? See what is happening here? We only describe food as one of those 3. Almost sounds like breads, meats and vitamins again.
What happens to our perception of food when we look at it this way, is that we start throwing everything we eat in either the fat, protein, or carb bucket. We consider the protein of eggs the same as that of a cheeseburger.
And that’s where we lost a lot of people’s health. Not all proteins are the same, and neither are all fats or carbs. And eating the right or wrong ones can make or break your health.
Once we considered all of our food as just one of those big 3, people started to fill their stomachs with oftentimes empty calories of foods that have little amounts of nutrients. Sure, there are proteins and fats, and carbs in that sad chicken sandwich, but the nutrient density of white bread, iceberg lettuce, and battery-farmed chicken breast is so low that your body doesn’t get all it needs out of them to stay healthy.
Nutrients are things like essential amino acids from the right proteins, minerals and vitamins, good fats like those containing omega-3 fatty acids, and even those pesky complex carbohydrates and the beloved fiber. Our bodies need nutrients to survive, to make our bodies function in a healthy way, to build new tissues, grow hair, make stomach acid, and send signals to your cells to make them do their job.
Our bodies crave nutrients like you crave a piece of chocolate.
How does it feel when you feed your chocolate craving with a slice of tomato? You still crave chocolate, right? Sometimes even more than before. What happens in your body when it craves nutrients? It tells you to keep eating until it gets them. So you start craving something else, and eat some more, but until you eat what your body REALLY asks for, you’ll never be able to stop these cravings for good. This does not mean that you should gorge on chocolate when you have a sweet tooth craving though. Nice try! Most of your cravings are connected to nutrient needs, and others are connected to “food addictions”. Your body can get addicted to sugar and junk foods in a similar way that people get addicted to drugs.
All we really need to do is eat nutrient dense foods. Those are the fresh vegetables in a seasonal variety, whole grains, legumes (beans), fresh fruits, good fats, oils, nuts and seeds, lean protein and dairy from animals that ate what they are supposed to eat.
And this takes me to the first of the big 3: PROTEIN
As an omnivore, when thinking about protein, you probably think of chicken, eggs, and beef, correct? Vegetarians and vegans often get their protein intake criticized because of that, but there are plenty of ways for them to get their share. They just eat more legumes, grains, nuts and seeds.
Did you ever think that an ounce of walnuts has the same amount of proteins as one egg? Yup, both have about 6 grams. But here’s the catch and that’s where it gets interesting:
Not every food has the same kinds of proteins and not all foods have all the types of proteins you need to stay healthy. Have you ever heard of an essential amino acid? Or the term “a complete protein”?
Not to go into crazy biochemistry, but just to give you an idea of how this all connects…, just stay with me for a moment. It will all make sense, I promise.
A protein is a long chain of multiple different amino acids, all lined up in an exact order to make exactly one specific protein, like that of an egg, or quinoa, or your blood cells. There are 20 different amino acids. Nine of them are called essential amino acids, because our bodies can’t make them – we need to get them from the food we eat. The other 11 can be produced by our bodies (your liver does that by taking apart the amino acids you eat and re-building them into new ones).
Almost every food contains protein in the form of those different amino acids. Some foods contain all nine essential amino acids, and can then be called a “complete protein”. It gives you all nine essentials. Those are usually animal proteins such as eggs, milk, and meats. There are a few plant foods that are complete proteins as well, such as quinoa. But the majority of plant foods is missing one or more of those nine essential ones. That is why it’s so important for vegetarians and vegans to eat a variety of plant foods, and combine grains with legumes to get all essential amino acids into their system.
Your liver stores the amino acids you ate for a little while, but as a vegan/vegetarian you should aim to get your protein sources combined within 1-3 days so that your liver can do its job and rebuild amino acids to use for your body (you know, so you can grow hair, muscle, and renew your blood cells, etc.).
OK, so I could leave you just with that, right? Eat a variety of foods and you get all your protein needs covered. Well, as I said in the beginning, I was doing it all wrong.
Do you know how much protein is actually sufficient for you? There is a general guideline of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. To convert pounds into kilograms, just divide your weight by 2.2 and then multiply by 0.8. I weigh 150 lbs so that’s 68 kg which puts my average protein needs at 54 grams. Remember, this is just a guideline – if you’re trying to build muscle, gain weight or are recovering from illness or surgery, you may need more. Always consult with your health care provider (remember I’m not a doctor, just a food nerd).
OK, so 54 grams of protein for me. 54 grams are about 2 ounces. That doesn’t sound like much, huh? Well, remember that 2 ounces of chicken does not equal 2 ounces of protein. That piece of chicken is also made up of fat, water, minerals, vitamins, etc.
How many people do you know that eat 2 eggs for breakfast, a salad topped with 4 ounces of grilled chicken, a yogurt in the afternoon and then spaghetti with meatballs for dinner. This right here equals about 60+ grams of proteins already and does not count any butter on your toast, milk in your coffee, or that granola bar mid-morning. And this is a moderate intake.
What’s the real problem with this though? Way too much animal protein. “Well, why is that bad? You said they provide all essential amino acids!” They do, but your body needs to be able to digest, absorb and assimilate all that protein too. The digestion and absorption of protein mainly takes place in your stomach and small intestine, so keeping your digestive organs healthy is key.
Some people may actually eat enough (or too much) protein but still be protein deficient if those proteins can’t be properly broken down and utilized by the body.
Your digestive organs rely a lot on minerals, fiber, healthy fats and complex carbs. If your diet is full of animal proteins and not enough fresh vegetables then your digestive system doesn’t get the support it needs to function properly. And that’s when you get indigestion, gas, constipation, bad breath, dry skin, and a bunch of other nasty things you’d rather not have.
So for the sake of your digestive health, eat a variety of fresh, seasonal, organic produce along with your lean proteins from wild fish, grass fed meats, organic, pastured dairy, legumes, greens, nuts, seeds and their unrefined oils. And drink plenty of water.
For each portion of protein you eat, also consume 2-3 servings of (non-starchy) vegetables.
How NOT to treat your proteins:
You know how an egg changes from liquid to solid when you cook it? Meat changes color, and beans become soft. Cooking not only changes the taste, but also the shape and nature of proteins. This change is called “denaturing”. It is also caused by acid, alkalinity, alcohol, and toxic metals (like cadmium, lead, mercury). Think of a denatured protein as somewhat defect, like a set of silverware with a few teaspoons missing. It’s still usable, but when you have a full house of guests, a few of them won’t have a way to stir their coffee. In your body this defect looks more like this: the changed protein can still be used to make your hormones or cells, but they’ll be poorly shaped, a little defect. Your body may not recognize those defective hormones/cells/etc., mistake their odd identity as foreign and actually attack them.
This happens on a very, very tiny scale, but if it happens a lot (= you eat a lot of grilled meats, for example) then these little attacks turn into damaged cells which then leads to inflammation, and can also cause what’s called “leaky gut”. Leaky gut literally means that poorly digested food “leaks” from your gut (your intestines) into the body. There, these larger food molecules are perceived as foreign bodies and can trigger immune reactions, fatigue, water and fat gain, mood disorders, and congestion.
Don’t worry – I’m not telling you to eat your proteins raw. But cooking them on lower heat and slower will minimize this whole denaturing thing quite a bit. So get yourself a Slow Cooker to grill a little less and braise some more.
When to eat your proteins:
Most Americans have their largest meal at the end of the day with protein-heavy dinners. It actually makes way more sense to have the biggest protein intake for breakfast. Even if you’re a slow metabolizer and not very hungry in the mornings, try to get a larger portion of protein in before 10am. This will keep you feeling full longer because it takes longer to digest than carb-heavy breakfasts. That’s great news for anyone trying to lose weight or even just watch their overall calorie intake.
Eggs, oatmeal with nuts & seeds, whole-milk yogurt, or protein rich smoothies are great breakfasts that will keep you energized for hours.
Keep your lunch protein portion mid-sized and your dinner protein the smallest of the day’s meals. That will also help you feel better at bedtime, help you sleep better and give your digestive system a little breather so it too can rest while you sleep.
WOW, this was a lot to digest (pun intended, ha!) for one post! I will let you go now with just a few little tidbits on some of those amazing amino acids and what they can do for you:
Again, please remember that I am NOT A DOCTOR, just a little health nut.
– maintains cartilage health
– helps the liver break down fats
found in: salmon, beef, chicken, adzuki beans, oatmeal, spinach, broccoli, garlic, green peas
– precursor for excitatory neurotransmitters (good for lethargic people)
found in: cottage cheese, chicken, lamb, oatmeal, sesame seeds, raw sunflower seeds
– important for brain & nervous system, cardiac function & prevention of irregular heartbeats
– plays a role in bile salt formation and fat metabolism
– calming/stabiliziing effect on the brain
– decreases cholesterol levels by increasing its excretion
found in: cottage cheese, cheese, eggs, full-fat milk and yogurt
– the least abundant amino acid in foods
– helps with insomnia as a precursor for serotonin and melatonin
– deficiencies may lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia
found in: cottage cheese, dark meat of poultry, salmon, pumpkin seeds, raw nuts, legumes
– helpful for energy and coordination
– precursor to thyroid hormones
– deficiencies can lead to Hypothyroidism, depression, and low adrenal function
found in: cottage cheese (again, I know!), beef, turkey, whole milk (from grass fed cows), mustard greens, seaweed, oranges, oatmeal
Thank you all for reading my longest post ever. I hope you come back for more when I’ll give you the skinny on FATS and then all you ever wanted to know about them CARBS.