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Fuel Your Best Health With Healthy Protein
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Jun 01, 2010
Are you confused about healthy vs. unhealthy sources of protein and how much you should be eating on a daily basis to experience your best health?
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 most plant foods do not come with all eight essential amino acids. More on this a bit later.
All animal foods like eggs, fish, chicken, red meat, and dairy come with all eight essential amino acids. Put another way, one serving of just one animal food will provide you with all eight essential amino acids.
This is not to say that you can't get all eight essential amino acids from a plant-based diet; if you eat a wide variety of vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits, you can almost certainly obtain all of the amino acids that you need to optimally nourish your body.
In fact, some plant foods - like hemp seeds and goji berries - come with all eight essential amino acids. Still, it's always a good idea to eat a well-rounded diet that includes a wide variety of foods to ensure optimal nourishment.
Here are some recommendations on choosing healthy sources of protein and eating the right amount for your situation:
When you eat protein-dense foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and all animal foods, make a conscious effort 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 the amino acids available to your bloodstream and cells.
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 bloodstream.
If possible, soak beans, nuts, seeds, and grains 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 potentially cause mineral deficiencies and digestive disturbances.
If you choose to include flesh meats like fish, red meat, and white meat in your diet, it's best to prepare them using low temperature cooking methods like steaming, boiling, and braising. High cooking temperatures increase the likelihood of making the protein and fat in animal foods harmful to your body.
Aim to avoid or at least minimize intake of charcoal grilled meats, as these meats come with chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; these compounds are best known as agents that scientists use to induce cancer in animals.
Modest amounts are well tolerated by most healthy people, especially when taken along with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, but minimizing regular intake of large portions is likely best for longevity.
Also aim 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 generally recommend avoiding 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.
If your lifestyle or circumstances are such that you can benefit from a quality protein supplement, look to use one that is made from plants only, and that are considered to be raw.
Plant proteins don't tend to cause the problems associated with animal proteins, especially in people who have autoimmune or food allergy-related health challenges.
Sticking with a raw plant protein supplement also ensures that the amino acids in the product have not been damaged by processing techniques that utilize high temperatures.
Two organic protein power blends that I can vouch for and are available at our natural health shop are:
If you eat animal foods, it's best to eat them with a large serving of vegetables. The abundance of naturally occurring antioxidants in vegetables can help protect your body against some of the free radicals and other harmful substances that often accompany cooked animal foods.
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 minimally processed foods per day.
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.
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