(NOTE: This post was originally published on my first blog, but the information is still relevant and needed to be shared here!)
I’ve always been aware of the power of protein, but honestly, I’ve never been very good at making an effort to make sure I ate the proper amount of protein in my daily diet until recently. Discovering the Paleo lifestyle really helped me value the importance of include several servings of high-quality, diverse, and complete proteins in my daily diet (and no, the Paleo diet is not a meat-only diet, as the media often portrays it!). In my research of the Paleo diet, weightlifting, and health in general, I’ve complied an overview of proteins that I would like to share. Trust me, there’s so much more to proteins than just meat!
To begin, proteins are made up of amino acids that come together in the form of peptide bonds. Approximately eight amino acids are considered essential, as our body cannot create them. The rest of the amino acids can be produced by the body if not received via food.
It’s amazing how many ways proteins are utilized in our bodies. They are the building blocks of human structure, as they aid in the formation of the brain, nervous system, blood, muscle, skin, and hair. Furthermore, proteins transport vitamins, minerals, fats, and oxygen throughout the body, as well as keep our bodies in proper acid-base and fluid balance. Normally, proteins are not used for energy unless the body is in starvation-mode, in which case, the breakdown of muscle will occur in order to sustain the bodily functions.
Above, I mentioned that proteins should be high-quality, which means that the proteins are complete (in regards to amino acids composition), bioavailable, and digestible. What protein sources fall into this category?
Organ meats – liver, kidney, heart, etc (yes they are sooooooo good for you!)
Eggs (the egg whites have more protein, but the yolk is loaded with all the vitamins, so eat the whole egg please!)
Seafood (canned tuna and salmon are my go-tos!)
These sources of protein are full of vital vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B, choline, niacin, pantothenic acid, iron, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, zinc, and many more! For the foods above, most serving sizes will be about 4 ounces, or about the size of your palm. Depending on the meat source, this could be anywhere from 10-30 grams of protein. Most people would benefit from consuming about .6-1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. It really depends on whether you are looking to gain strength and muscle or just gain overall health! (P.S. Did you see tofu, tempeh, edamame, or other soy products on this list? I didn't think so!!)
Now, many may argue that beans and whole grains should be considered high sources of proteins. However, I would argue that such foods are carbohydrate-dense, rather than protein-dense. The ratio of carbohydrates to proteins in ½ cup of black beans, for example, is 20 grams carbohydrates to 7 grams protein. Furthermore, many of these sources are made up of incomplete proteins, which means that you would have to add additional foods in order to get the spectrum of essential amino acids your body needs. Lastly, beans and whole grains are high in phytate and gluten, respectively, both of which can interfere with the digestion and absorbability of vitamins and nutrients (this is why both beans and grains are excluded on a Paleo diet).
When is the best time to eat protein? Most people think protein is a lunch and dinner only food, but honestly, it needs to be eaten at all meals in some form or another. And by this, I mean at lunch, dinner, and breakfast. Sorry, cereal, pop tarts, waffles, and granola are not solid breakfast choices. They are all carbohydrate-based in the form of refined grains and sugars that spike the blood sugar and leave us hungry within an hour (so we reach for a “healthy” granola bar and the blood sugar roller coaster begins again!).
On the contrary, a well-rounded breakfast that includes all three macronutrients - protein, fat, and carbohydrate – is the way to go. Actually, setting up all of your meals or snacks so that they contain a portion of each macronutrient is the perfect way to stay satisfied from meal to meal. Just make sure that those sources are from real, whole foods, or it defeats the purpose! Need ideas for real, whole foods? See my first post on the Paleo diet!
Additionally, consuming protein post-workout is a must, especially after a strength-training workout. Many people think they need to only refuel with carbohydrates after a tough workout, but consuming protein after a workout will help speed up recovery and promote the growth of muscle tissue! Don’t we all want to be strong??
A quick note here about protein powders and their use pre and post-workout: check your labels! Most of these protein powders are loaded with chemicals and sugar. In all honesty, unless you are training for a super specific event, I would not recommend looking into protein powders. Just focus on getting your protein from real, whole foods!
Personally, a few years ago when I was running a lot and eating a ton of fruit and not much protein, I was weak, pale, and not happy. I didn’t look healthy, even though I thought I was. Now, I make sure that I get at least four servings a day. My favorite sources are canned tuna and salmon, eggs, and ground beef and turkey.
There you go: an overview of proteins. It certainly wasn’t super in-depth, but I hope it helped you gain a better idea as to what proteins are, what they do in our bodies, and why they are so important! What are your favorite sources? Did I miss any good ones?!