How To Think About Protein
Protein Intake & Absorption Regulates All Bodily Functions
Protein is not only for muscles. Protein is critical to nearly every single bodily function, including:
- Mental function
Protein is important, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated subject.
The most important factor might be this: How well is dietary protein being digested and absorbed?
1 — Proteins Are Chains Of Amino Acids
2 — Amino Acids
3 — How To Track Protein Intake
4 — Quality Sources Of Essential Amino Acids
5 — The Problems With Animal Protein
6 — Gelatin & Collagen
7 — Digesting Protein
8 — Pre-Digested Protein Powder
9 — Long Proteins
10 — Which Proteins Should I Eat?
11 – The Right Amount Of Protein
Amino acids are the basic element of all proteins.
The building blocks of proteins.
- The body can synthesize 12 of the 21.
- The other 8 (that we can’t synthesize) are called “essential amino acids.”
- Amino acids absorb almost instantly.
Very short proteins.
- A peptide is just a tiny protein, with 2 to 10 aminos.
- Di-peptides = 2 aminos)
- Tri-peptides (3 aminos)
- Peptides absorb even faster than single amino acids!
Long chain of amino acids.
- Most proteins are very, very long — hundreds or thousands of amino acids.
- Proteins cannot be absorbed until they are broken down (by enzymes) to amino acids & peptides.
Digestion Means Breaking Proteins Apart
During digestion, proteins are broken down into peptides. Enzymes are the main force that digests protein into smaller fragments.
Once released, these peptides are absorbed into the bloodstream and used for tissue repair, hormones, detoxification, and energy production.
It takes several hours to fully digest protein from meat.
Peptides can be fully absorbed in seconds.
21 Important Aminos
There are hundreds — over 500 — of amino acids found in nature.
The human body only uses 21.
Of that twenty-one, the body can synthesize twelve.
The remaining eight are called the ‘essential amino acids.’ They must be obtained in the diet, or else we’ll become deficient.
Don’t let this scientific terminology be confusing. All amino acids are essential in the diet, and we need adequate doses of each. When recovering from poor health, we can be deficient in virtually every amino acid.
In illness, the body uses more aminos/protein than usual. However, digesting protein is typically difficult in poor health.
Even in protein deficiency, more protein eaten doesn’t always mean more protein absorbed — or better results.
Essential Amino Acids Are Needed Each Day
Each day, the body requires a certain amount of “essential” amino acids (EAAs) from food. The exact amount will depend on the size of your body, the metabolism, and activity level).
The body cannot manufacture these Essential Aminos, but if enough are not provided in the diet, the body will cannibalize its own tissues to supply them.
- If you’re 150 lbs, you need 14.2g of EAAs each day.
- If you’re 175 lbs, you need 16.2g of EAAs each day.
- If you’re 215 lbs, you need 20g of EAAs each day.
In addition to the correct quantities of EAAs, the body also needs balanced ratios between each Essential Amino Acid.
*Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) are not the only amino acids that matter.
We still need the other 12 amino acids daily, too, in the diet.
How To Track Protein Intake
When tracking food intake, it’s best to monitor “total protein” each day using a calorie-tracking app such as Cronometer.
If quality, varied sources of protein are eaten, meeting a simple daily total is sufficient to ensure healthy protein intake.
It’s a good idea to use Cronometer to deepen knowledge of foods. This is especially valuable if one’s knowledge of food is limited.
The knowledge gained from tracking food can be eye-opening. There’s no faster way to learn about your diet than to track foods in Cronometer.
It’s not necessary to track food forever, but it’s certainly a good idea for several weeks or months to become familiar with how protein intake makes you feel.
The Dark Side Of Tracking Food
Over time, tracking your foods can be cumbersome and stressful. It can also weaken intuition and decrease self-awareness.
It’s a valuable skill to be able to listen to the body and feel what it needs.
In the long run, this intuition may be more valuable than always tracking foods with an app. In my opinion, it’s a skill to be developed and improved over the course of a lifetime.
Tracking Total Protein
A ballpark figure is all that’s necessary. “Close enough” absolutely counts.
If you suspect (or Cronometer says) your protein is a little low or high for the day, no need to worry. Less than 3-5 grams in either direction may not be a huge deal.
However, if you’re feeling a little off or having trouble falling asleep, balancing that macro ratio my be the solution.
After improving your macros, watch for improvement in those symptoms after fixing the ratio by eating the appropriate foods. If this fixes things, you’ll know it.
Don’t Track EAAs
It doesn’t make sense to think too much about EAAs each day.
As long as you’re eating quality protein sources, you’re getting enough EAAs.
Quality Sources Of EAAs
Various diets provide wildly different amounts of Essential Amino Acids (EAAs).
How do you know if you’re getting enough?
Steak vs Rice/Beans
This chart compares a serving of steak and a serving of beans and rice — to the requirements of a 175-pound person.
The serving of steak is 100g, providing 28g of total protein (and 214 calories).
The beans/brown rice is 1 cup (372g), providing 9.8g of total protein (and 240 calories).
One serving of steak provides well over half a day’s EAA requirements (10.4g).
By contrast, the beans and brown rice only provide 3.8g.
Beans and brown rice, when combined, are commonly considered excellent sources of protein. However, it would take four servings to meet daily EAA requirements from beans/brown rice alone. That would provide an incredible amount of highly fermentable fiber. Many people would struggle to digest such a large quantity of beans and brown rice.
We’re also comparing very different quantities of food: 100g chicken vs 372g beans/rice. In fact, it would take 1018g of beans and rice to equal the steak’s EAA content. That’s not a reasonable amount of food to eat for most people, especially many with any digestive issues.
Perhaps there are other good sources of plant protein?
Plant Protein vs Animal Protein
Let’s explore plant and animal protein with another comparison: Chicken breast vs mixed nuts.
The chicken breast (100g) provides 30.9g of total protein (and 173 calories).
The mixed nuts (1/3 cup) provides 7.4g of total protein (and 295 calories).
Here is a similar story.
Chicken provides even more EAAs than beef — (mostly because chicken breast is a leaner cut of meat).
Meanwhile, mixed nuts provide even fewer EAAs than beans/rice — 2.8g, (despite its higher 290 calories).
It would take almost 6x this amount of mixed nuts to meet daily EAA requirements — and you’d still be lacking in the daily requirements for several individual EAAs, while only barely meeting requirements of a few others. (Obviously, mixed nuts should never be a sole source of protein).
Meeting Your EAA Requirements
It’s tough to meet daily EAA requirements with plant foods. It can be done, but it may require eating large amounts of foods you aren’t craving, or don’t digest well. It may involve eating way-too-much insoluble fiber (beans & brown rice), or way too much fat (mixed nuts).
Meanwhile, one serving of meat per day can take you most of the way home. You’ll certainly still need to eat more protein with other meals (some with each meal, for sure), but having some meat each day makes obtaining adequate protein much, much easier. It can be the difference between successfully meeting protein needs and failure.
Illness Decreases Protein Absorption
Another factor is chronic illness. When gut health, metabolism, and/or diet has been poor for years, protein deficiency becomes very likely and troublesome.
When gut health is poor, all nutrients become poorly absorbed from the diet. Chronic inflammation prevents nutrients from being digested and absorbed. Inflammation keeps nutrients out of cells.
If you’ve had chronic health issues, you may need more nutrients than the Recommended Daily Values.
If you’ve had a persistent protein deficiency, barely meeting your daily requirements may not be enough. You may not even be fully absorbing the small amount of protein you’re eating, causing your deficiencies to perpetually worsen.
The Problems With Animal Protein
No food is perfect. Meat isn’t perfect, either.
There are risks to be aware of eating meat. The quality of our meat is important, too.
However, these risks also seem fairly avoidable when we do the following.
How To Eat Meat
Moderate Meat Consumption
Don’t reduce meat consumption “because meat is unhealthy.” Quality meat is very healthy. Too much — or not balancing it with other foods — is not.
Fewer artificial hormones and antibiotics, better lipid and toxicity profiles. Grass-fed, free-range meats from healthier animals will digest better and provide better nutrition to your body.
Less “endotoxin” — a substance produced as bacteria digest meat before it is eaten. This exogenous endotoxin cannot be cooked out of meat. The longer fresh meat sits — cooked or uncooked — the more this endotoxin builds up.
What Happens With Too Much Meat?
The traditional explanation was that meat contains saturated fat and cholesterol. However, these theories are being proven wrong every day: saturated fat is now considered healthy, cholesterol is no longer a bogeyman.
If saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t the problem with meat, what is?
Amino Acid Balance
One problem might be the amino acid methionine.
While it’s an incredibly necessary, essential amino acid, extensive research has been done, and it’s been linked to lots of problems in excess.
Consuming less methionine appears to result in longer life spans and better markers of metabolic health, better inflammation levels and less weight gain.A metabolite of methionine is homocysteine, and in excess, it can cause health problems.
Muscle meat contains very high levels of methionine. In fact, a single serving provides more than a day’s supply. After that single serving of meat, additional complete protein intake will increase your daily methionine ratio, compared to other amino acids. With all nutrients, more is not always better.
What should we do about the methionine problem?
Just don’t eat a ton of meat. This may look different from person to person. Don’t avoid meat, but also don’t eat it every single meal. Once, sometimes twice, a day seems to be about right for me. Beyond that, I don’t worry about it.
B-Vitamins Help Balance High Methionine
The body also controls high methionine levels using B vitamins — especially B12, B6, and B9 (folate).
The best source of B vitamins in a typical diet? Meat.
Supplementing small amounts of B vitamins daily likely will help, even further.
Methionine Lowers Glycine
When we consume too much methionine, it will lower levels of another amino acid: glycine.
Glycine is a critical nutrient and “conditionally essential” — meaning, in stress or illness, we need more than our body can consume and produce.
Excess methionine will only make this problem worse: It uses up precious, somewhat-scarce glycine.
One way to combat the effect of meat consumption on glycine levels? Supplemental gelatin.
It’s only a miracle food if it’s rare in the diet.
Gelatin has become incredibly popular in the last several years, and for good reason. It provides some very clear benefits to the entire body.
However, gelatin is not a miracle food. It does one thing: Gelatin balances a few amino acids that are lacking when we eat muscle meats.
The main benefit of collagen? It provides glycine.
How much glycine? Let’s compare collagen to chicken protein.
You can see, clearly, that collagen is incredibly high in glycine: For 100g of collagen, 23% is glycine.
It’s extremely, extremely high in proline and hydroxyproline, too.
What else is collagen rich in? Virtually nothing. Collagen is quite low in almost all of the remaining amino acids.
Collagen is so poor in amino acids that most smart health professionals recommend you NOT count it toward total protein.
Because collagen is just a glycine (and proline/hydroxyproline) supplement.
Keep It Simple
There’s little reason to supplement more than 4g-12g per day of powdered gelatin protein. This amount provides 1-3g of glycine, which will handily balance the methionine in muscle meat in the long-term.
Unless you’re eating 100g of muscle meat protein per day, you don’t need more than this. Too much collagen can interfere with amino acid balance in the long run, even though symptoms won’t appear immediately.
If you’re limiting meat intake, high doses of collagen are absolutely not required and can lead to imbalances over time.
Too Much Glycine (& Proline)
About one-quarter (25%) of collagen protein is glycine.
Therefore, with a small 4-gram dose, you’ll get one gram of extra glycine. A 12 gram dose of collagen provides 3 grams of glycine. This is plenty of glycine, allowing you to build glycine levels over time and avoid potential pitfalls of amino acid imbalance and maldigestion of large quantities of powder.
If you don’t feel better after drinking some gelatin, be aware of that. It’s okay to cut back or take an extended break from gelatin.
The Cumulative Effect Of Amino Acids
The effect of amino acid supplementation is cumulative.
Each nutrient — including amino acids — is utilized in conjunction with all other nutrients in the body.
High levels of nutrients facilitate metabolic processes that wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances. High levels of nutrients require cofactors to bring into balance, or remove from the system.
Remember, collagen is extremely imbalanced. Over time, this imbalance can cause your tissues to be imbalanced.
A few ounces of fresh collagen from a local butcher is much better than 25-50g of gelatin/collagen powder, as is common today.
Powdered Food Is Inferior
Powdered food is not optimal.
Problems with powdered foods include excess oxidization, heavy metal contamination, and even endotoxin. The best sources of all food are fresh, not powdered.
Getting too much food from powders of any sort is not the best idea.
High daily doses of collagen powder apply here, too. Source your protein from fresh, clean food.
Protein is “digested” by enzymes — in a process known as “hydrolysis.”
As a rule, protein cannot be absorbed — intact — into the bloodstream (with only a few exceptions).
To enter the bloodstream, protein must be broken down into smaller pieces: amino acids and peptides (chains of several aminos).
Hydrolysis = Enzymes
Enzymes in the digestive tract “hydrolyze” proteins.
Enzymes have the ability to “eat” organic matter. This is how the body turns large proteins into tiny aminos and peptides for assimilation.
When you eat protein, enzyme activity begins very quickly — even in the stomach.
- Pepsin (enzyme) is activated when hydrochloric acid levels rise in the stomach.
- Pepsinogen and lipase are released in the. stomach by “chief cells”
Hydrolysis is used to manufacture protein powder products.
The protein powder industry is flourishing — offering every type of protein imaginable:
Companies offer every level of “pre-digestion” — meaning some products are more “pre-digested” while others are less “pre-digested.” Some products are not “pre-digested” at all.
Whey Products Illustrate The Levels Of Hydrolysis
- No hydrolysis/pre-digestion.
- Proteins are intact (200-350 amino acids long).
- Absorbs over 2-3 hours.
- Significant hydrolysis/pre-digestion.
- Proteins are broken down to chains of 30-50 amino acids long.
- Absorbs quickly after consuming (within 30 minutes).
- Extensive hydrolysis/pre-digestion.
- Proteins are broken down to 3-5 amino acids long (peptides).
- Near-instant absorption after consumption.
“Pre-Digested” Protein Powders
Remember, there are several health risks with protein powders. Not all types and brands are created equally.
High Levels Of Glutamate
I do NOT recommend pre-digested proteins for those struggling with their health. Hydrolyzed proteins can expose you to high levels of glutamate, and feed unwanted gut microbes.
They may not be immediately harmful to a healthy athlete using them immediately pre- or post-exercise. Healthy folks can tolerate these quite well in moderate doses.
What About Collagen/Gelatin?
Gelatin is incredibly popular now — and that’s not a bad thing.
However, the same rules apply: avoid or limit hydrolyzed collagen powders. Hydrolyzed collagen can expose you to high levels of “free glutamate” and can feed bad gut microbes. This becomes especially true if you’re dealing with any kind of health issue.
Symptoms of high glutamate include brain fog, fatigue, and the inability to “calm down.”
Protein Powders & Heavy Metals
Heavy metals are present in many whey powders. Be cautious with whey — especially cheap products.
There are reports of heavy metal content in collagen products of all types.
Virtually all plant protein powders are being found to have high levels of heavy metals.
What’s troubling is the way plant’s respond to heavy metal stress: They create extra proteins to “trap” the heavy metals and “sequester” it so it can’t harm the plant.
When we eat concentrated plant protein powder, we expose ourselves to high levels of heavy metals — much higher than would ever happen eating real, whole plants.
I’ve seen troubling responses from plant-protein companies in response to this troubling science. For example: Vega’s respond to the heavy metal issue was not well-written, nor did it inspire confidence, as you can see here: VEGA’s Response To Heavy Metals In Plant Protein.
The Only “Safe” Protein Powder
The protein powders I suggest are whey, casein, or egg that is fully intact — no hydrolysis.
Most of the time they’ll say the word “concentrate” somewhere on the label. Also, look for 3rd-party testing to ensure low levels of heavy metals. Be very wary with plant powders and cheap whey.
Even better: low-temperature, or “raw” processing.
The only product that meets these requirements (and has no fillers) is Naked Whey. Being raw and undenatured, it also provides the benefits of glutathione precursors and immunoglobulins (both are a really big deal).
Long proteins require more effort and time to digest in the body. The longer the protein, the more involved the process is to break it down single aminos and peptides for absorption.
Enzymes Work To Break Down Proteins
Longer proteins, require more enzymes for digestion.
This is a problem because health challenges often result in low digestive enzyme levels.
Therefore, when a long protein is eaten without sufficient enzymes to digest it, it “survives” longer in the digestive tract. Instead of rapidly being broken down and absorbed, the longer proteins hang around.
Nothing good happens when food hangs around too long.
Why? Food ferments in the gut (“fermentation” refers to microbes “eating” something).
Proteins Can Be LARGE
The average protein length in a human is around 375 aminos.
Proteins fold up around themselves, creating structures in the body.
The largest protein (titin) is actually over 30,000 aminos long!
In poor digestion, a long-chain protein (or fiber) will “survive” longer — and further — down the digestive tract. Long-chain proteins become more likely to reach the colon.
When undigested protein reaches the colon, microbes will begin to eat it (fermentation).
If you have bad gut flora in your colon, they will eat your undigested protein. This will make you feel very bad. When bad microbes digest your food, they release endotoxin, which is then absorbed into your bloodstream. This will happen every time you eat, and it will disrupt what should be a natural, healthy process.
This is very similar to longer fibers being more difficult to digest. Any substance with longer-chains (fiber or protein) survive further down the digestive tract, feeding potentially-harmful microbes.
Which Proteins Are Long-Chain?
- Animal proteins are, on average, about 20% longer than plant proteins.
- Titin (mentioned above) — over 30,000 aminos long — is a prevalent protein in muscle tissue. Heating muscle meat begins to denature (break down) titin. In fact, all proteins are denatured by heat.
- Casein is one of the proteins in dairy milk, and the main protein in cheese. It is a very long-chain protein and can take 8+ hours to digest (in part because it’s such a long protein).
Heat Breaks Down Proteins
Heat causes proteins to unfold and break apart.
Proteins can be digested raw. But heating can make proteins a bit more digestible. Some people will find that hot proteins digest better than cold, uncooked proteins. An example of this: a rare steak versus one cooked well-done.
Fermented Foods = “Pre-Digested Protein”
Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut all contain protein in various states of hydrolysis.
This means protein in fermented foods can be even easier to digest. The microbes in fermented foods even release enzymes to help break down food even further (and fend off other species of microbe).
Unfortunately, fermented foods also can have higher levels of free glutamate. As the proteins are cleaved apart, glutamate aminos are released. Folks who are chronically ill may be sensitive to the glutamate in fermented foods.
In my opinion, fermented foods are highly beneficial. If they are not well-tolerated due to glutamate (or another reason), the benefits may outweigh the discomfort. Another option may be to find a different fermented food that doesn’t bother you as much.
Which Proteins Should I Eat?
There is much debate over which are “the best proteins.”
Rule #1: Eat What Digests Best.
Try Various Proteins
See how they affect your digestion and your energy levels.
- Powders — Whey, Collagen, Casein
Rotate and Vary Your Proteins
It’s important to have multiple sources of protein that work.
- Variety is necessary to maintain good amino acid balance.
- I’ve known people who got most of their protein from spirulina, largely because they didn’t digest other proteins well. This is not optimal health.
- It’s a good idea to mix protein sources in the same meal.
Rule #2: Grass-fed, Organic, Cage-Free, Wild Caught.
- It’s true: organic meat is better than conventional.
- Grass-fed/cage-free is better than standard organic.
- And wild-caught is usually better than anything farmed.
Being strict is not necessary (I always advise against that), but any effort to improve the quality of your meat will always be worth it.
An unhealthy animal has unhealthy flesh — and virtually everything about modern farming (from the CAFO concept to hormones, to antibiotics, to unnatural feed and lack of sunlight) is destructive of animal health. These farming methods largely pass scrutiny because the animals are slaughtered quite young. If the animals were allowed to grow into adulthood, their lack of health would certainly be more noticeable — in the animals and how their consumption affects humans.
Rule #3: Vary Your Protein Intake.
- You might find troublesome protein sources to be more tolerable in smaller servings.
- Overall protein digestion can improve when amounts vary day-to-day. Don’t eat the exact same amount each day. This can allow you to observe how more / less protein makes you feel.
- Vary protein intake in your meals, too. Some meals, eat less protein. Then eat more. Observe. Over time you’ll figure out what you need, and be in touch with your intuition, too.
The Right Amount Of Protein
Getting the right amount of protein — for you — doesn’t have to be a mystery.
Try to balance your protein with other foods, observe how well it digests, and see how you feel after.
Here are some general guidelines to walk you through the big picture of protein intake.
Options For Protein Intake
8% of total calories.
40-60 grams of protein per day.
- This range will prevent severe protein deficiency.
- This will likely not be enough protein is you are actively exercising.
- This is the lowest protein intake most adults should ever go.
About 20% of total calories.
80-120 grams of protein per day.
- This range takes advantage of the health benefits of protein.
- This range reduces risks of high protein intake.
- This range easily avoids deficiency.
About 30% of total calories.
130 grams of protein, or more.
- High levels of protein intake are risky, and associated with various diseases and shorter life-expectancy.
- Only very active athletes and large people should consume this much protein.
Also consider these four variables when exploring your protein intake.
Protein Intake: Four Main Variables
A larger person will need more protein than a smaller person.
Likewise, an active person will need more protein than a sedentary person.
Males often need more protein than females. There are plenty of exceptions, here, though, so there’s no need to be married to the concept.
A person recovering their health will need more protein than a healthy person. The catch here is that a person in recovery probably won’t be able to digest or tolerate protein very well — until gut health and nutrient levels improve.