The Importance of Animal Protein
Taking a break from my series on hormones, I feel compelled to talk a bit about my feelings towards protein. Too many times I see folks excited for their plant-based protein powders or their quinoa salad that they believe are nourishing their bodies with protein. Protein is an important component of every cell in the body. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. Protein is, frankly, critical for optimal health.
While it is great to see more respect being given to protein generally, it is especially important for middle-aged women. Not having adequate protein will leave you with less energy, have you feeling un-satiated after meals and thus always on the hunt for more food, give you brain fog, and make maintaining your muscle mass quite difficult. As you know, bone health is directly tied to your muscle status – the more the better. Given that we are already dealing with a reduction in Testosterone (our muscle-friendly hormone) in middle age, we don’t want to make that muscle-retention battle any more difficult. Thus, having good and proper protein is essential for your health in midlife and beyond.
What concerns me, however, is the preference for plants vs animals as a source of protein. The value of a protein source must be evaluated through a few different lenses: amino acid completeness, bioavailability, digestibility/absorption, and anti-nutrient load. In every way, folks, animal proteins are your best friend.
First, amino acid content. Amino acids are the necessary building blocks of the body and absolutely critical for your health. There are nine essential amino acids – meaning amino acids (AAs) that the body cannot manufacture on its own and thus must be consumed. A food that contains all nine AAs is considered a “complete protein.” All animal products are 100% complete proteins whereas no plants are complete proteins, except “sort of” two. While buckwheat and quinoa have been lab tested as containing all nine AAs, they are not all sufficiently bioavailable to the body, meaning you can consume them but your body does not uptake them.
Second, while I just touched on the bioavailability of protein in animal vs plant sources, it is important to note that bioavailability extends to the rest of the food’s nutrients. Iron is a mineral vital to the proper function of hemoglobin, a protein needed to transport oxygen in the blood to our brain and organs. Without sufficient iron, you will lack energy, have impaired cognition, develop anemia, and be at risk for serious health problems. There are two types of iron available from foods. Heme-iron, which is the most easily absorbed iron, and non-heme iron, which is difficult for the body to absorb. Likewise, Vitamin B12 is a critical nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. As we age, our need for B12 increases significantly, thus adequate B12 consumption is essential for midlife women’s health. What foods are the ONLY sources of heme-iron and B12? Animal proteins. Plants, in comparison, contain only non-heme iron and zero B12 unless “fortified”, aka factory-added.
Third, digestibility is key because if you cannot break down and digest your food, you will not absorb the nutrients you need. With proper stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes, all animal products are easily digestible and their nutrients absorbed by our bodies. If you have trouble with animal proteins, the issue is with your own gastric (dys)function, not the food source. With respect to plants, they are much less digestible by the body. Most plants need to be properly prepared (think: soaking, sprouting, boiling) in order to get the nutrients released to your body. Legumes are a poster-child for indigestibility and yet pea protein is all the rage. How many of us take the time to properly prepare plants when we eat them?
Fourth, anti-nutrient load. Anti-nutrients are compounds that essentially protect the plants from bacterial infections and from being eaten by bugs. Since plants can’t run from predators, anti-nutrients are essentially plants’ self-defense mechanism. The problem with anti-nutrients is that they affect the absorption of nutrients from the food itself as well as from foods eaten at the same time. One example is phytates – phytates bind up the minerals iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, phophorous, and calcium, thereby blocking those minerals from your body during digestion. So, having a spinach salad with your salmon? Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re getting all that either that salmon or spinach have to offer. All plants contain some (if not many) of the twelve known anti-nutrients (oxalates being another which I will post about soon!) yet animal products contain zero anti-nutrients.
Given the bias-funded research and government guidelines we have all been “fed” over the years, I understand why some of you may think you are making a “healthy” choice by relying more heavily (and some exclusively) on plants for your protein intake. Nevertheless, it is imperative that you understand the reality of what your body needs and what your body gets and doesn’t get when we are talking about protein. On that note, if you are wondering how much protein you should be consuming, it is important to know that the “Recommended Daily Allowance” (aka, government guideline) for protein is based on the minimum amount of protein required to avoid disease – not the amount required for optimal health. For this reason, I recommend that clients start with a minimum of 100 grams of animal protein daily and work up to 1-1.2 grams per pound of desired lean body mass.
A very good rule of thumb is this: Don’t count the protein-content from foods that are considered primarily part of another macronutrient (carbs or fats). Plants, truth be told, are … carbs. Please, everyone – especially you ladies, get your protein from quality, whole food, animal sources.