You Can Relax About Protein. Even Athletes!

Ah, protein. The holy grail of nutrition for the last 30+ years. Why?

Because retail doesn’t want you to know that we know better now.

Yes, protein is important. You do know what protein is, yes?

Just in case: it’s any class of nitrogenous organic compounds that consist of large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids.

Protein is essential, especially when it comes to muscle and hair and as an antibody. But carbohydrates are essential, too, for different reasons. So is fat.

Why has protein been held up on such a pedestal? Basically, we used to think that if someone was malnourished, it was primarily the protein in food that would help bring them rapidly back to health. There were good reasons to believe this at the time, and we also believed that if some was good, more had to be better.

The “more is better” mentality in much of the nutrition community was borne of a time when nutrients were studied in isolation. While we learned a lot about the components of food, it was only more recently that we really started digging deep. A more modern approach to food takes into account the way that different nutrients work together; this makes sense, since whole foods contain a broad spectrum of nutrients. We are also analyzing what happens in the body when certain foods and combinations of nutrients are digested – what is actually being absorbed, what assists in digestion, what stresses the human body.

The current science of nutrition demonstrates that we got it wrong. It turns out that more protein is absolutely not better when it comes to longevity and optimal health. The digestive organs are strained terribly when we consume large amounts of protein, especially when it’s been isolated (like protein powder). This strain causes digestive stress, which then causes the adrenal glands to switch into high gear and sets off a domino effect that wears out the body. The fact is, the majority of those eating a Standard American Diet are consuming an excess of protein while being deficient in fiber, antioxidants, and many other important nutrients.

 Mac Danzig, MMA Champion. Proudly eats a 100% Plant-Based Diet.

Mac Danzig, MMA Champion. Proudly eats a 100% Plant-Based Diet.

What of athletes? Don’t they need large amounts of “complete protein” to build muscle mass?

First, let’s get past the idea of “complete” vs. “incomplete” protein. There is no such thing. In fact, the concept was completely debunked about 15 years ago.  All whole foods contain the 10 essential amino acids: Histadine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine+Cysteine, Phenylalinine+Tyrosine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. Each whole food contains varying amounts of each amino acid, so it’s important to eat a variety of colorful foods each day.

Colorful foods? For protein?

Yes. All whole foods contain protein. In fact, spinach and kale are 45% protein. Broccoli contains almost double the amount of protein that beef does per 100 calories. Beans are also a very effective food “package” for delivering protein into the body with less digestive stress than animal protein. Digestive stress is a huge reason why so many top athletes have transitioned to a plant-based diet to optimize performance!

The top two foods that are most easily assimilated by human muscle tissue? According to my research: raw hemp seeds and lentils. This is not based on the protein itself in these foods, but the combination of other nutrients in the “food package” that seems to optimize assimilation.

Back to athletes. There are some reasons why certain athletes might increase their protein intake. For example, Endurance Athletes degrade muscle tissue during excessively long training periods (like a marathon), and may need to increase their protein intake slightly. Body Builders may opt for more protein because they are interested in pure muscle mass; but that doesn’t mean that all athletes would benefit (and that also doesn’t mean that what Body Builders do for results is in their best interest when it comes to long-term and optimal health). In fact, Functional Strength Athletes and many Strength Athletes do not need more protein, and the goal of building pure muscle mass doesn’t make sense. Why would a Functional Strength Athlete want to add more body weight to carry just for the aesthetic of larger muscle? This is an amateur approach. The goal of a true Functional Strength Athlete is to train incredible power into fewer pounds of body weight while building their endurance so that the heart rate can drop after quick bursts of movement. Think of soccer players, some forms of martial arts, and dance.

There have been many instances of body builders causing extensive damage to their kidneys by consuming large amounts of protein powders for long periods of time, and many athletes suffer from extended recovery periods and chronic inflammation due to the stress on their digestive systems.

So, how much protein do we need? Here’s a simple formula that will work for most humans and most athletes:

(body weight in pounds) /3 = grams per day of protein

Example: a 120-pound person should consume 40 grams of protein per day

I promise that the above formula is MORE than enough for most people reading this.

Is protein important? Absolutely. But so are many other nutrients, so don’t get distracted by the old-fashioned holy grail of nutrition. Especially since you most certainly are not deficient in protein. Relax and eat a colorful variety of whole foods for vibrant health! No protein powders or dead animal flesh required;-) Maybe just three tablespoons of hemp seeds.

Take care,

-Jill C.

***I'll have a pretty and downloadable list of plant-based proteins available for you by April 4th. Just check the Downloads! Of course, if you're subscribed to my bi-monthly newsletter, it will come right to your inbox as soon as it's ready:-) Not subscribed? Just fill out the form at the bottom of this page and it will be taken care of!