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Chinn Chats

The down & dirty on women's wellness


Protein

Micro-, Macro-, Super-nutrients: What is Essential & What is Overkill?


Part I of an Intensive Nutritional Series: Protein: A Dietary Godsend?


September 1, 2021

In this day & age of keto crazes & macro balancing, many of us have been inundated with information, some of it accurate & most of it inaccurate, regarding the nutrients that our bodies need to optimally function. The last decade has seen carbohydrates, as a class, vilified, & proteins, as a class, glorified. We have lauded anti-oxidants &, in the time of COVID, have promoted the use of super-nutrients for their immune-boosting properties & their ability to stave off disease. Protein shakes, protein bars & supplements are all marketed with claims about the nutrients they contain & the benefits they boast. It can be very difficult, in the midst of all this, to sort out what our bodies truly need. To offer some clarification, we will narrow the categorizations of different nutrients into three general classes: Macronutrients, Micronutrients, & Super-nutrients & we will address these classes & their subclasses over the course of a series of Chinn Chats that will span the remainder of 2021 & the early days of 2022.


Macronutrients


There are three kinds of macronutrients, all of which are essential for our bodies’ functions. These include proteins, carbohydrates, & fats. Of these, protein has received the bulk of the positive attention offered any macronutrient in the recent phase of dietary crazes. Protein content is now used to market all kinds of foods, including juice, to which supplemental protein can be added. Protein is an absolutely essential macronutrient that our bodies need to function. Not all protein, however, is created equally, & not all sources of protein are equally bioavailable (able to be metabolized & then used effectively by our bodies), which means that the phrase “added protein” as a general term is relatively useless when determining whether a food is healthful or not. It’s a marketing gimmick. We promise. Don’t fall for it. As it turns out, it is also a marketing gimmick to add protein to everything to make us think it is improving our health. Unless we are hardcore bodybuilders, chances are we actually don’t need to consume as much protein as we have been led to believe. Furthermore, too much protein is indeed too much of a good thing. Excessive protein gets metabolized into glucose, which our bodies will use for energy if it’s necessary but will otherwise store as fat if the supply of glucose is greater than the demand. That’s right. All that protein eventually becomes that nutritional arch-enemy: a carb. Protein in excess, then, results in not only weight gain but body fat gain. It doesn’t just get converted automatically to muscle on our bones.


Additionally, too much protein can damage your kidneys, which are responsible for filtering waste products from the metabolism of the protein. The more protein you consume, the more waste products there are, which means your kidneys need to work harder. Excessive protein can tax your kidneys, & it can take water with it, since your kidneys require water to actually excrete the waste products. This means that consuming too much protein can dehydrate you, further challenging your kidneys.


That’s the bad news for protein, & a few of the reasons it is essential to maintain a proper balance of macronutrients & avoid excessive consumption of this particular one. There are many good things about protein, however, including the fact that your body needs protein to function. Protein is an essential component of our organs & tissues. It is the building block of all of the pieces of us that you can touch. Muscles, bone, skin, hair & all of our solid tissues are comprised of proteins. Protein is also the primary building block of the enzymes that direct the chemical reactions necessary to operate the well-oiled machine of the human body & all its many systems, & it is the major component of hemoglobin, which is the transportation mechanism for oxygen in your bloodstream. Without protein, therefore, human beings will die. At least 10,000 different forms of protein are essential components to our basic bodily functions, which—when we are healthy—we generally take for granted.


Protein itself is made from more than 20 building blocks called amino acids. These are also now marketed in supplemental fashion—we purchase supplemental amino acids routinely because of this marketing, despite the fact that this is an almost entirely wasteful endeavor, as the human body cannot actually store amino acids for later use. Our bodies generally will make the amino acids that they need, either from scratch, or through modification of other amino acids. Nine of these building blocks cannot be synthesized independently by the human body. These essential amino acids must be consumed from food. They are termed essential because they are necessary for our bodies to perform crucial functions. Without these amino acids, these critical actions will fail. In the event, then, that one does not consume foods containing the nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, & valine), there’s a role for those amino acid supplements. That will not be the case for the majority of Americans, who are well-fed & have ready & frequent access to sources of protein that are comprised of these essential amino acids. It is extremely uncommon for healthy adults in the United States to have protein deficiencies because there is an abundance of plant & animal-based food that is packed with protein. In fact, most Americans are consuming more than enough protein, most of it from animal-based foods, which provide forms of protein that are complete, meaning they contain each & every one of the twenty-plus kinds of amino acids needed to assist the body with its own protein synthesis. Odds are, given the protein obsession of our vibrant health & wellness industry, we are mostly getting way more protein than we actually need.


The minimum amount of protein recommended for a health adult is about 7g of protein per 20 pounds of body weight, which translates to about 70g of protein per day for a 200-pound person. Beyond that, there actually appears to be no measurable benefit to consuming additional protein. Research has not demonstrated that protein consumption exceeding this minimal amount improves longevity or any bodily function, nor has research demonstrated that excess protein consumption prevents disease, despite our current national fixation on getting more of it wherever we can.

As it turns out, getting it wherever we can, may be not only useless, but also harmful, as we may be consuming too much of the wrong kinds of protein & not enough of others, given that not all sources of protein are identically formulated to provide the same nutrition & perform the same functions in our bodies.


“Pure” protein from any source probably has the same effect on health, but the mix of amino acids in the particular protein can have health implications. When we consume foods, we are rarely consuming “pure” protein. Rather, we consume protein in a package of nutrients, as foods contain many components, including different fats, carbohydrates, forms of fiber, vitamins, & minerals. When this package is improperly balanced, protein consumption can result in heart disease, diabetes, cancer, inflammation of the digestive tract (resulting in such things as diverticulitis). Protein powders can be added to a package that promotes appropriate nutritional balance, but they also add to the package any variety of other ingredients, from sweeteners to heavy metals & other toxins. Protein powders are sold as dietary supplements, which means that they are entirely unregulated, as the FDA leaves it up the manufacturers’ own honor systems to evaluate the safety & labeling of their products. There is no possible way, without chemically testing the powder yourself, to know if a protein powder contains what the manufacturer claims. The same is true for pre-mixed protein shakes.


As a general rule, we recommend that you create your own intentional protein packages, ensuring that you are combining complete proteins with insoluble & soluble fibers, complex carbohydrates, & micronutrient-dense foods to ensure that your body can properly digest & use what you consume. As a general rule, we recommend you avoid foods with marketing strategies & unidentifiable ingredients. If your protein consumption includes components you can’t pronounce, it’s unlikely to be something your body needs. If your protein consumption involves an intensive, modern manufacturing process, it’s unlikely to be something your human body has evolved to actually need.