I’ll argue that protein is one of the more important macronutrients to focus on when it comes to our nutrition. We need adequate amounts of protein in order to build tissue, and to support growth and development, regardless of how much you may be hitting the gym. Protein helps us to feel satiated, balance our blood glucose levels, and perform vital daily functions. Protein is important across all ages and stages of life, but we need more protein as we get older in order to combat age related muscle loss. 

How do we break protein down and use it in the body?

Pepsin (an enzyme in our gastric juice) is primarily responsible for the breakdown of proteins in our diet, and reduces the protein to smaller chains of amino acids. These amino acids chains eventually move along to the small intestine, where additional enzymes continue their breakdown into individual amino acids. Microvilli in the small intestine absorb these amino acids and carry them through the bloodstream to cells in other parts of your body so they can start repairing tissue and building muscle.

Protein Supports Proper North to South Digestion

Protein in the diet actually promotes stomach acid and aids in the release of digestive enzymes. When we smell, see, and chew food (especially protein), a signal is sent to our stomach to produce stomach acid. The presence of protein requires more acid in order for it to be properly broken down.  This acidity also signals to the pancreas to release protease, the digestive enzyme that plays a role in breaking down protein. Once broken down, our body can then use amino acids as an essential building block. You’ve also heard me mention before that eating in a parasympathetic (or relaxed) state can aid in our ability to produce more stomach acid and digestive enzymes. So be extra mindful when eating protein, so as to maximize the nutritional benefit we get from it, and to reduce digestive discomfort from foods not being properly broken down and absorbed. 

Protein is important to Gut Health

As I mentioned, the essential amino acids contained within protein to help repair cells and grow new ones. So, it should come as no surprise that protein supports gut repair. The digestive tract is a long tube made up of may layers of skin cells. When these cells are damaged, they drop off, and are continually being reproduced. Protein is needed to make these new cells. Much of the mucus layer that protects the lining of the GI tract is also made from proteins. The more damage to the lining of the digestive system, the more protein may be necessary to help rebuild and repair it. One specific amino acid, L-glutamine, has been found to play a significant role in helping to maintain the integrity of the gut lining. 

Protein can also impact the composition of gut bacteria both positively and negatively. However, research shows that the selection of quality protein from suitable processing conditions plays an important role in the  degree of positive impact. Choosing grass fed & pastured meats, and wild caught fish is always the best option, when finances and sourcing allows.

Protein for Mental Health

Many of our neurotransmitters are actually produced in the gut. They are a metabolite byproducts created by our beneficial gut bugs. Numerous nutrients are needed in order for these neurotransmitters to be synthesized and regulated within the gut. Vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants are all crucial to optimal brain health. However,  the amino acids (such as tryptophan, tyrosine, valine, leucine, & isoleucine) derived from protein in our diet are important precursor nutrients for the creation of these neurotransmitters. Making sure that the diet consists of foods that provide these nutrients is key.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

A good rule of thumb is 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight. So, for a 150 pound woman, I would recommend about 80-110 grams of protein per day, broken down across meals and snacks as you see fit. Ideally, you want to eat protein at every meal to ensure that you are getting adequate amounts of this macronutrient in your diet. As always, I recommend a food first approach. Eating protein from diverse sources, and limiting processed forms of protein such as shakes and powders is best. You’ll be sure to get the full amino acid profile you need this way as well. Proteins rich in L-glutamine include meats, fish, full fat grass fed dairy and eggs. 

Now go make yourself a steak!

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