Protein Part One: Why and How Much?

I’ve been talking with a lot of fellow runners and fitness pursuers lately about food and diet changes. It has had me thinking more about the common misconceptions out there about ‘healthy’ eating. I was speaking with one friend about little changes in what she consumes and when I mentioned increasing protein, I could see her immediately react with nervousness and she said something that has stuck with me for a while: “I’m not going to be training to be a runner.”

It’s probably because I have been so immersed in learning about the various macronutrients out there that her comment struck me as bizarre. I didn’t realize, until then, that some people don’t really know what certain macronutrients do and how they work into the different fitness routines.

Protein is good for everyone. Period. It has more effect for those who actively do some sort of resistance/weight training, less so in terms of cardio. So let’s look at protein more closely. This will probably be broken into a few segments since there’s a lot of information.

Why Do We Need Protein?

Like with the various fat discussions, the basic answer to why protein is good for us comes down to the composition of protein. It is made of various amino acid chains. Amino acids are the foundation and bricks of muscle. You can’t build or maintain muscle without protein. Amino acids also regulate hormones, enzymes, and immune chemicals. Normally, we can make 12 of the various amino acids internally. The other 8, considered essential amino acids, we have to get from outside sources.

Healthy fats (like Omega-3), including, unfortunately, unhealthy fats, and protein encourage the body to feel full which in turn helps decrease cravings and overall caloric intake. As well, protein has the highest thermic effect of all macronutrients. What that means while we burn energy (ie. calories) to process what we eat, protein takes the most energy and therefore we burn more caloric fuel to process protein than we do carbohydrates or fats.

Carbohydrates can have strong effects on insulin and blood sugar, but when consumed with sufficient amounts of protein, the effect is significantly decreased.

How Much Protein Should We Have?

Currently, the daily recommendation for sedentary individuals, to maintain day-to-day functions, is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.5 grams per pound of body weight. The amount increases to 1.4-2 grams per kilogram of ‘desired’ body weight for active people going as high as 1 gram per pound of ‘desired’ body weight.

I would use caution when looking at ‘desired’ body weight, though. If all that matters is the number on the scale, the above works against you. For example, if I’m 160 pounds and my desired body weight is 130 pounds, by limiting my protein intake to only 130 grams of protein a day, I will drop weight, but that weight will come partially from my muscles. Your body will use muscle tissue as fuel, if need be, and by not feeding your muscles the ‘bricks’ it needs to keep itself building up, then they will become smaller. As muscle weighs more than fat, this effect will result in a lower scale weight.

A better rule to live by, for active individuals, is about 20-30 grams per meal for women and 30-40 grams per meal for men. Overall, 30% of your food on a given day should be protein. The normal maximum amount that can be absorbed at one time on average is about 30-40 grams. This varies based on the overall available muscle mass.

It’s better to have excess protein rather than excess carbohydrates. Carbohydrates convert into glycogen to fuel the muscles during any high intensity activity. If the glycogen is not used within a short time span, it is then stored for later use as fat.

As we know above, protein takes more calories/energy to process and this is partially because protein goes through many more phases before going to storage (if it goes there at all). Any extra protein in the system is first converted to glycogen as fuel for muscles. Any extra is then changed again and used to build up lean muscle mass to a finite amount (varying based on muscle size, so less so for women). After that, it is converted back into glycogen and stored in the muscle as fuel if it is not used right away. It is only after that point, that is could potentially be stored as fat. Keep in mind each step in this process requires converting the protein which in turn burns calories.

In comparing protein to carbohyrdates in terms of processing, it’s easy to see that overloading on carbs can quickly lead to fat store build up. There is 1 step in the conversion process. With protein, there is 4-5 steps that it goes through before it could potentially enter the fat stores of the body. Protein, in addition to going to the muscles first and staying longer, takes 4-5 times more energy to process so it burns way more calories on the way which in turn creates more places for the protein fuel to go before becoming fat.

Is it possible to have too much of protein? Yes, probably it is. It’s possible to have too much of anything, really. The key thing here though is that the limit of ‘too much’ in terms of protein is extremely high and much harder to reach than the limit of carbohydrates or fats. The average person would be very hard pressed to hit that limit without intense over-supplementation. Hitting the carbohydrate limit is easy and the majority of us do it ever day, especially when we fail to combine carbohydrate consumption with high intensity interval training of some kind (not steady-state cardio).

In part two, I’ll tackle the various sources of protein, the traps of ‘high protein’ labels, and ways to increase protein in your daily meals.

Also, keep an eye out this weekend for the start-up of my (protein) shake series!

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Trans Fat: The Evil Fat

This post is going to be pretty short since the information sums up really well: Don’t consume trans fat.

Don’t worry, that wasn’t the entire post, but if you only take one thing away today from my post, that should be the one.

What is Trans Fat?

Trans fat is a highly processed, hydrogenated version of unstaturated fat. It’s man-made to increase shelf-life and to add taste to foods and other consumable products. It is not found naturally unlike saturated and unsaturated fats. This means our body wasn’t meant to process it and that consuming it forces our body to attempt to break down a foreign substance. Trans fats also pack very densely into our storage cells, allowing our body to store more of it.

Trans fat is known to increase the risks of:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic diseases
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Lymphoma
  • Alzheimer’s

Because trans fat is a fat, it competes with other fats for the fat receptors in the body. This is an issue for two reasons. When trans fat attaches to a fat receptor, our body is taking it in, but that also means one less receptor for our body to take in the good fats like Omega-3.

In my post about Omega-3 and Omega-6, I wrote about the competition between the two fats and trying to add more balance, aiming towards a ratio of 4-1:1 of Omega-3 to Omega-6. That is because you have a finite number of fat receptors and they will take what is there. Increasing the amount of Omega-3 increases the chances of more Omega-3 in your system and, by proxy, reducing the amount of Omega-6 in your system.

The same works with trans fat versus Omega-3. The more trans fat attached to receptors, the less receptors for your Omega-3 intake. Since Omega-3 is linked to increases in HDL (good cholesterol) and decreases in LDL (bad cholesterol), this competition with trans fat also has a negative effect on your cholesterol levels. Trans fat lowers HDL, significantly. A single meal high in trans fat can contribute to the progression of heart disease. There is no ‘consume in moderation’ when it comes to trans fat.

Sources of Trans Fat

Trans fat (and it’s evil partner high fructose corn syrup) can be found in many various items:

  • Margarine
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Shortening, including any pre-packaged baked goods such as:
    • Crackers
    • Cookies
    • Doughnuts
    • Cakes
    • Pastries
    • Muffins
    • Croissants
    • Snack foods
    • Fried foods (french fries and breaded foods)

On the topic of that last note, frying in ‘trans fat free’ oil is bull. Period. Food items, including oil, change properties when heated or cooled, especially at extreme temperatures. Heating and maintaining oils to the temperatures needed to fry a food item, changes the oil’s structure so that it, essentially, becomes a trans fat.  I think it’s great that fast food places want to move towards healthier offerings, but realistically, that isn’t going to happen while food is prepared in giant vats of oil.

It can be hard to pass up the convenience of fast food, and I will be the first to admit I have a weakness for McDonald’s sausage and egg mcmuffins, as bad as they are for me, but there is no middle ground with trans fat. Every little bit does hurt you, and there is no way to balance it out health-wise.

Saturated Fat: The Mid-Way Fat

Apologies for the mini-hiatus. Injuries, work, life in general conspired against me. Things are more or less under control again so back to the posting!

Recently, I suffered a set-back in my running training. In particular, I injured my knee (with a leg press machine no less!) and I have been working on recovery for it given I have a half marathon coming up this weekend. The decision of going is still up in the air at this point.

So how is this all related to the post today? Well, one of the things I’ve been doing to help my joints recover and strengthen is focussing on my Omega-3 intake. The average person should be getting 3 grams a day. Runners, athletes, and active people who work their joints more frequently should be getting three times that. So as I gulped down my 2 tablespoons of Omega-3 oil, I remembered that I had promised to discuss the other siblings in the Fat family.

Thus, here we are! Saturated fats. I’ll be blunt here: saturated fats, while not the worst fat sibling, are really not your best friend when compared to the golden child, unsaturated. That being said, saturated fats are not nearly as unhealthy as previously thought and certainly do not compare to trans fats on the unhealthy scale. You can have saturated fats in your diet and still call it healthy. Tran fats serve no nutritional value and any trans fat added to a diet pretty much drags it down into the non-healthy spectrum. We’ll leave trans fat alone today, though, since it’s saturated fat’s turn in the spotlight!

Saturated Fat

The first thing we’re probably all asking is, “What really makes saturated fat different from unsaturated?” And no, the answer isn’t as simple as the ‘un’ in front since that really doesn’t help those of us who flunked science (and even those of us who didn’t).

When we talked about unsaturated fats, we looked at their form at the molecular level. Unsaturated fats are better because they break down easily due to a kink/weakness in their form that allows for easier processing and absorption. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature due to this ‘kink’. Saturated fats don’t have this kink in their form. They’re more sturdy and that makes them more compact. An example of this is in the room temperature scenario above. Where unsaturated fats are liquid or viscous, saturated fats remaind solid. That’s why natural nut butters, like peanut butter, need to be refridgerated to keep their form, and tend to separate in room temperature settings. The normal jar of Skippy, Kraft, or Jif can sit in your cupboard and not change. Most of these brands have started to make ‘natural’ or Omega-3 versions of their recipes but the price is often quite more for less product. It’s worth it, if you must have peanut butter, since the ‘more product’ aspect of the cupboard versions, is really not going to add healthy value to your diet. Adding more of something that is less healthy for you doesn’t provide much of a bonus.

Why is Saturated Fat Suddenly ‘Healthy’?

Well, it’s not, really. It’s just less unhealthy than previously thought, and often the rest of the diet affects the health value as well. The main issues associated with excessive saturated fat intake, like increased body fat, cardiovascular disease, and blood lipid issues, are often present when saturated fat is joined with a diet that is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and when the intake of saturated and unsaturated fats is not balanced.

The key here is to avoid combining low unsaturated fat intake with high saturated fat intake, high sugar, and refined carbohydrates. The best solution, in my opinion, is to cut the carbs and sugar, and increase the Omega-3s. If you’re not sold on the benefits of Omega-3 and unsaturated fats, check out the post I linked earlier. Fat can be your friend!

The Side-Effects of Too Much Saturated Fat

Diets that have too much unsaturated fat are linked to heart disease. This is linked to the increase in LDL cholesterol (which Omega-3 helps control and lower). Along with heart disease, unbalanced or high levels saturarated fat diets are associated with:

  • Kidney disease
  • Stroke
  • Breast cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Prostate cancer
  • Mutliple sclerosis

Sources of Saturated Fat

So we know we want to avoid excess saturated fat, keeping it in check with our unsaturated best friend, Omega-3, but to do that, we need to know from where we get our saturated fat.

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Coconut oil
  • Butter
  • Palm oil
  • Beef

Just because something is a source of saturated fat, does not mean we should avoid it and it is bad for us. We know coconut oil is good for us as is beef, both in moderation. The stearic acid in things like beef, lowers LDL (bad cholesterol). Lauric acid (found in coconut oil) increases HDL (good cholesterol, also in Omega-3) as well as boosting the immune system.

Coconut oil is also a good oil for cooking as it doesn’t break down like most oils do when heated. Oils that break down while cooking change their structures, often becoming trans fats even if they did not start that way, losing most of their health benefits. Interally, coconut oil is processed by the body differently, being used as energy first, unlike most other oils. Often, when coconut oil has been linked to negative effects on the body, it was refined/processed coconut oil that was used.

Beef that is fed grain has higher levels of saturated fat than beef that is fed grass. It is also shown that grain-fed beef has higher levels of Omega-6 (which we already get in excess) than grass-fed beef.

Hopefully, the above helps show that not all saturated fats are equal and there are ways to keep your fat ratio balanced. Saturated fats may not be your friend, but they’re definitely better than trans fats, which I’ll tackle next time.

Unsaturated Fat: Omega 3 & Omega 6

Following last week’s post about dietary fats, I decided to start with the better of the bunch: Unsaturated Fats.

Unsaturated fats are unique due to their molecular structure. They are less dense and they will often be a softer or liquid state when at room temperature. A couple of examples would be olive oil and natural peanut butter. That is the big difference between the processed stuff that you can keep in your cupboard and the natural product that you have to keep in your fridge. When the natural version is left out, the oil in it liquifies, as unsaturated fats do at room temperature.

These fats are generally considered to be the ‘healthy fats’ and break into two categories: polyunsaturated (Omega-3, -6, an -9) and monounsaturated. They are considered healthy since they provide a lot of good benefits to a variety of areas on the body. Some of these areas are cholesterol, inflammation, metabolism, and blood.

Polyunsaturated fats are the best of the unsaturated fats and can be found in oils: canola, hemp, fish, flax, and Omega 3/6 supplements. Monounsaturated fats follow as the second best and are most commonly found in almonds, olive oil, peanuts, and avacado.

The Omegas: 3 & 6

Omega-3 and Omega-6 are two polyunsaturated fats that our body uses to balance itself. The natural ratio we were meant to use is 1 Omega-3 to 1 Omega-6 (1:1). Unfortunately, as society has shifted to more processed, less natural methods of producing our food, the balance is proportionately out of whack. The majority of Omega-3 sources are wild animals and plants. Processed meats and meats from animals that are caged or factory-bred generally have a lot of Omega-6 in them from supplements among other sources.

This has led to a ratio of about 1:20-30 (or more) in the average person. Ideally, shifting it down to a 1:1-4 ratio would drastically improve the well-being of many people. While Omega-6 is a good fat, like any other macronutrient, you can have too much and too much Omega-6 can have negative effects on the body such as inflammation, blood clots, smaller blood veins, and joint pain. Omega-3s act as a counterbalance to these issues, which is why the 1:1 ideal ratio works so well.

Picture your body as having tons of little fingers and their sole purpose is to connect to Omega fats, be it Omega-6 or Omega-3. The more Omega-3s you make available to those fingers, the less there are available for Omega-6s to latch onto. You have a finite amount of ‘fingers’ for your body to use, so you want to give it the best shot possible at getting those Omega-3s, right?

Omega-3s & Where to find them

The top 3 types of Omega-3s are ALA, EPA, and DHA. EPA and DHA are the fats you will find most often infor supplementation in the form of pills or liquids. These 2 are found in fish, fish oil, or algae, whereas ALA is found in walnuts, flax, and chia seeds.

Some of the reasons for increasing your EPA and DHA intake are:

  • reduces likelihood of blood clots
  • increases metabolism
  • increases lean muscle mass gains (lean muscle burns fat, so by extension it also helps burn fat)
  • increases cognitive, specifically memory, function
  • reduces inflammation and joint pain
  • decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and various cancers
  • lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL (good cholesterol)

So now you’ve seen the bonuses, you want to know how much to take and how to do it, right?

The average person simply does not eat enough fish (or algae, bleh) to meet the recommended minimum intake of Omega-3, nor should we, as eating that much fish can lead to other issues such as increased exposure to mercury and other toxins due to the processing of fish. Others are simply allergic or strongly disgusted by fish (that’s my category!). So how do we do it?

Supplementation. Pill or liquid, either works. Pills can vary in size and quantity of fish oil, but most have around 900-1000mg per pill. Most liquid forms have about 3400mg per 15ml (a tablespoon). The recommendation currently is that the average, not overly active person should be getting 2-3g per day to maintain general every day health. If you’re active, especially if you do something like running or join-intense activities), definitely consider doubling or tripling that to anywhere in 3-10g/day. It helps with cardiovascular strength as well as joint difficulties.

That’s a lot of pills. Keep in mind, even if it just says Omega-3 or some other name, almost always it has fish oil in it. This is very important for those who are allergic to fish. Always read the ingredient labels carefully. If you don’t like the taste of fish (and yes, the fish pills will leave slight fishy burp taste sometimes), try the flavoured liquids out there. I have one that tastes great and not like fish at all, though all the Omega-3s in it come from fish oil. Another pill trick is to freeze them. This didn’t work for me, it just delayed the fishy burps, but you may find it works well for you. Ideally, you should be taking your fish oil with food, whenever possible.

As a final note on fish oil: A study was done on the effect of fish oil supplementation and exercise for an average, non-athletic person. When combined with moderate exercise, 45 minutes a session, three times a week, the participants who supplemented with fish oil (6g/day) saw an average decrease in body fat by 5% over the span of 3 months.

Recipe Roundup: Cauliflower Sheppard’s Pie

I went into this blogging goal fully intending to be about fitness and work outs. Maybe some discussion on food and regimens. I refuse to call anything I am proposing a ‘diet’ to avoid confusing it with some sort of fad, lose weight fast scheme.

I’ve been reading Vicky’s recipe blog for a while now. I love her photos and styling of her recipes, the way she easily and clearly explains the process. If you haven’t checked it out, I strongly suggest you do. It’s Menubyvicky (also found in my links tab to the left). Go ahead. My recipe can wait.

Vicky’s blog, and so many others (I love Smitten Kitchen!), have been so helpful to me while I look for new things to add to my meals. In the nutritional seminar I attended last night, I realized that others could benefit from some of the recipes I use, that I take for granted, just as much as I can. Along with every seminar, we get one new healthy recipe that is usually a healthier variation on something that normally wouldn’t be healthy. Some of these I have tried, some I have not, but I think they’re worth sharing.

This one is on my ‘must try’ list given I’m currently on a veggies and meat regimen right now.

Cauliflower Sheppard’s Pie

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

Servings: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 heads cauliflower
  • 2 cups mushroom
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 cup cottage cheese
  • 1 cup black beans

Instructions

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Brown ground beef in a frying pan, then drain fat.
  3. Bring 5-6 cups water to a boil in a large pot.
  4. Cut cauliflower into flowerettes and place in boiling water.
  5. Cook 5-10 minutes or until soft.
  6. Thoroughly rinse black beans in a strainer until water runs clear.
  7. Remove ground beef from frying pan.
  8. Add chopped mushroom and onion, cook until transluscent.
  9. Add black beans and ground beef to vegetable mixture.
  10. Cook another 2 minutes, season with salt/pepper/chili seasoning if desired.
  11. Remove cauliflower and drain the water.
  12. Add cottage cheese and mash well.
  13. Spread meat mixture in a 9 x 9 pan.
  14. Layer cauliflower mixture on top.
  15. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
    *Cooking times may vary, check after 20 minutes.

Nutritional Information (Amount Per Serving)

  • Calories: 410
  • Total Fat: 10g
  • Cholesterol: 103mg
  • Sodium: 645mg
  • Total Carbs: 32g
  • Dietary Fiber: 12g
  • Protein: 51g

(source: http://thenutritionacademy.com/)