Dear JJ: Protein is the new "hot" nutrient, and I'm seeing protein-fortified everything. Why is protein so important, what are the best sources, and how much should I be eating daily?
Fully aware how savvy consumers have become, food manufacturers have created "healthier" versions of your favorite junk foods. I've seen protein-enriched everything, from cookies to chips.
Don't be fooled. Junk food is junk food. Just because it comes fortified with protein, fiber, nutrients, or whatever doesn't cloak its junk status. Check your labels. Many protein-fortified foods come loaded with added sugar, gluten and other food intolerances, and other stuff you wouldn't find near nature-made, unprocessed foods.
Manufacturers tout protein for a reason. Studies show it curbs cravings better than high-carbohydrate foods for fast, lasting fat loss. Let's say you eat the same amount of calories from chicken or spaghetti. Three hours later, eating chicken means you're feeling full and not craving those walnut brownies your best friend brought over.
Not so much with the spaghetti, which spikes and crashes your blood sugar, leaving you hankering for seconds along with a big slab of tiramisu.
Protein fills you up and keeps you satisfied, but it can actually decrease your cravings too. Protein puts the brakes on your neuronal reward system, the brain chemicals that make you feel good and motivate you to eat more, even when you're not hungry. When you're low in protein, cravings take over and search of a quick ﬁx.
Protein does lots of other things too. Your body breaks protein down into amino acids, the building blocks it requires to make muscle, hormones, and neurotransmitters, and that help you have great hair, skin, and nails and healthy bones.
Your body can make some amino acids, but others (called essential amino acids) can only come from food. That's why getting sufficient protein becomes so important.
So how much protein should you eat? I recommend an average woman should get 75- 80 grams daily, while most men should get 100 - 120 grams a day. I base this on average size (160 pounds for a woman and 200 pounds for a man), so obviously those requirements could fluctuate. Realistically, that becomes about four to six ounces for women and six to eight ounces for men.
Protein requirements also increase when you're under stress, if you're healing, or if you're doing some heavy resistance training. I prefer erring on the side of too much than too little.
Even if you're eating enough, you may not be assimilating dietary protein well. Conditions that can hamper absorption include speed eating, drinking too much ﬂuid with your meals, not chewing well enough, or low stomach acid. So your goals should be to eat enough protein and digest it well.
Animal protein becomes your best choice. Quality really matters here. Choose organic, free-range, cage-free, grass-fed, and no-hormones-added sources whenever possible. When you choose ﬁsh, avoid farm- raised ﬁsh and ﬁsh at risk for medium or high levels of the toxic heavy metal mercury, like orange roughy and swordﬁsh.
If you're vegan or vegetarian, getting sufficient protein becomes trickier but totally doable. Focus on protein-rich plant foods like quinoa and legumes.
Studies show protein especially becomes important for fat loss at breakfast, but who has time to whip up a protein-rich meal among your zillion before-work tasks? That's why I always recommend a shake, which becomes the easiest, most efficient way to get protein at breakfast or any meal you're not hitting your quota.
Blend plant-based (but not soy) or defatted beef protein powder with frozen raspberries, raw kale (you won't taste it), avocado, freshly ground flaxseed, and unsweetened coconut or almond milk for a fast, filling, fat-burning way to stay full and focused for hours.
When you're planning meals, how important does protein become (on a scale of one to 10)? What's your favorite protein source? Share yours below. And keep those fab questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.