We love to pick a good guy and bad guy. But who is this so called good guy? I want to be on his side. If you’re like me you are probably more entertained by the villain in the story. Let me introduce you to today’s unlikely villain the poor old carbohydrate.
If you look around you in the media, online and all over bill boards you will see marketing focusing on the protein content in food. It seems that we can’t get enough, of course more must be better? There are protein balls, protein powders and even protein chips. We have become a society that loves to either glorify or demonise macro and micro nutrients. We have seen the rise and fall of the low fat diet, high carb diet and we seem to be sitting at a point of near obsession with protein.
People are now choosing products that claim to be “high protein” as if this is the only measure of worth. We are so confused that some people are increasing their protein intake to lose weight and others are doing the same to gain weight. Hang on a second…… that doesn’t make any sense.
Of course there is no single thing that makes us fat. It is not just sugar and it is not just fat. One of the biggest problems we have is that we look at food by its component parts rather than food as a whole.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the starchy and sugary parts of food that break down into glucose, the sugar that our bodies use as fuel. However, not all carbohydrates are the same. It is important to remember that processed grains are nothing like whole grains. They enter the blood stream quickly which can cause unhealthy glucose levels. Wholegrain carbohydrates cause a slow and stable release of sugar into the bloodstream, which is then converted into energy by your body, rather than stored as fat. And because these natural carbohydrates retain all their water and energy, your stomach fills up fast, ensuring that you’ll never overeat1. Whole grains contain both carbohydrates and lots of fibre which assist to keep blood glucose levels stable with a slow, sustained release. The fibre contained in these complex carbohydrates, keeps us feeling full and reduces the instance of overeating. They offer a whole range of health benefits. Research shows that high fibre consumption decreases the risk of both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes2.
Carbohydrates are also the fuel you use when you exercise and the same fuel used by the brain, kidneys, red blood cells and nervous system as the preferred source of energy. Carbohydrate rich foods help with permanent weight control because they contain less than half the calories of fat, which means that replacing fatty foods with complex carbohydrates automatically cuts calories3.
If you follow a low carbohydrate, high fat and protein diet your body will attempt to produce an alternate fuel called ketone bodies. You can survive off ketones; however this is in no way your body’s optimal way to function. There is no evidence that suggests without a doubt that ketosis raises your metabolic rate significantly. There have been multiple studies done feeding people in specialised chambers while measuring their energy expenditure. Little difference was noted between someone consuming carbs and someone on a low carbohydrate diet. Countless studies now show that weight loss on a low carbohydrate diet has nothing to do with a change in metabolism. The initial weight loss is water weight due to mobilising glycogen, the rest becomes the same old calories in and calories out game4. As you can see there really is no bad guy. We need to adopt a healthy approach to eating incorporating foods close to nature that fill us with energy and zest for life.
So what does that mean for protein?
You do not need massive amounts of protein to be healthy and strong. In truth protein deficiency is virtually non existent in industrialised countries. Studies show that as protein consumption increases so too does the rates or chronic diseases1.
If we go back to biochemistry and look at what macro nutrients actually provide the human body we will find that the answer is energy. Protein is important as it helps us to build and maintain muscle in the human body, perhaps not in the quantities that we are led to believe. The essential building blocks in protein are amino acids which are actually what is vital for growth and repair. Our bodies can only use a certain amount of protein and any additional does not equate to more muscle. The body does not store excess protein and therefore must eliminate it. Over time, excessive amounts of protein can potentially put a strain on the kidneys, liver and our bones. In addition, excess protein can raise the levels of a hormone called IGF-1, which can stimulate the growth rate of certain cancer2. If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need, without the need for supplements6.
Most people that attempt to calculate their protein requirements actually use their total weight rather than their lean body mass leading to a gross over calculation of protein requirements2.
How can I calculate my protein requirements without a PhD in biochemistry?
This calculator gives you a rough calculation of the grams of protein you should be ingesting based on two different recommendations: the US government’s RDA (recommended daily allowance) and the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) 3. http://proteinaholic.com/calculator/
According to the World Health Organisation around 130 grams per day4. Don’t forget that the RDI’s are actually optimal values NOT minimum needs. The longest lived people in the world only get about 10% or their calories from protein.
The take home message
If you eat more plants and fill your plate with a rainbow of colours you will be inadvertently following a low calorie density diet. However, this way of eating is nutrient dense so people don’t just lose weight but actually become healthy. Meaning you can eat a lot of food without a lot of calories. If you limit yourself to a food group you are drastically limiting the vital phytonutrients, fibre, minerals and vitamins in certain foods5. I don’t like to get into the details of weighing and measuring every morsel of food. I don’t obsess about how much protein or carbs people should eat. I am in no way interested in tracking calorie intake and making eating a stressful time.
Stop stressing about carbohydrates, fats and protein and start focusing on foods that promote optimal wellness. Think about eating more whole fresh fruit and vegetables instead. Eat a diet full of legumes, whole unrefined grains, nuts and seeds. Just eat more plants and get creative with loads of herbs and spices. Plant based protein is actually better for you than animal protein and all plants contain more than enough to support every one of your health needs3.
- Esselstyn, R (2016) The Case For Eating Carbs. Retrieved from http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-23262/the-case-for-eating-carbs.html
- Borelli, 2014. The Great Grain Debate. Retrieved from http://nutritionstudies.org/great-grain-debate/
- The Physicians Committee (2004) Analysis of Health Problems Associated with High-Protein, High-Fat, Carbohydrate-Restricted Diets. Retrieved from: http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/frequently-asked-questions-about-nutrition#Carbs
- Davis, G (2015) Proteinaholic: How our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it. HarperCollins, New York, NY.
- Davis, 2015. Proteinaholic. The “how much protein do you need” calculator. Retrieved from http://proteinaholic.com/calculator/
- Ruscigno, M (2010). Protein: A Primer for Vegetarians. Retrieved from http://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-protein-primer/