nutrition

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Introduction

The topic of protein can be a confusing one. One day you might read an article about the latest high-protein diet fad and wonder if you should join in, the next you might watch a documentary about plant-based diets and question if you are actually eating too much protein. If this resonates with you or if you are simply an active individual wondering what you need to know about protein, read on!

Nutrition 101: Everything You Need to Know About Protein

Purpose & Function of Protein

Dietary proteins are essential for human health and responsible for things like immune function, enzymatic reactions, cell growth & development, transport and "communication" (as in the case of hormones). This table provides a good overview of each of those "jobs" if you're curious for some specific examples of each.

You have most-likely heard at some point throughout schooling that protein acts as the "building blocks" of our bodies. It's especially important post-workout for repairing/rebuilding muscle tissue. 

Another more subjective reason for including protein is the satisfaction factor. It adds staying power to meals and snacks so you aren't thinking about food again an hour later. I often find that when people skimp on protein at breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to increased cravings throughout the day along with a feeling of never being *truly* satisfied. 

Complete vs. incomplete

You may have heard the words "complete" and "incomplete" in regards to protein. These terms indicate whether or not a particular food contains all of the essential amino acids (complete) or only some of them (incomplete).

Why is this important? 

There are 20 different amino acids and 9 of those are considered "essential" meaning that our body doesn't synthesize them and we need to consume these through our food. If you eat a plant-based diet (and subsequently incomplete protein sources), it's important to consume a variety of proteins to make sure you are getting each of those amino acids throughout the day. 

chicken and zucchini kabobs

Am I Getting Enough?

It's very rare to see protein deficiency in any developed country (except in the clinical setting when patients are either unable or refusing to eat for extended periods of time, at which point nutrition support is initiated). Basically, if you are meeting your energy needs, you are likely meeting your protein needs too. 

That said, many of my coaching clients tend to go a little low on dietary protein intake, especially if they follow a vegetarian eating pattern, without even realizing it. It's not hard to meet your needs with a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet, it just takes a little bit more planning. It's also important to know the difference between meeting protein needs for general health, and meeting protein needs if your goal is to build lean body mass and optimize a workout.

I often find that when people skimp on protein on breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to afternoon sugar cravings along with a feeling of never being truly satisfied. 

— Leanne Ray, MS, RDN

The Recommended Dietary Allowance or "RDA" for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight (source).

So to calculate this, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 (to get your body weight in kilograms) then multiply that number by 0.8. This is the minimum amount of protein you should shoot for each day, but it's not necessarily the optimal amount. 

A registered dietitian can help you determine a protein range that will best meet your needs (based on things like activity level and fitness goals), but this can be a starting point. In addition to amount, there are two other important factors to consider: timing & variety. 

  1. Timing. Spread out your protein intake throughout the day (as opposed to moderate amounts at breakfast/lunch followed by a huge steak at dinner). This seems to promote muscle protein synthesis better than the alternative. (source)

  2. Variety. As mentioned above, make sure you get a variety of sources especially if you eat plant-based so you can diversify your amino acid intake. All food provides different benefits so this is a good rule of thumb no matter what the macronutrient - there is no "best" choice.

Dietary Sources of Protein

By now you might be wondering about protein-rich food sources. Most people are well-aware that meat has protein, but some other options may surprise you. Here is a short list of where you can find it and about how many grams one serving contains:

Food (protein):

Chicken, 3 oz (20 grams)

Siggi's 2% Yogurt, 5 oz (15 grams)

Tuna, 2 oz (14 grams)

Cottage Cheese, 1/2 cup (14 grams)

Red lentils, 50 gm serving (13 grams)

Hemp hearts, 3 Tbsp (10 grams)

Peanut butter, 2 Tbsp (8 grams)

Black beans, 1/2 cup (7 grams)

Whole wheat pasta, 2 oz (7 grams)

Egg, 1 whole (6 grams)

Old-fashioned rolled oats, 1/2 cup (5 grams)

smoked salmon toast with zucchini

What about protein supplements?

Supplements can be a great option for active individuals who have higher protein needs and find it challenging to meet them through food. From a volume perspective it's a lot easier to take in 20 grams of protein through a smoothie with some whey powder added in, than it is to consume a full plated meal. 

I still advocate for using "food first" whenever possible. Supplements can be expensive and they don't contain any magical components compared to food. The nutrients in whole food often work in synergy in the body so by isolating single components, we might be missing out on some of the benefits of the original source. Here's an example:

Smoothie #1

  • 1 cup vanilla almond milk

  • 1 serving whey protein

  • 1 banana

Nutrition // 290 cals, 18 g protein

Smoothie #2

  • 1 cup 1% milk

  • 1/2 frozen banana

  • 1 Tbsp peanut butter

  • 1.5 Tbsp hemp hearts

Nutrition // 318 cals, 18 g protein

Both provide the same amount of energy and protein but smoothie #2 gives you all of the nutritional benefits of milk, plus added heart-healthy fats, fiber, iron and omega 3s from a combination of the peanut butter and hemp hearts. Remember that this isn't to say one is "better", but one might be more appropriate based on your situation.

How to Make Kombucha at Home

This is a guest post written by fellow dietitian Maria Zamarripa. She is an expert in all things gut health so today she'll be sharing some information about fermented foods and health along with a tutorial for making kombucha at home. I can't wait to give this a try!

Hey everyone! I’m Maria, registered dietitian and blogger over at Food Farmacist RD! I’m here to share with you my latest obsession which has everyone raving about gut health (one of my favorite topics). Kombucha!

There seems to be two types of people in this world: people who love kombucha, and people who have yet to discover kombucha. I hope to convert the latter ;).

What is kombucha?

Simply put, kombucha is a fermented probiotic tea. The unflavored variety tastes similar to a sparkling apple cider. Kombucha tea is made by putting a bacteria culture (also known as a SCOBY) into a mixture of black tea, sugar, and water. The bacteria “eat” the sugar and release gasses as a byproduct – this is what is known as fermentation! The fermentation creates the bubbly effect, as well as the good bacteria and yeasts.

Kombucha is barely the new kid on the block, though. Kombucha originated in China over 2,000 years ago, and was praised for its “detoxifying and energizing” effects (1).  The tea really gained popularity in the early centuries as it was reportedly used to cure the digestive problems of Emperor Inkyo!

What are the benefits of kombucha?

Move over yogurt, kombucha is moving in as the “new” fermented food. Kombucha sales have skyrocketed nearly 40% in 2017 (2). And for good reason. Kombucha is an excellent source of probiotics, which is the good type of bacteria that live in our gut. A lot of research show some benefits of certain probiotic strains for specific gut conditions. But, there are also studies showing these gut bugs may benefit things like your weight, metabolism, and even anxiety (3, 4).

Specific research on kombucha, though, is still developing with most studies done on rats so far. Nonetheless, a few studies do argue that kombucha may help inflammatory diseases, blood pressure, and even asthma (1). While kombucha isn’t a magical cure, a frequent dose of probiotics via fermented foods can definitely promote better health in many ways.

Kombucha supplies

Kombucha is surprisingly easy to make at home, plus it’s way more affordable. Here are the kombucha supplies you will need:

  • 2 black tea bags  
  • ¼ cup cane sugar
  • 3 ½ cups distilled water  
  • SCOBY with starter liquid (see below)
  • 1 quart glass jar (large mason jars work well)
  • Paper coffee filter
  • Something to secure the jar (rubber bands, hair ties, or mason jar rings work well).
  • Desired fruit/flavorings (optional)
kombucha making supplies

Where to buy a SCOBY?

One of the kombucha supplies you need is a SCOBY - which stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This is a collection of good bacteria, and kind of resembles a floppy, slippery hockey puck. The SCOBY starts the fermentation process to produce more probiotics in your kombucha tea.

I got my first SCOBY from a friend. You see, after the first few batches of kombucha, your original SCOBY will likely produce a SCOBY baby. Don’t be alarmed! This means you can either have two batches of kombucha brewing at one time, or gift one to a friend to share the (gut) wealth.

SCOBY for making kombucha at home

Where do you buy a SCOBY if you can’t get one from a friend? Well, like everything else in this world… you can order one from Amazon! Make sure the SCOBY is given or sold in starter liquid, as it needs this to survive. If you live in a larger city, you can also buy a SCOBY at a local kombucha brewery or shop.

Kombucha brewing steps

Once you have all of your kombucha supplies, follow this step-by-step guide to make your own kombucha at home!

STEP 1

Bring 1 ½ cup of water to a light boil.  

STEP 2

Place 2 black tea bags into your mason jar, and add the hot water. Steep tea for 15 minutes.

STEP 3

Remove tea bags and add ¼ cup sugar, stirring until completely dissolved.

STEP 4

Add additional 2 cups distilled water. Make sure mixture is around room temperature. Then add the SCOBY and starter liquid.

STEP 5

Place a coffee filter over the top of the jar, and secure with a rubber band.  Store in a dark, cool place, like your pantry or a cabinet.

kombucha brewing 

STEP 6

Allow the mixture to sit in a dark, cool place for 7-10 days. The brewing time varies with each batch/SCOBY.  Your SCOBY should float to the top of the jar around this time, and the tea will be a lighter color than at the beginning.

How to Test Your Kombucha

This sometimes grosses people out, but it gets better with the more batches you have under your belt! To make sure your kombucha is finished brewing, you’ll need to grab a straw and place it under the SCOBY. Take a sip of the kombucha! If it has a nice “carbonated” taste, then it’s done.

STEP 7

When finished brewing, scoop out the SCOBY with 1/4 cup of starter liquid and store in a covered jar back in the pantry until your next batch! If there are any loose pieces, strain the rest of your finished kombucha with a fine mesh strainer.  

OPTIONAL: Add FLAVORING

Some people prefer to drink plain kombucha. It’s also fun to experiment with flavors, too! After taking out the SCOBY and starter liquid, add a handful of desired fruit/spices/herbs to the kombucha mixture. Place the coffee filter back onto the jar, secure with a band, and let sit for 2 more days in the pantry. Strain out the fruit after 2 days, and store the kombucha, covered with a lid, in the refrigerator. Different sources say it can last in the refrigerator anywhere from 1-3 months, but I usually drink it up within 1-2 weeks.

My Favorite Flavor Combinations:

  • Peach Mint
  • Strawberry Basil
  • Apple Cinnamon (great for the fall!)
  • Ginger Lemon
  • Cranberry Orange
  • Watermelon Lime

Note: While kombucha is safe for most people, doctors recommend against kombucha during pregnancy. Ask your doctor before drinking kombucha if you are on any type of immune suppressing drugs, too.

That’s it! You’re all set to start brewing your own kombucha at home. I’d love to follow along with your kombucha adventures! Tag me @foodfarmacistrd on Instagram or Food Farmacist RD on Facebook to share pictures of your favorite flavors or your first couple of kombucha brews!

Maria Zamarripa the Food Farmacist RD

The Why Behind Some of Your Sugar Cravings

salt and straw san diego honey lavender ice cream cone

I often hear others talk about struggling with having a sweet tooth. As in, sugar is addicting and impossible to resist. I find that most people identify with with being at least a little anxious, and sometimes totally out of control around sweets. Today I wanted to unpack that a little bit and pose the question - why does this happen and if this sounds like you, what can you do about it? I've come across a lot of questionable tidbits of advice around the internet that recommend everything from cayenne cleanses to a Whole30 to get sugar intake under control. Those are both pretty extreme and in my opinion, unnecessary. Here are three reasons why you might crave sweets frequently (and none of them involve being addicted to sugar).

Obligatory disclaimer: it's totally fine (and normal!) to crave something sweet on occasion but if you feel like this is all-consuming and something you want to work on, read on! Also, nutrition is personal and individual - these are potential causes, but not necessarily true for everyone so take this post with a grain of salt.

1. You are under-eating.

You might remember this post I wrote back in December where I shared my thoughts on the idea of sugar addiction. Even though each of us might deal with indulgent foods differently, based on my professional experience, I find that most cases of sugar cravings are the product of under-eating. 

As an example, a friend of mine once shared that she felt seriously tempted by afternoon sweets, but once we dug a little deeper she came to her own conclusion that this happens on days when she doesn't pack enough food to get her through the work day. So essentially she just needed fuel, but her biological hunger was being misinterpreted as a sweet tooth. Does this sound like it could be the case for you too? 

I also see this happen in the evening. If you are cutting way back on carbohydrates at dinner, you might be back in the kitchen searching for something sweet an hour or two later. 

salmon with orzo salad

2. You don't get enough sleep.

Another potential culprit of increased sugar cravings (or increased appetite in general) could be a less-than-ideal sleep routine. Research strongly suggests that insufficient sleep results in decreased levels of leptin and increased levels ghrelin. These are two hormones that play a role in our hunger and satiety signals and this particular combination results in a stimulated appetite, decreased satiety after a meal and decreased energy expenditure (1,2). 

I ask my coaching clients about sleep habits in our first meeting together and I can always see a bit of confusion as to why this would connect with nutrition. In addition to the hormone-related example above, if someone is overtired, chances are they might skip exercise, choose less healthful food options and over-rely on caffeine too. 

3. You're stuck in a cheat day mentality.

Oh the cheat day... this can be a tough habit to break, but I swear things are more fun and relaxed on the other side! One question I often ask someone who is considering an all-or-nothing type approach is:

Have you ever known someone who does a cleanse or super strict diet? If yes, what was their eating pattern like on the day after it ended?

Chances are, it involved seriously overdoing it on all of the foods that weren't "allowed". This isn't a long term strategy and it can promote binging, guilt, and a vicious cycle of feeling out of control around food. I shared this article from Bon Appetit on Facebook a few weeks back and found it to be really spot on. The author describes how the cheat day mentality "sabotaged attempts at finding balance in... health and nutrition". Getting stuck in a cheat day mentality can be destructive to your relationship with food and might even result in you constantly thinking about foods that are off limits (like sweets). Working with a registered dietitian to develop sustainable eating patterns can help you end this pattern for good. 

chocolate chip cookie

Action Steps Moving Forward

So now the question is, what action steps can you take to move away from some of these behaviors? First and foremost, choose meals and snacks that are satisfying, balanced and taste good to you. Trying to go low-cal or only picking the "healthy" item can backfire and lead to cravings later if it's not something you even want or like in the first place. I usually encourage clients to eat more, not less, to prevent this sort of thing from happening. This can also prevent large blood sugar spikes. 

If your sleep routine could use some work, make a serious effort to get that figured out. I won't go too deep into this topic because I know most people have heard all of the classic recommendations already. If you make it a priority and still can't seem to get a solid night of sleep, this is something that warrants a doctor's visit because you could potentially have sleep apnea or another underlying condition that requires treatment. 

Using a meal time habits journal for a week or so can be a helpful way to track eating patterns and how certain meals/snacks make you feel. This isn't your typical food recall or My Fitness Pal log. It's more focused on behaviors such as: how hungry you were, where you were, who you were with, and what your mood was in relation with what you ate at a given time. This can be extremely helpful for identifying issues that you might not even be aware of (see below to download the template I use with clients). 

Now I would love to hear from you! Can you relate to any of these issues and if so, what steps have you taken to overcome them? 

References:

1. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T and Mignot E. Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Med. 2004;1(3):e62.

2. Dashti HS, Scheer FAJL, Jacques PF, Lamon-Fava S, and Ordovás JM. Short Sleep Duration and Dietary Intake: Epidemiologic Evidence, Mechanisms, and Health Implications. Adv Nutr. 2016; 6(6): 648–659.

Meal Time Habits Journal

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