If you’re learning about nutrition and following any sound nutritional program, you’ll learn that protein comes first. As a basic nutritional principle, you have to first find protein.
Why is protein so important?
Protein is what we’re made of. The amino acids that are found in protein are broken down and then re-made into protein in our bodies to create the structure and the functional enzymes, and to build the immune system. Protein comes first. If you’re so appetite suppressed that you don’t want to eat anything – let’s say you’re on a keto diet or taking medicine and you don’t want to eat – I recommend you eat some protein every day. We think that’s the healthiest way to lose weight and to even just exist. Eat some protein every day.
How much protein should I eat?
I can’t tell you exactly how much to have. I can give you a range. I can give you a minimum, but I don’t really know if I can give you a maximum. The major issues are what are you trying to accomplish, what are your activity levels, do you have any other medical issues going on. To be able to say, “Have ‘x’ amount of protein every day,” I don’t think that’s nuanced enough to take into account everything we know about medical issues and human health.
As a base, remember you have to have some protein every day. If you’re going to take a test and pass a test for obesity medicine or nutrition, we teach that the correct answer is somewhere between 1-2g of protein per kg of your lean body mass per day. You could calculate this out – there are apps to help you do this. You’re going to have to adjust it for your weight and then if you’re overweight or heavy, you have to subtract out the fat mass to get your lean estimated body mass. You can see that there’s a lot of fudging and fussing and it’s difficult to actually get an absolute amount to recommend per day.
I think that a range of protein every day is fine. I think that historically, there have been times when humans didn’t eat the same amount every day; they didn’t have access to the food and the other information we have available now. Because there were apps and people recommending amounts of protein, people did pretty well when they just ate when they were hungry. They had access to great, healthy foods like fish, meat, poultry, and eggs. I go back to the paper done by Guenther Boden in 2005 where he put people into a research ward and told them not to eat carbs, but to eat as much as they wanted of the non-carb-containing food. The people in the ward had free access to protein and fats in the food that we typically see in the U.S. today. People had ad-lib consumption of carb foods without all of the sugars. They had to be under 20 total carbs per day.
It was fascinating, because they naturally reduced the amount they ate because they weren’t eating carbs. They reduced the carbs, but they didn’t increase the protein and fat to adjust for the carbs that they weren’t eating any longer. What happened is the amount they ate matched their height and weight – the individualization of the amount they needed. This happened pretty fast; it was a two-week study and what happened is people ate less. They all lost weight, and their blood sugars got better. This is a classic paper now. It was published in 2005 but it’s required reading for those wanting to learn what happens on a low-carb diet.
Don’t overcomplicate it
Putting it all together, I find a problem when people worry excessively about how much they’re eating and when they’re eating. If you just step back and stop eating these junk foods – now there are even keto junk foods, don’t have them – it’s the processed food industry that’s coming out with these products. I always look at the label for total carbs. This is the general teaching that I do when you come to one of my programs. You really don’t have to worry about the amount of protein you’re eating as long as you have free access to meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and eggs – i.e., the low-carb keto list of real foods. Your body will figure out how much protein it will get.
If you’re really worried about this, stay to 1-2g per kg of lean body mass. (You’ll have to calculate your body fat mass.) That’s too much work for most of my patients, so I’ll just tell them to eat freely from these low-carb and zero-carb foods that are mainly protein and fat so they’ll get enough to feel full and they’ll get enough to replenish. Your body stores make everything you need. That’s the general principle for losing weight on a low-carb keto diet.
Building muscle mass with protein
If you’re wanting to build muscle mass – and you can build muscle mass while losing fat mass; these are two separate compartments – the fat is the energy store and the protein muscle mass is basically your strength and your functioning. If you’re doing resistance training and exercising while you’re losing weight, you can actually build muscle mass, which doesn’t compute for some people, because they think of weight as just one uniform thing. The weight in our bodies is partially fat, partially protein, and partially water. These different compartments can change. That’s why we don’t want you to obsess over a number on the scale because it doesn’t tell you exactly which body compartment of weight is changing. One might go down while the other one is going up at the same time, so the total weight doesn’t change at all.
To wrap it up, I do want you to have protein every day. Prolonged fasting is not thought to be a generally healthy thing. There are some people who think it might be healthy and there are theoretical reasons, but until we get clinical trials and studies of a large number of people (which would be equivalent to the approval of a drug), I would still recommend having some protein every day. You can do a program with a trainer or a doctor and measure your own body mass, which really is the best way to go about it if you’re doing something where there isn’t a lot of research behind it because you’ll be able to measure it yourself and make sure that you’re not encountering any adverse issues like losing muscle mass while you’re losing weight. You want to sustain that just as much as you can.
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