Protein: Are You Getting Enough? Too Much?

Many people I meet tell me with some degree of pride that they eat little or no meat, or that the only meat they eat is chicken or fish. At 15, I became vegetarian. But at first, I also included chicken and fish, and I never gave up eggs or dairy. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about how to have a healthy diet. I just knew I was having digestive trouble, and had heard that meat, especially red meat, was difficult to digest. Lately, many of us have become aware of ever-increasing warnings about the safety of fish, and about problems with chicken, as well. What to do?

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These days, lots of folks are opting for a vegetarian diet, while many more are going pretty much the opposite direction, with a paleo approach. If a person is a vegetarian, it takes due diligence to avoid protein deficiency. I was warned of this potential downside when I became vegetarian. At the same time, I was reading all sorts of theories about how Americans get way too much protein, and that the amount of protein we need daily is actually much less than many of us believed. I was confused! Reading an article by Dr. John Douillard helped to shed some light as to where we are, as a culture, when it comes to the protein question.

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According to Dr.Douillard, protein deficiency can lead to symptoms such as sleep problems, cravings, joint pain, brain fog or anxiety. But what about getting too much protein? The recommended daily amount of protein is usually about 45 grams for women, 55 grams for men. It can be a lot higher for a pregnant or nursing mother. I say “usually” because I have heard vastly differing amounts from various experts. Many years ago, I spoke with a nutritionist who advocated a very low protein intake.

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Indeed, too much protein is said to hinder athletic performance, even though athletes probably need more than most folks. Overly acidic internal environment and build-up of ammonia in the blood can result from a high intake of protein. This article links overall mortality with increased protein consumption for certain age groups.

What I have seen in clients (and other people) is that, in keeping with the common media messages, we tend to go one direction or the other. Also, as I always say, everyone is unique. You may need a bit more than average, or a bit less protein than most. It’s important to be familiar with signs of protein deficiency, and also of taking in too much. Like Dr. Douillard, I have seen many people who have chosen to limit their protein intake, and have taken it a little too far.

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If you are vegetarian, or eat very little meat, evaluate your protein intake, and increase it if you feel you need to do so. Try including meat or fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, or eggs at each meal. Increase the amount gradually, and see how your body responds. At the same time, try decreasing the amount of grains or simple carbohydrates at each meal. Be aware of how your body responds to the adjustments you make.

The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain, Ph.D.

The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain, Ph.D.

If you are eating more of a paleo or Atkins type of diet, watch to be sure you are filling up a large portion of your plate with non-starchy vegetables and low sugar fruits. Even though meat is an important part of your menus, it’s easy to have too much if you’re not filling up on plant foods. The picture of these types of eating plans can be painted as being all about meat, when that is not actually what the leading proponents of these plans teach at all. The emphasis should be on a variety of plant foods, with animal proteins playing a smaller, yet very crucial role.

As always, sugar and too many simple carbs can wreck your results, even if you are getting the optimal amount of protein.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of tuning in to what’s happening for you as you adjust the amounts of protein in your diet. Only you can feel what you are feeling! If you begin to experience low energy, aches and pains, or fuzzy thinking, that can be a sign that you have not yet arrived at your ideal way of eating. But, if you feel fabulous in every way, and for a sustained period of time, chances are very good that you’re doing something right!

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