Proteins: The Macronutrient Guide
By Tyler Woodward
In this article, we will talk about everything you need to know about the essential macronutrient proteins.
Table of Contents:
- What Are Proteins?
- Protein Structure
- Protein Metabolism
- Protein Sources
- How Much Protein Should I Eat?
What Are Proteins?:
Proteins are one of the three essential macronutrients in the body and commonly referred to as, “the building blocks of life” and for good reason. Proteins are like the working men (and women) of the human body and play an insane amount of roles in the body, including:
- Immunity - Antibodies are proteins that form in response to a pathogen or virus in order to build immunity to the pathogen
- Enzymes - Enzymes are proteins that help to break down certain molecules in digestion and also decrease the amount of energy input required to make certain chemical reactions occur
- Chemical Messengers - Proteins are responsible for transporting many of our hormones among other molecules through our bloodstream
- Muscle - Contractile proteins in our muscles allow us to move our body through space as they shorten and lengthen in order to produce force.
- Structure - Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is responsible for maintaining the structure in our hair, joints, nails, skin, digestive tract, ect.,
Proteins are organized in four levels which enables them to have such a large variety of functions in the body.
1. Primary Protein Structure -
The Amino Acid Chain: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, like bricks to a building. There are 20 common amino acids which are most often linked together in order to form the amino acid chain of the protein. Every protein in the body will have a different amino acid chain that will largely determine its structure and function.
Types of Amino Acids:
There are two types of amino acids, essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. Essential amino acids (EAAs) cannot be produced from within the body, so we must consume them in our diet. Of the 20 common amino acids there are 9 essential amino acids: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan. Non-essential amino acids can be produced in our body as long as we have consumed enough protein and carbohydrates.
What about Branched-Chain Amino Acids?
Branched-Chain Amino Acids refer to the essential amino acids Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. Due to their unique chemical structure (the branched-chain) these amino acids can bypass the liver and gut and go directly into our bloodstream. This allows for BCAAs to be absorbed by our cells to replenish any proteins that are broken down in a workout or to be used as fuel before cells begin to break down internal protein structures. BCAAs have been shown to decrease muscle soreness and fatigue, increase muscle growth and reduce muscle-wasting. So in essence they are anti-catabolic, as they help to stop the breakdown of proteins/muscle, and are anabolic, increase the formation of new proteins/molecules.
2. Secondary Protein Structure -
Hydrogen molecules that exist on the outside of the amino acids will bond to one another forming the secondary protein structure. Depending on the types of amino acids within the primary structure will determine whether the protein forms a beta-pleated sheet (imagine a stretched out accordion) or an alpha helix (looks like a twisted ribbon).
3. Tertiary Protein Structure -
Depending on whether the secondary protein structure resulted in an alpha helix or beta-pleated sheets and the amino acids present in the protein, the protein will fold in on itself resulting in 3-dimensional ball like structure.
4. Quaternary Protein Structure -
Some proteins will combine with another protein, resulting in a combined protein with 2 amino acid chains, again in a big ball-like structure.
Proteins can be broken down to be utilized as energy through a process known as gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis occurs when our blood sugar levels are low and our body releases glucagon into the bloodstream in order to signal to the body to begin to break down glycogen as energy. When we run through our glycogen stores, glucagon signals to the body to release amino acids and fatty acids into the bloodstream, so they can be broken down as fuel. Every gram of protein contains 4 calories of energy. Gluconeogenesis is a very slow and inefficient process and also results in the release of stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and estrogen into the body. You can avoid or at least minimize the amount of gluconeogenesis that occurs by consuming lots of carbohydrates and adequate amounts of fat and protein.
Not All Protein Is Created Equal!
When assessing the quality of a protein we mainly want to look at its amino acid content. There are certain amino acids that we want to avoid and others we want to consume lots of. On their own some amino acids serve as precursor molecules. Here a few examples:
- Tyrosine -> L-Dopa -> Dopamine
- Glutamate -> GABA (type of neurotransmitter in the brain)
- Tryptophan -> Hydroxytryptophan -> Serotonin
- Histidine -> Histamine
We can thereby separate amino acids into two classes: protective amino acids and destructive amino acids. Protective amino acids are generally precursors to “good” or “healthy” hormones, pro-metabolic (increase our metabolic rate), anti-inflammatory and anabolic (cause growth). Destructive amino acids are generally precursors to “bad” or “unhealthy” hormones, increase our stress levels, are inflammatory and are anti-metabolic (decrease our metabolic rate).
Protective Amino Acids
Destructive Amino Acids
For these reasons we want to stick with proteins that have proportionally large amounts of the protective amino acids and as little as possible destructive amino acids. Protein sources generally exist on a spectrum from the highest density of protective amino acids to the least.
Read More: Rebalancing Amino Acids
The Protein Spectrum:
Organ Meats (liver, thyroid, heart, ect) > Seafoods, Dairy (eggs & milk) > Beef (muscle meat) > Game meat (bison> venison> pork> chicken > Plant-based proteins (soy, tofu edamame)
When considering protein sources it is also vital to consider the quality of the meat. If possible we are always better off by opting for the highest quality of meats typically organic, grass-fed for beef and organic, free-range for chicken or organic, pasture-raised for pork. This is because the food source that the animals consume actually changes their chemical composition. For example, grass-fed cows and free-range chickens tend to have a lower ratio of poly-unsaturated fats compared to saturated fats. Poly-unsaturated fats are unstable in the humans’ due to their chemical structure and tend to be broken down and oxidized, releasing free radicals into the body when we digest them. Additionally, consuming organic foods ensures that the foods were not grown using any pesticides or injected with any artificial hormones which we then inherit from consuming the meat.
If you choose to supplement with protein, it would naturally make the most sense to choose a protein source that contains amino acids that you are consuming the least of in your diet. On average per the modern American diet we do not consume nearly enough protective amino acids specifically glycine and taurine, so I would opt for a protein that is high in these amino acids. This again, results in a protein spectrum consisting of the “best” protein supplements to the “worst” relative to their amino acid composition:
Potato protein, gelatin & collagen proteins > casein & whey proteins > Other plant-based proteins.
As I noted before, in most modern-diets we basically only consume muscle-meats and typically do not consume organ meats. Organ meats like liver, thyroids, heart and brain are actually some of the most micronutrient dense foods on the planet and also happen to contain a higher ratio of glycine (protective amino acid) to methionine (destructive amino acid) compared to muscle meats. For these reasons consuming organ meat can be extremely beneficial to improving your health and if you don’t like eating organs then supplementing with it is your next best bet. We at UMZU actually have plans on releasing the highest-quality organ meats on the market in the coming months, but for now I recommend checking out heartandsoilsupplements.com or ancestralsupplements.com
Proteins To Avoid:
Proteins that land near the end of the protein spectrum tend to be better to avoid due to their higher ratio of “destructive amino acids” to “protective amino acids”. Now, this is not the end of the story, as by supplementing with some extra glycine and ensuring that you get a high-quality source of meat you can combat the downsides of these proteins. On the other hand, I recommend completely avoiding most plant proteins, especially any from seeds or legumes. Proteins from soy, tofu, or pea proteins not only have a high ratio of destructive amino acids, but also contain a ton of estrogenic compounds which mimic estrogen in the body. Contrary to popular belief, estrogen is a stress hormone and having too much estrogen (which most of the population does today) can result in a ton of negative health consequences. Rather than going into this here, if you’re interested in learning more about the harmful effects of estrogen on the body check out this article: How To Get Rid Of Estrogen: The All Encompassing Guide. Additionally, plant proteins from legumes and seeds also tend to be much higher in phytic acid which significantly impedes our body’s ability to absorb any nutrients within the protein.
In reference to animal proteins, again it’s extremely important to consider the sources of our protein supplements as well. We want to make sure that our protein is from the highest quality animal or plant sources and does not contain any harmful additives or preservatives. Multiple well known brands of whey proteins have received a lot of attention in the last few years for containing high levels of toxic heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and lead. This is not inherently related to whey protein, but it is intricately tied to the manufacturing process of the protein, so remember “not all protein is created equal.”
Lastly, let’s talk about gluten. Gluten is an insoluble protein most often found in wheat, barley and rye flours Because gluten is insoluble, meaning that it does not break down in water, gluten tends to be very difficult to digest in our body and as a result causes an inflammatory response in the body. Even if you are not gluten intolerant or sensitive to gluten you will likely benefit from trying to minimize your gluten intake. If you enjoy bread as much as I do, try out sourdough bread. Sourdough is a slow-rising bread which allows the yeasts in the bread to ferment while the bread rises. This breaks down a lot of the gluten and other antinutrients in the bread and makes it a much healthier alternative to regular, wheat bread.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?:
The amount of protein we need to consume on a daily basis is going to vary from person to person based on their size, muscle mass, activity level and the types of activities they are performing. It is estimated that everyone needs to consume at least .5grams per pound of body weight to meet your daily protein needs. So if you are a 200lb person this means you should consume 100 grams of protein daily, which only equates to 400 calories daily.
If you have a decent amount of muscle mass and are performing resistance training, particularly in the lower-rep range of 3-8 repetitions then I would recommend airing towards the higher side of protein consumption which is .82 grams per pound of body weight. For a 200lb person this would consist of 164 grams of protein daily or 656 calories daily. I have seen recommendations for protein intake go as high as 1 gram per pound of body weight for avid lifters, particularly if they are in a calorie deficit for fat loss, in order to minimize muscle loss. I would argue that this is rather excessive and you do not need to consume this much protein daily for any goal.
It is also important to note that carbohydrates are protein-sparing, meaning that the more carbs that you eat, the less protein that you have to consume. This is because through gluconeogenesis, whens runs out of carbs/sugar it begins to break down fat and protein as fuel, but if you consume enough carbs throughout the day to adequately supply your body then you will minimize the amount of protein breakdown. For this same reason, it is best to consume protein with carbohydrates, so as to not trigger the release of insulin which without carbohydrates will result in increased breakdown of proteins and fats.
If you're interested in getting in what we consider to be the best protein supplements on the market, make sure to check out our zuCollagen & zuBroth supplements! We purposely formulated our zuBroth & zuCollagen supplements to not contain any of the "destructive" amino acids and over 5 grams of glycine.
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading
Until next time… Be Good!
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology