Let’s begin with some science which should help you understand how to start making good healthy decisions. The first thing you have to think of when you are deciding what to eat is the letter P.
The letter “P” stands for Protein but also refers to two other things: Preferences and Portion size.
Our bodies are predominantly made of protein. It’s what holds you together. Your muscles, bones, skin, etc. are composed predominantly of protein. In addition to being the composition of your muscles and bones, proteins are the basic structure of most of your hormones like insulin. It’s the structure of your body. The major circulating protein in your body is albumin and it’s unique to each of us.
Proteins are usually very long molecules which are made up of strings of very essential chemicals called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids but they all have a similar characteristic in that they contain nitrogen at one end. This is what gives them their strength. Nine of the 20 amino acids are considered “essential” in that we cannot create them and therefore must ingest them in our diet. This is a very important reason why protein in the right amount and structure must be consumed on a regular basis.
Proteins are basically long strands of amino acids of varying lengths. Interestingly, they are unique to each and every one of us. We all make slightly different proteins. This is because most of our individual DNA strands are concerned with the production of protein. Since each of us has a different DNA, each one of us has different and unique protein characteristics.
Where do we get protein? What foods contain protein? We get protein from eating the tissue of other living things! Therefore, to get protein, we have to eat the structure of other living things like meat, dairy products, grains and nuts. When we eat protein it is not absorbed as protein, but it is first broken down into its component amino acids. It’s the amino acids that are ultimately absorbed. Therefore no matter how much protein you eat, your body must construct your proteins from scratch. Most of our circulating protein formation occurs in our livers. This is why patients with liver disease have low levels of proteins even if they eat adequate amounts.
Unfortunately, most protein sources are also fat sources and the fat they contain is often the worst kind: saturated fat. If you eat too much protein, you will therefore consume too much fat. Some of the low-carbohydrate diets actually promote too much protein intake and, along with that, too much fat. Although we are not focusing on measuring our fat grams in the PVC Diet, we are controlling our protein intake which will automatically control a major portion of our fat intake.
How much protein should a person eat in a day?
There is a formula for this based on your ideal body weight. Dietitians are very scientific about how much protein you need. They will tell you that you should eat 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of ideal body weight. How much is that? We already calculated our ideal weight in the last chapter (see Learn the Basics), but we calculated it in pounds. We first have to convert this to kilograms (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds). To make this conversion, take your ideal body weight in pounds and divide by 2.2, then multiply by 0.8.
Here’s the formula: (Ideal Body Weight in pounds/2.2) × 0.8
Let’s apply this formula to two real-life examples keeping in mind that each ounce of protein contains 8 grams of protein:
Female – 5 ft. 6in.
- Ideal body weight = 130 pounds
- 130 lbs. divided by 2.2 pounds = 59 kilograms
- 0.8 × 59 = 47.2 grams of protein
- 47.2 grams ÷ 8 grams of protein per ounce of protein = she needs 5.9 ounces of meat each day
Male – 5 ft. 10in.
- Ideal body weight is 166 pounds
- 166 lbs. divided by 2.2 pounds = 75 kilograms
- 0.8 × 75 = 60 grams of protein
- 60 grams ÷ 8 grams of protein per ounce of protein = he needs 7.5 ounces of meat each day
I don’t see too many people only ordering a 5 oz. piece of meat. Many people will eat a piece of meat that size or larger at both lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, they are eating excess fat in the process.
This brings up the next “P” we need to discuss, portion.
Despite what most people think, the typical American diet includes more than enough protein. In fact, most Americans are so concerned with getting enough protein that they eat far too much of it. Why is this a problem? Well, your body is pretty smart. It can convert protein into sugar by using a process called gluconeogenesis. If you eat more protein than your body needs, that protein-turned-sugar is eventually converted into fat. So contrary to what some other diets tell you, calories from protein are not free calories.
Calories from protein are not “free calories,” only eat as much as you are supposed to eat.
In addition to the excess calories, eating too much protein can be harmful to your body. Excess protein intake places unnecessary stress on your kidneys and can injure them.
How much should you eat? We now know how many grams you need, but I would prefer to not get into counting protein grams. Who can do that every meal, every day? Fortunately, you have a very simple measuring device right in your hand—your palm! Another “P” to remember.
The total amount of protein you should consume every day is about the size and thickness of one of your palms.
This amount is really quite close to what you would come up with if you used a scientific calculation of grams based upon ideal body weight. The taller you are, the larger your palm. Your palm doesn’t get any bigger if you’re overweight though, so it’s a natural, convenient and easy measuring tool!
Let’s go through an exercise that will make this clearer.
This is a picture of a typical piece of beef that you would purchase in the butcher section of your grocery store. It’s also the size you would be served for a meal at most steak restaurants. It weighed 14.4 ounces. Look at all the fat in it! You can actually see it marbled in. There is much more fat in it which you can’t see, though. How much of this piece of meat should you eat? Which parts of it should you cut away? The answer is in the palm of your hand.
Here is another example using chicken. You can see immediately that it contains less fat. Not no fat, just less fat. This piece weighs 6.9 ounces. It’s half the size of the beef. How much of this piece of meat should we eat? I’ve seen many restaurants which would serve this entire piece as a meal. Not uncommon to see someone eat a half chicken for a meal.
First we have to take out our handy measuring tool, our palm. Even though some would be inclined to eat the entire piece, you really need only a small portion of it. We’re going to focus on a piece of each meat source the size of the blue circles. How much does that weigh? How much protein does it contain?
Let’s cut ourselves a palm-sized piece of each of these pieces of meat for each of our two examples and see how the calculations work out.
- Starting size = 14.4 oz.
- Male palm-sized piece = 6 oz. or 48 gm. of protein
- Female palm-sized piece = 3.5 oz. or 30 gm. protein
- Starting size = 6.9 oz.
- Male palm-sized piece = 4.3 oz. or 36 gm. protein
- Female palm-sized piece = 3.1 oz. or 25 gm. protein
So a little over the size of your palm is the amount you need for the entire day. Think about the amount of protein you currently eat—you probably eat a palm-sized portion or more at both lunch and dinner. Focus on eating one palm-sized piece of protein per day. Of course, most of us will eat more than this since there is protein in other food we eat and we probably split this up between two or more meals per day, which is fine, but be conscious of the total portion for the entire day.
There are many protein sources and the amount of protein we get out of our food depends on our choice (or preference) of protein. If we eat a protein source that has a lot of fat, then we will eat more fat. If we choose more lean protein sources, our fat intake will decrease. Just overloading on protein isn’t the answer though, too much can be a bad thing. Let’s go into more detail on this.
Few foods exist as pure sources of protein; they also contain fat and carbohydrate. You must choose wisely.
This brings up the next important component of the P: Preferences. Many factors play a role in the choice for the perfect protein source. The protein source we choose determines not only how much protein we eat, but also how much fat and carbohydrate we take in. Which proteins should we choose? Unfortunately, there are very few protein sources that are not also fat sources or carbohydrate sources. Your choice of protein is therefore very important. Remember, we are not going to count fat grams. Your fat intake will be controlled through the type of protein you consume.
The following graph lists various protein sources with their relative amounts (grams) of protein per ounce.
Our food selection would be easy if we could just focus on protein content, then we could choose from milk to the various types of meat with no other concern. Many people on low-carbohydrate diets follow this path. This is not always the healthiest process though.
Unfortunately, each of our protein sources is also a fat source. Take a look at this graph which compares the protein sources with their various fat contents as well.
As you can see, the amount of fat in protein sources can vary from less than 1 percent to over 50 percent. Therefore, it is important to look at not only the amount of protein but also the amount of fat. The best way to look at this is to focus on the ratio of protein-to-fat in these foods to see which ones are actually the best for you. Your goal should be to eat the ones that give you the most protein and the least fat.
If we are only focusing on the ratio of protein to fat, the best source of protein would be the grains followed by white-meat chicken followed by beans. Most meat, dairy and nut choices have too much fat. You might be asking “what about fish and nuts?” Looking at the graph above, one might think fish and nuts are a poor protein choice due to their ratio of protein to fat. However, not all fat is bad for you. Some fats can actually good for you. Seafood is actually better than this table implies because the fat that is stored in fish is very good for you. Nuts have fat that is actually healthy. We will talk about this in the chapter Good Fats vs. Bad Fats.
If grains are on one end of the spectrum, cheese is on the other. Per ounce, cheese has more fat than protein and much of it is saturated fat. You can see that cheese is not your best source of protein. Nuts are at the bottom of the table for percentage of fat, but as I said above, they are healthier than cheese since the fat they have is mostly mono-unsaturated. You really cannot make cholesterol out of this kind of fat, but keep in mind it’s still fat though as far as calories are concerned.
Almost there, we need to consider carbohydrate content.
While just choosing low-fat protein options seems like the right strategy, we have to keep in mind that some low-fat protein sources also contain carbohydrates, which can seriously add to your caloric intake. An example is the grains which may be low in fat, but also contain 16 grams of carbohydrate per ounce. This makes using grains as a primary source of protein more difficult unless you are very physically active and can burn up that carbohydrate load (see the chapter Why Some Vegetarians are Doughy).
Unless you are extremely physically active, you have to limit your intake of other carbohydrates when your major protein sources are from grains or beans.
The following table lists carbohydrate content to the previous list of protein sources.
So you see, the selection of our most healthy protein source is not a simple one. It takes some thought about protein content, fat content and carbohydrate content.
A very interesting view is all three of the components together:
Let’s look further at our protein sources.
Meat and Eggs
Meat and eggs are predominantly protein plus fat with almost no carbohydrates. Very lean meats (white-meat chicken and white-meat turkey) are terrific protein sources with the highest ratio of protein to fat. These are 75–95 percent protein. Whole eggs are about 50 percent protein and 50 percent fat, yet egg whites are virtually 100 percent protein. The fat in egg yolks is not really unhealthy as it contains high Omega-3s (see the chapter Good Fats vs. Bad Fats).
Fish and fowl are truly your best choices for protein. That’s not to say you can’t have a steak or a pork chop every now and then; they just shouldn’t be the mainstay of your diet. Why do we choose these protein sources? Just think about it: a bird isn’t going to get off the ground if it’s too fat and a fish can’t swim if it’s too fat, but a pig or a cow can get very fat and still exist. When we eat these animals, we eat their fat along with their protein. In fact, marbling of fat is built into beef so that it tastes better. This is also why even white-meat pork is not as healthy as white fowl meat.
If you choose beef, you may be asking if grass-fed is better for you than corn-fed. Grass-fed beef has less fat overall (one-third to one-half less), and higher levels of beneficial Omega-3 fats. Additionally, there are higher levels of Vitamins A and E in grass-fed beef and the cows are less likely to have been given growth hormones or antibiotics. So, while grass-fed beef is better than corn-fed, white-meat fowl and wild-caught fish are still the healthiest choice of animal protein and fat.
Fish and Shellfish
Fish are interesting. Wild freshwater fish that live in the cold waters build a layer of fat on their bodies to insulate them from the cold. Since these fish are predominantly vegetarian (and not corn-fed), their fat is high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids promote circulation and are good for you to eat.
Shellfish and non-oily fish (flounder, haddock) are similar to lean, white-meat fowl with 75-95 percent protein content. Oily fish (salmon, swordfish) are about 50 percent protein and 50 percent fat but they are great protein choices because they contain the healthiest type of fat. I don’t worry about the fat I eat from wild-caught cold-water fish like salmon and swordfish. Those little ones like sardines and anchovies are even better since they are herbivores (vegetarians) and are great sources of Omega-3s. We’ll talk more about Omega-3s and the difference between farm-raised and wild-caught fish in the chapter Good Fats vs. Bad Fats.
Dairy products are good sources of protein, but they contain fat and carbohydrate as well. Whole milk is the basis of all dairy products, containing about 50 percent animal fat, 30 percent carbohydrate and only 20 percent protein. The carbohydrate portion is predominantly “milk sugar” or lactose. Low-fat dairy products are made by removing the fat so the percentage of protein and carbohydrates increase. For cheese, the whey, which contains mostly carbohydrates, is removed, leaving about 25 percent protein and 75 percent fat.
There are many alternatives to choose from if you don’t drink cow’s milk: soy, almond, rice and oat are the primary types. Let’s look at their differences to help you decide which is best for you:
Soy milk is most comparable to cow’s milk in protein and the highest in protein of all the non-dairy alternatives.
Almond milk is lower in calories and sugar, and contains the same heart healthy monounsaturated fats found in olive oil.
Rice milk is the lowest in protein and tends to be higher in sugars and calories, yet it is non-allergenic.
Oat milk provides moderate protein and fiber, yet is also high in sugar and calories.
Beans are mostly carbohydrate with some protein. They are an important source of protein for vegetarians. If you’re using beans as a significant protein source, you’ll want to significantly limit other starchy foods like breads, cereal, pasta or rice. You also will need to be very physically active to burn up the carbohydrate load.
Nuts are another important protein source for those who avoid animal product. Unfortunately, they are, on average, 75 percent fat with 15 percent carbohydrate (starch and fiber) and 10 percent protein. The fat they contain is mostly mono-unsaturated, but proportionately, nuts are still very high in fat. Nuts are a good source of healthy fat, but should only be consumed in small amounts.
Tofu is a great protein source for those who do not want to depend so heavily on meat. It is made from curdling soymilk and has a consistency like soft cheese but nutritionally is very different. Tofu contains all the amino acids and is therefore considered a complete protein source. It has twice as much protein as fat. In addition to being a good protein source, it is useful as a source of plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) which is good for both women as well as men since weak estrogens decrease the incidence of cancers of the breast and prostate. Tofu comes in many different forms and consistencies and can be incorporated into many recipes in delicious ways.
Grains like wheat, corn, barley and rye are a mainstay of all diets as they are good sources of protein and are low in fat. The main issue with grains is that they contain a large amount of carbohydrate which limits their use as the main protein source unless you are very physically active. A person who exercises heavily every day or who works a physical job can use grains as their main source of protein. Most of us do not have that luxury. They are also one of our largest sources of Omega-6s and can promote inflammation. See the chapter Good Fats vs. Bad Fats for more details.
Vegetables are a great source of vitamins and minerals, but they are not a good source of protein. They do not contain enough protein by themselves to be considered a good source of high-quality protein. Vegetable protein is considered to be incomplete, which means if you eat a diet based in vegetables you are probably not getting all of the essential amino acids your body needs to function.
Putting it all together
As you can see, your choice of protein will determine not only how much protein you get, but also how much fat and carbohydrate. Therefore, your choice of protein is key to not only weight control, but also cardiovascular health. Although none of the protein sources are forbidden, the main ones that are consumed should be near the top of the list above.
We have taken all of these issues into consideration and have created a “PVC Protein Rating,” which is based on the ratio of the difference between the protein content against the fat and carbohydrate content. We also added in a factor for the type of fat that the protein source contains (saturated, monounsaturated, etc.).
Grams of Protein
Grams of Fat + Grams of Carbohydrates
Our final rating is shown in the table below.
Only eat protein from animals that flew or swam when they were alive.
The bottom line is to stick with fish and fowl as your protein sources. You will get the healthiest form of protein. An exception to this would be grains. This is only if you’re extremely physically active, like if you are training for a triathlon. Then the grains are a very useful source of protein as you will likely burn up the carbohydrate they contain.
For the vegetarians tofu represents a major protein source. It provides twice the protein as fat and is low in carbohydrate. Always stick with low-fat tofu, though.
That’s it for Protein. Now it’s on to “V” for Vegetables.