by Jenny Maxwell
Since I received my degree in Nutrition and Food Science more than 35 years ago, I’ve seen a lot of dietary fads come and go. During the PowerBar years, the low-carb, high-protein Zone and Atkins diets were all the rage. Now, it’s hard to talk about food without encountering someone singing the praises of the latest high-protein diet - the Keto diet. If protein is good, is more protein better? In this post, I’ll break down what protein is, the important role it plays, different types of protein found in food and energy bars, and how to determine a healthy amount for your diet (spoiler alert: more is not necessarily better!).
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Protein is an essential macronutrient found in muscle, bone, skin, hair and almost every other body part and tissue. It is one of the three macronutrients found in food (along with carbohydrates and fats) that the body needs every day to stay healthy, and is critical for cellular growth and repair. The body requires protein to build lean muscle tissue by repairing and replenishing muscle fibers when we work out. The body also needs protein for overall healthy metabolic function, hormone and enzyme development, hair and bone growth, wound healing, and more.
TYPES OF PROTEIN
When thinking about protein, it’s not just quantity that matters, but also quality. Generally, animal proteins (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) provide all the essential amino acids in the right ratio for you to make full use of them. This makes sense, as animal tissues are similar to our own. Usually, if protein is from an animal source it will be low in fiber. Fiber found in grains, veggies and fruits are important for clearing waste products and toxins out of your body.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, getting all the protein and essential amino acids your body needs can be more challenging. But as long as you eat a daily variety of plant-based proteins (nuts, quinoa, beans and legumes, hemp seeds, tofu, etc.), this shouldn’t pose a problem. Some plant sources such as soy provide all essential amino acids, as do some grains such as quinoa, and the sunflower protein we use in JAMBARs.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WE NEED?
Few nutrients are as important as protein, and not getting enough will affect your health, recovery time from stress, and overall body composition. The exact amount of protein you need depends on variables including your activity level, age, muscle mass and overall health. A healthy diet range for protein intake is between 12-20% of your total calories. A simple way to calculate your recommended daily protein intake is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. For a 50-year-old woman who weighs 140 pounds, that translates to 54 grams of protein a day as a bare minimum. I prefer to use a range of 0.8-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So for a 150 (68 KG)-pound person, the range would be between 55 to 136 grams. The bare minimum is what one needs to stay in positive nitrogen balance, not necessarily the amount required for optimal health.
Here is a quick list of approximate protein amounts in various foods:
- 12 grams in a half-cup of lentils combined with a grain for complete amino acids
- 10 grams in 1 cup of dairy milk or yogurt
- 10 grams per 4 ounces of tofu
- 8 grams in 1 cup of quinoa
- 8 grams in 2 T of peanut butter
- 7 grams/ounce in beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, fish (typical serving is 4-6 ounces, which equals 28-42 grams)
- 6 grams in 1 egg
- 3 grams per slice of whole grain bread
- 3 grams in a cup of broccoli
High protein diets, especially high protein and fat and low carb (Keto), have been touted as a way to lose weight and keep it off. Eating very minimal carbohydrates and depleting glycogen stores does reduce body weight through loss of water, but a low carb diet can also cause mood swings and feelings of fatigue. Overall, it is not a healthy choice for most people wanting to have a sustainable method of eating that is enjoyable and promotes general health. Many people find exercising with low glycogen stores unpleasant. That said, there are other issues with consuming large amounts of protein at the expense of not eating other foods. When you consume a large amount of your daily calories via protein (in excess of 150-200 grams/day), you need to look at what you are sacrificing and possibly omitting from your diet like fiber, vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits, and important compounds such as phytochemicals and anthocyanins, which have been shown to be preventative for certain cancers. Also, high protein animal foods are also typically high in saturated fats.
Throughout my life, my caloric needs have changed. When I was running competitively, I required more calories per day, so overall I was eating more protein, carbs and fat. Getting enough protein was fairly easy since I consumed closer to 3,000 calories a day. While I still run nearly every day, the intensity of my workouts has decreased, so my overall caloric intake has gone down to around 2,200 calories a day. I try to consume the higher end of the range of 12-18% protein in my overall diet, so approximately 80 grams a day.
DECIDING ON THE BEST PROTEINS FOR JAMBAR
When formulating JAMBAR in my kitchen, I wanted to make sure I had both animal and plant protein options to provide alternatives for consumers. I was familiar with protein from milk (whey protein), but had to try more than a dozen plant-based options before deciding on sunflower protein. I selected this premium, plant-based protein because of its high nutritional quality and clean taste.
Each JAMBAR has 10 grams or more of protein and is a good source of fiber. At least 18% of the calories in JAMBARs come from protein, which is what leading health professionals and nutritionists recommend for an overall healthy diet. Combined with whole grains, nutrient-dense ingredients and low-glycemic sweeteners, JAMBARs are a good source of protein and provide whole-food nutrition on the go.
The sources of protein in JAMBARs include:
- Organic Whey Protein - a complete, high quality protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. It is very digestible and quickly absorbed from your gut.
- Organic Sunflower Protein - a complete, highly nutritious vegan protein option. Helps manage a healthy weight, supports muscle growth, improves skin, and reduces the risk of heart disease.
- Organic Quinoa - a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own.
- Organic Peanut Butter - an energy-dense, plant-based protein source that contains all 20 amino acids, including arginine, which is important for heart health. It's low on the glycemic index scale, so it won't spike your blood sugar level.
THE RIGHT PROTEIN MIX
When deciding on what types of protein to eat, it’s important to think about what you enjoy eating. I eat a combination of plant and animal protein sources because I like variety in my diet. I have never really liked eating meat, but I do enjoy fish, eggs and dairy. I focus on whole grains, legumes, soy, dairy, nuts and seeds, eggs, beans and rice, and some fish. One of my favorite meals is a salad full of a variety of greens and other veggies, topped with different protein sources. Or a pasta dish or stir fry with veggies and a protein source. And of course, on most days I eat one or two JAMBARs, which help me reach my goal of about 80 grams of protein a day.
I try to eat a good amount of protein (20-30 grams) at each meal. The satiating effects of protein are a great way to control hunger and weight gain, and provide a feeling of being nourished.
My philosophy is that eating should be a joy we share, not a contest of wills and restrictions. I’m wary of any diet that associates being more restrictive with somehow being more virtuous, and much prefer a realistic, sustainable diet that includes a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fats and protein.