The Importance of Protein
The nutrition world has as many opinions as politics! I’ve been in the field of nutrition for close to thirty years. Over these years I’ve watched as people polarize into their “diet” and try to convince everyone that theirs is the “one.” If I’ve learned anything, it’s that “no one size fits all” when it comes to diet.
This becomes even more obvious when we get into the field of cancer. What type of cancer do you have? What is your age? What was your weight when you were diagnosed? What treatment are you on? What is your digestion like? What is your appetite like? I could go on and on with questions like this.
I like to pull back and instead of a specific diet, I like to look at what the needs of the human body are, then we decide what our unique body needs and how to support it during this challenging time.
What Exactly is Protein?
The word protein means “of first importance”, derived from the Greek language. Protein is the central substance that makes life possible on earth. Proteins and the amino acids from which they are made are very complicated substances.
There are 22 amino acids that protein is made from, often called our building blocks. When protein is consumed, the body breaks it down into these amino acids so they can be utilized efficiently.
These 22 amino acids are called essential or nonessential. This does not mean that the nonessential is not necessary, it just means the nonessential amino acids can be made when the essential amino acids are present in the diet.
Whenever the body makes a protein, when it builds muscle for an example, it needs a variety of amino acids for the protein-making process. These amino acids may come from food, or they may come from the body’s own store of amino acids. If a shortage of amino acids becomes chronic, such as in muscle wasting, the building of protein stops, and the body suffers.
Complete proteins that contain all the essential amino acids are found in meat, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, and milk. Incomplete proteins contain only some of the amino acids. These proteins are found in foods including grains, legumes, and vegetables. Fortunately, the body has wisdom, and if we combine complementary proteins, such as rice and beans, the body can assemble the proteins to make it a whole chain.
What Does Protein Do In The Body?
Your body needs protein for it to work properly. More than 10,000 types are found in everything from your organs to your muscles and tissues to your bones, skin, and hair.
Protein is also a critical part of the processes that fuel your energy and carry oxygen throughout your body in your blood. It helps make antibodies that fight off infections and illnesses and helps keep your cells healthy and it’s necessary to make new ones.
The proteins used to build our body are built using the DNA template. The DNA is used to build RNA which then builds protein. One RNA molecule can manufacture 20 amino acids per second! So you can see how a deficiency of amino acids in the diet can impair the process of protein manufacturing.
What Inhibits Your Ability to Use Protein?
Even if we eat plenty of protein, there is no guarantee that we actually can utilize it. Protein has to be broken down in the stomach, and those amino acids have to be “split” apart to be reassembled later in the digestive process.
One of the biggest hindrances of protein utilization is the use of antacids. We must have sufficient stomach acid to break apart the protein. Antacids cause the opposite, they reduce stomach acid.
Secondly, the functioning of the digestive tract may be impaired by inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, allergy, or other disease processes. Finally, aging and poor nutrient intake can result in decreased production of the hydrochloric acid and enzymes necessary for proper breakdown and assimilation of protein.
In addition to poor digestion, some foods such as soybeans and other legumes, contain digestive inhibitors as a defense mechanism to prevent them from being eaten off the face of the earth. These foods can inhibit the digestion of both carbohydrates and protein.
Finally, cooking protein foods can cause poor digestion of protein, altering both the digestibility and causing damage from the heat. The most striking study ever done on protein was done by Dr. Price Pottenger. His research studied more than 900 cats over a period of 10 years. His findings conclude that only diets consisting of raw milk and raw meat produced optimal health: gentle dispositions, sound bone structure and density, wide palates that were able to accommodate teeth, a lack of parasites and disease, shiny fur, and the absence of reproductive disorders. You can learn more here https://price-pottenger.org
Now that doesn’t mean as humans we go around eating raw meat (even though raw milk is a protein-rich food), but how we cook our meat protein is very important. We know that grilling and blackening meat proteins are cancer-producing, so avoiding that type of cooking is essential. The best approach is slow cooking such as crock-pots, steaming, and poaching to keep the protein intact.
How Much is Enough?
This is a very controversial topic! Not only do we have many folks claiming meat causes cancer, but we have others saying protein itself causes cancer regardless of the source.
I’m not going off on that subject, because you get to decide your protein sources, I just want to make sure you are getting enough.
With that being said, estimates show that patients undergoing conventional cancer therapy may require as much as 50 percent more protein than usual, or in excess of 80 grams a day. Cancer patients need all essential amino acids for optimal functioning of the immune system, prevention, and reversal of cachexia, manufacturing of DNA, and regulation of gene expression.
According to the RDA, .08 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is the measurement for determining our protein needs. It’s important to note, however, that this is a minimum requirement, not optimal. These numbers were based on a “reference” man of 70 kilograms (154 lbs) and a “reference” woman at 57 kilograms (125lbs). Do you know many men and women weighing in at those weights??? The CDC says the average man weighs 195 lbs and the average woman weighs 166 lbs. That is a big difference from the “reference” folks! With those weights, the average man would need 71 grams of protein and the woman 60 grams daily.
If the research is correct, that a cancer patient needs 50 percent more protein, then those numbers quickly jump to 106 grams and 90 grams of protein daily.
When just one of the twenty amino acids is not present, the body will break down protein-rich tissues like bone and muscle to access them. Some experts believe this happens within a few hours of amino acid depletion.
You Are Unique
Each of us is uniquely made, from our genes to our skin color, hair, height, eyes, and body type. One size does not fit all of us! I believe the body has wisdom and can “speak to us” about its needs.
I want to use my husband as an example. He is very lean naturally, small-boned and 5’9” (in his prime) and his weight was 160lbs when he was diagnosed with cancer. After two years of surgeries, full-body radiation, and chemotherapy, he was down to 140lbs. He was not digesting well, had low energy, muscle wasting, and not much of an appetite. When he had completed his therapy we met with a clinical nutritionist. His first suggestion was digestive enzymes (so he could break down the protein), 80 grams of protein a day in the form of a pre-digested protein formula (we made smoothies), organic chicken, turkey, and fish. Within six weeks we saw a remarkable building of lean body mass, immune function, digestion restored, appetite returned and cognitive function improved. During that time he also had him on immune restorative supplements such as B-vitamins, Vitamin C, minerals like zinc, magnesium and trace minerals.
Since that time over thirty-five years ago, he’s identified himself as a “protein” type. He requires more protein than I do to keep his body mass, bone mass, and weight up. He is healthy and strong at 77 years old.
I, on the other hand, have found that I’m a “mixed-type”, moderate amounts of protein with each meal, complex carbs, and healthy fats keep my body at an ideal weight.
I encourage you to increase your protein during your cancer treatments and especially during your recovery. Every cell in your body will thank you!
The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, Winters, Nasha, ND, L.Ac., FABNO, Kelley, Jess Higgins, MNT, Green Publishing, May 2017, pgs. 40-43, 45
The Sacred Cow, Rodgers, Diana RD, Wolf, Robb, BenBella Books, 2020, Pg 33
Deep Nutrition, Shanahan, Catherine, M.D. with Luke Shanahan, Flat Iron Books, 2016, Pgs. 245-246
Benefits of Protein, https://www.webmd.com/diet/benefits-protein#1
Why Protein is Amazing,, McAffe, Jim, CCN, Image Awareness Institute, May 2013
About the Author: Chris McKee
Chris McKee is a Certified Nutritionist and Certified Diet Counselor with over 30 years of experience in whole-food cooking, healthy lifestyle coaching, individual nutritional counseling and speaking to 1,000’s of people about the role of good nutrition in preventing disease.
Chris is also a Certified Nutragenomix practitioner and this allows her to look deep into your genetic profile and personalize your nutrition program based on your unique genetic fingerprint.
She runs on-line courses including her 10 Day Clean Eating Challenge, 21 Days Prepping for the Keto Diet as well as her Hope 4 Cancer Recovery program.
Chris and her husband Ed love to travel, hence the name “The Nomadic Nutritionist”. She is a grandmother of four and a great-grandma of two! She loves to cook, explore new food finds, hike and fish.
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