Why you might be eating too much protein

One frequent concern I hear is “Am I eating enough protein?” Ironically, overconsumption of protein is far more common than deficiency. When I interview patients I notice that people overestimate their protein needs while, at the same time, underestimate how much protein is in their diet. Let’s look at both issues.

1)    How much protein do I need?

The American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health recommend 50-60 grams of protein for most adults, which is about 10-12% of total calories. The WHO (World Health Organization) puts protein requirements as 5% of daily calories, for a 2000 calorie diet this is about 25 grams of protein. The US government advises .36g per pound, a smidge over 1/3 your weight, so for a 180 pound adult that is 65 grams of protein.

All protein estimates, including our government’s recommendation, are calculated with lean body mass in mind. It is our muscles and our organs which need protein, any excess fat we carry does not increase our protein needs. (However excess weight that is from muscle, such as a heavily muscled athlete, does increase protein needs but that is a topic for another day.) For instance, if when you were at a healthy weight (appropriate to your height and build, neither under or overweight) of 180 pounds during your college years but gained 20 or even 50 pounds of fat since then, your protein needs remain the same.

If these protein recommendations sound low consider that in infancy we consume only breast milk, which is a mere 10% protein. Our protein needs are never higher than during this time of frenzied muscle growth,  and organ development. We can get away with lower protein than one might think because, unlike fat and carbohydrates, protein is only burned for energy as a last resort. Protein is constantly recycled, worn out proteins are reassembled by the liver to be used over and over again.

2)    Why we underestimate how much protein we eat

Protein is not only available in what we traditionally consider protein foods (animal flesh, diary, legumes, nuts/seeds), both starches and vegetables also have protein. There is even a little bit of protein in some fruits, particularly those with edible seeds such as strawberries and blackberries.

Protein grams per 100 calories: Spinach 13g, Broccoli 6.8g, steak (depending of the cut) 5-10g,, 2oz Roasted Skinless Chicken Breast 20g

Take a look at two days worth of Food Sobriety style meals (1/4 protein, ¼ starch, ½ veggies) with the protein grams (g) listed. To keep things simple I left out menu-style descriptions/condiments/herbs etc… Despite the small, by American standards, portions of protein both days easily exceed recommendations, and this is without counting snacks.

Breakfast: 2 egg omelete (14g) with 1 cup peppers (3g) and 1 cup asparagus (4g) 1 cup rice (5g)

Lunch:  3 oz turkey burger with bun (28 g) lettuce, tomato, onion (1g) and a cup of vinegar style coleslaw (1g)

Dinner: 3oz of baked chicken (28g) with 1 c. of steamed broccoli (4g) and 1c. of corn (4.5g)

Total Protein: 92.5 grams

Vegetarian version

Breakfast: 1 c. oatmeal (6g) with ½ c. strawberries (.5g), 1.5 c. of steamed peas and carrots (10g) with a ½ cup yogurt dressing/sauce (4g)

Lunch: 1 c. cooked spinach (6g), medium bowl of lentil soup (12g), 1c. rice (5g)

Dinner: 1 c. of mushrooms (3.5), 1 c. of cauliflower (3g), 1 c. beans (16g), baked potato (9g)

Total Protein: 76 grams


Our plan for weight loss: The Sober Plate Part 1

Thank you to my friend Kristy Simmons, who took my chicken scratch sketches and made them shine.

The Taoist philosophy of yin-yang is founded on the belief that darkness and light exist in a balance. Neither is good, nor bad; instead, both exist to bring out contrast in the other and to provide balance. Borrowing this philosophy for a diet design I divided food into two main categories: those that are heavy/weight promoting (proteins/starches) and those that are light/promote weight loss (non starchy vegetables). Again, neither is good or bad, it is only the relative proportion that dictates the meaning. Continuing with this reasoning I assigned the most potent weight promoting elements, the fats and sugars, to the smallest circles.

If you want to lose weight, eat accordingly, half the plate veggies, a quarter protein, a quarter starch. If you are happy with your weight you can divide the plate into three even parts and/or add fat. If you need to gain weight, well, let us just say there are a lot of options out there.

I was inspired to create this plate design from my experience with the plate method. The plate method was developed by the American Dietetic Association, as a blood sugar management tool for diabetics. I began using this diet years ago because it was so simple that I could teach it to the illiterate Latino populations that I often worked with. As I tracked patients’ diets and weight I noticed a variety of trends that correlated with both weight loss and weight gain. That information inspired me to research ways to overhaul the Plate Method to maximize weight loss.

A real life example – 1/4 plate protein (beans), 1/4 plate starch (rice, brown would be better but its hard to get in Latin America) and 1/2 plate of veggie, both stewed and as salad, lime juice dressing

Although the Plate Method is great for managing blood sugars there are several aspects of it that make weight loss difficult: 1) the lack of distinction between starchy and fibrous vegetables 2) the inclusion of generous amounts of dairy products (I count dairy as a protein or a fat, depending on the product) 3) the lack of any visual guideline on fats or sugars. Additionally the Plate Method does not discuss the degree of processing in the food, the water content, or the fiber content. I have made all these and more modifications. In the coming weeks I will post details about the diet and each of the seven categories: Proteins, starches, vegetables, fats, sugars, fruits, and beverages.

For now consider as a final thought: Our plate is both a mirror and a crystal ball, what we see on our plate reflects who we are now and who we will become in the future.



Culinary tradition versus ecology in Nicaragua

The iguanas are a startling sight, you can buy them live (their limbs tied with string) or this lady will butcher them on the spot.

Over past decade Nicaragua has slowly take some steps towards preservation of endangered species. Two of the recent government policies have conflicted with century old culinary traditions in the country; the ban on eating green iguanas and sea turtle eggs.

The iguana meat is most commonly cooked with vegetables and ground corn to make a dish called Indo Veijo (“Old Indian”). It is eaten year round but is a particularly popular during the Lent, the catholic ban on red meat during Lent drives this tradition. Since Lent occurs at the height of the Iguana’s reproductive cycle the tradition has had significant impact on iguana populations. The iguana meat is believed to have medicinal value, traditional healers here say it can improve a variety of ailments, including impotence. Turtle eggs, which look exactly like ping-pong balls, are consumed in the same way as chicken eggs, boiled, fried, or in soups. The popularity of turtle eggs is due to the ease of harvesting, for the impoverished coastal populations it’s a free food, a large basket of turtle eggs can be collected in less than an hour.

Sea turtle eggs for sale in the market in Rivas, Nicaragua

Despite the laws one still encounters the foods for sale in markets, as I did recently. In general, laws here are difficult to enforce. The police force is underfunded and many laws are interpreted unpredictably; exceptions are common for certain groups, times of year, and of course the occasional bribe works as well.

Further inquiry regarding the iguana and turtle egg laws yielded a wide array of answers. I was told by several policemen and merchants in the market that the fine for those caught selling or eating Iguanas is $5 per iguana, about 1-2 days average salary in Nicaragua. I could not get a consistent answer regarding fines on turtle eggs, some said the police will just take them, other reported you can get arrested, jailed and fined a few hundred Cordobas (a hundred Cordobas is a little over $4). Most of the enforcement of the turtle egg harvesting is done by non profit organizations (one such group: http://pasopacifico.org/). Though they have no legal authority, the presence of volunteers has, in many areas, been successful in preventing illegal egg harvests.


Health Club Time Machine

The first time I lifted weights was in 1986 in my friend Cameron’s attic. Like many teenagers at the time, Cameron improvised a gym with some weights from a garage sale, a few milk jugs, and cleverly arranged spare furniture. In that era of Rocky and Conan movies, the gym was very much of a guy thing, Cameron’s sister Maggie was not allowed to enter. A UB40 cassette and a St. Pauli Girl poster provided the atmosphere, and the talk was Redskins, girls, and who could get access to a car. We wore clothes reserved for household chores. Paint drops speckled cut-off jeans, grass stains decorated sweat pants. The environment at commercial gyms of the era was only a notch higher. They were often poorly lit; equipment was disorganized and loosely maintained.

Health Food Store, Diriamba, Nicaragua

The same could be said of 80s health food stores. They had narrow aisles, haphazard shelves, and it wasn’t uncommon to find moldy bread and off-tasting yogurt. Expired products weren’t surprising as employees were often more interested in reading their activist newsletters or planning their next road trip than in ringing up groceries or stocking shelves. In the 90s, chains such as Whole Foods and Gold’s Gym replaced the funky local places and the corporate mindset turned gyms and health food stores into hygienic, efficient, and orderly palaces.

What brought this to mind was my recent foray into the gyms of Nicaragua where fitness is still very much of a macho thing and the gyms look the part: rusty equipment, homemade barbells, peeling paint, water stains on the wall, padding fixed with duct tape, and weights strewn across the floor like underwear in a teenager’s bedroom. Half the guys don’t wear shirts, and most are in flip-flops or even barefoot.

The manager in his office/corner of the gym

In the States, gyms take themselves seriously and the rules reflect that: re-stack weights, no swearing, no sandals, no cut-off jeans, and for God’s sake don’t let a drop of sweat escape your towel! Sweat is treated like a regrettable byproduct of exercise, something to be aggressively eliminated with a disinfectant spray bottle and constant towel swabbing. In the tropics you sweat when you take a nap so the gym is a real sweat fest, no different from a basketball game or soccer match. The sights and smells remind me that this is a sport, people are grunting, sometimes even yelling at each other. It’s invigorating, I feel pumped up in this gym. In fact, everyone looks fired up, no one is here because of doctor’s recommendations or because they need the discipline or feel guilty about the muffins they ate at lunch.

Early morning at the gym/temprano en la mañana en el gimnasio

Perhaps North Americans have lost some perspective in the race to sanitize, sterilize, and gentrify the wellness movement. Why is that comfortably middle class clients often come to me with the complaint they can’t afford to be healthy? Is health now perceived as part of the good life that goes with a big salary, or at least big enough to buy $90 Lululemon yoga pants and $4 kombucha probiotic drinks? Health has been packaged and sold to us, and it’s mostly a rip-off: overpriced supplements, posh grocery stores, high fashion workout clothes and celebrity style personal trainers. And the gourmet movement, having mocked health food for decades, has come around just in time to convince everybody that they need to have fabulous kitchens and cook like Martha Stewart or their kids will get diabetes.

My cohorts in the throwback Nicaraguan gym make a convincing case that health is a blessing available to all of us. Not only are they well lubricated with salt water but they have no money, live on Gallo Pinto (the Nicaraguan national dish – rice and beans, served with a side of vinegar soaked cabbage), and yet have muscles that would make Stallone and Schwarzenegger proud.


Make a pizza in 5 minutes!

pictured with a slice of baked pumpkin, add a side salad or soup & you have quite a significant meal for minimal calories

 I often use Trader Joe’s whole wheat pre-made pizza dough (you can use a wine bottle to roll it out) on this day I happen to have a slightly less glamorous option handy: Giant brand pre-made 12″ thin crust pizza shells. I pre-heated the oven to 475, then I spread out a thick layer of pasta sauce (1.5 cups). Over the sauce I layered thinly sliced veggies: red onion, 2 green peppers, and a stalk of green onions.

Then I added added a generous amount – 1.5 cups of non-fat shredded mozzarella cheese. I like using the pizza dish with holes in it (pictured below) as it gives the crust a bit more varied texture: slightly crispy to slightly chewy.

Some other ideas, if you have time, that turn this into an almost gourmet pizza is to saute the vegetables for 5 minutes (w/ tomatoes or the pasta sauce) before putting them on the pizza, mixing in herbs into the pasta sauce (basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary), and putting a dash of red wine into the pasta sauce.

A realistic serving is 2 large slices (1/6 of the entire pizza) & contains: Calories 295 Fat 1 gram, Carbohydrate 52 grams, Protein 20 grams

By contrast, 2 slices of a typical cheese and veggie pizza would yield over 500 calories, over 15 grams of fat, while the carbohydrates and protein are about the same.

This pizza cost $3-4 in ingredients.