Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Nutrition Debate #130: How Much Protein Should You Eat?

If you’re considering a Very Low Carb (VLC) diet program to lose weight, if you’re to succeed, you will need to get “into the weeds” a little. So, first, a few definitions:  Very Low Carb is usually defined as 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrate a day. Low Carb is frequently defined as 50 to 100 grams a day or 20 to 30 grams per meal. Low Carb is not what I am doing. This post is for serious Very Low Carbers who want to lose serious weight and do it in a healthy way and without hunger.

If you decide you want to try eating this way, you will also need to accept that it is also a limited-calorie diet program. If you haven’t tried this before, that’s not going to be as difficult as it sounds because you won’t mind eating less if you aren’t hungry between meals. And you will not be hungry between meals, I promise. In fact, after a few days you will stop thinking about food. You will not be interested in eating snacks, and you will forget it’s time to eat lunch. Really.

So, after deciding to eat VLC, the next thing you need to decide is how much protein should you eat? The answer is: it depends. It is different for everyone because it depends on your weight (not your current weight but your ideal “lean body weight”), your muscular development, your age, your exercise regimen, and your general level of activity. These are some of the variables, but there is also a constant: your basic need for protein for countless bodily activities. Protein’s component amino acids are necessary and even essential for life. Everybody needs to eat protein. In fact everybody needs to eat a variety of protein (with fat) to get “essential” amino acids that the body cannot make itself.

The easiest way to get all 22 amino acids, including all the essential ones, is to eat a variety of animal proteins. That isn’t the only way, but the main reason it is easier is the amount of protein that is needed at each meal. I have been successful following the advice of Richard K. Bernstein, MD, himself a life-long type 1 diabetic and author of “Diabetes Solution .” He is a pioneer in “eating-to-the-meter” – in fact, he could fairly be described as THE pioneer.

Dr. Bernstein advises his readers to eat equal portions of protein in three small meals every day that are equally spaced about five hours apart. That allows the protein, which digests more slowly than carbohydrates or fat, to be absorbed and circulate (as amino acids) in the blood for 4 to 5 hours to replenish the cells and repair muscle tissue. That also allows a 14 hour fast between dinner and breakfast during which ketogenesis occurs, if there is no glycogen in storage in the liver (from eating carbohydrates). This means you will burn body fat during the night to supply your basal metabolic energy needs. So, to lose weight while you sleep, don’t eat too many carbs, or too much protein, at dinner.

How much protein should you eat at each meal? One widely used rule of thumb is 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of “lean body weight.” You are not eating protein to feed your fat; the protein you eat is related to your lean body mass, that is, your body as configured with only the minimum amount of fat needed to cushion the body and supply energy stores. To most of us who have been overweight for as long as we can remember, this will look like an unattainable, even unimaginable ideal. Nevertheless, “lean body weight” is the measure you should use for protein calculations.

Converted to U.S. units, 1.1 grams per kilo is 0.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight. Now you have to pick your lean body weight. When I lost my first 60 pounds, I didn’t know about counting protein so I didn’t. When I started the Bernstein diet program (for diabetics), and lost 100 pounds in 50 weeks, my weight was 325 pounds (148kg.) So I fudged the number. Instead of “lean body weight,” which I thought was ridiculous, I substituted a still unrealistic “ideal” weight of 180 pounds. That worked out to 90 grams of protein a day, divided into 3 equal meals of 30 each.

More recently, after I lost that 100 pounds, the unimaginable became almost attainable. So, I changed my idea of “ideal” body weight to be what would be for me, I’m sure, truly an unattainable “lean body weight” of 150 pounds. That is in the middle of the “normal” weight range in the BMI table for a person 5’-11” tall. Based on this truly skeletal lean body weight, my protein intake should be 75 grams a day, divided into 3 equal meals of 25 grams each. So that’s what I use. 

My regular breakfast (2 fried eggs, 2 strips of bacon, coffee with ghee) is 20 grams, and my regular lunch (a can of sardines in olive oil) is 15 grams. That leaves 40 grams to splurge on dinner. And if I eat that many grams of protein at dinner, I better remember to take my Metformin to suppress the gluconeogenesis! Or just eat 20 grams of protein with dinner. That’s 55g total, which is still 10% more than the 50g/day recommended in the HHS/USDA Nutrition Fact panel.

How many grams of protein do you have for breakfast?


  1. How do you measure protein? A piece of
    meat or your eggs are not all protein.
    I've never been able to figure this out.
    Must be you have an answer.

    1. Good question, Frank, and my editor tried to pursuade me to give examples such as you suggest. I demurred. Dr. Bernstein also saw the problem as you see it, and he tried to give examples using a rule of thumb for ounces of protein food. In my opinion, his method was confusing and inaccurate, so I never followed that advice either.

      The bottom line is, as I suggest in my 1st sentence, you will need to get down "into the weeds" a bit until you learn how much protein is in the foods you eat. I have learned, for example, that one large egg has 6g of protein, and 1 strip of bacon 3g. So, my breakfast now (starting today)of 3 fried eggs and 1 strip of bacon is 21g. )The ghee I put in my coffee has 0g of protein and 0g of carbs.), so the total is 21g which I round to 20.

      I've been doing this for 11 years. I eat the same breakfast and the same lunch every day, so once I have learned how much of each macronutrient they have in them, I know what I have to do for dinner. I just eat a small portion of meat (1 roast chicken thigh, or 2 lamb chops) plus a non-strachy vegetable bathed in butter or roasted in olive oil.

      But when you are starting out in VLC, you will should use a program like Fit Day or another, and the fabulous USDA database (which is easy to use and downloadable) until you learn. Of course, you also need to eat to the meter if you are a type 2 diabetic or prediabetic, or even if you want to be sure you are eating VLC to lose weight. You'd be surprised how many carbs are hidden, and if you eat too much protein, how many of them will convert to glucose in the liver (through gluconeogenesis) if you don't take Metformin.

    2. Frank: Alert!

      My editor mus work for the NSA. The minute I posted my comment above to you, I checked my email and she wrote: "I just learnded you can do a Google search for protein, etc." I tried it, and it works perfectly.

      Just type "egg protein" or "cherries carbohydrates" and the result comes up first! (after advertisements), and is expanded on the right side of the screen. And the source is the USDA, so it is the gold standard as I mentioned. How fabulous!

  2. Thanks so very much. I can see I've got to
    dig deeper. Your editor deserves a gold star.
    Wouldn't you know. Google beats the USDA for
    quick info.

    I've been doing this way of eating for a year
    and a half with great results but not with the
    exactness I see I should have been applying.
    I have just followed the idea of knowingly
    eating NO carbohydrates hoping the vegetable
    slippage was thus kept within reason. After
    a few Google trial runs I see I have to tighten
    up my "reasoning."

    Thanks again. Great!

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