Protein Pow(d)er?

Couple of weeks ago, responding to external stimuli, I conducted a few hours of superficial research on protein powders, comparing and considering the merits of rice v pea after dismissing whey & soy for personal reasons.

I’m still puzzling over protein and thought I’d share my ruminations with you, starting with a few facts about protein from The New Optimum Nutrition Bible:

  • protein is the basic material of all living cells
  • the human body contains approximately 25% protein
  • protein is made of nitrogen-containing molecules called amino acids
  • 25 different amino acids combine in various combinations to form different kinds of protein
  • the 8 essential amino acids can “create” most of the remaining 17
  • the balance of these 8 amino acids in the protein of any given food determines its quality or usability

The last 2 facts given, regarding the combinations of amino acids, are familiar to most of us, i.e., eating beans & rice to form a “complete protein.”

Originally, word was that beans and rice had to be eaten at the same meal in order to form a complete protein. Now that we know the body can combine amino acids over a period of time, the relative importance of whether a food is a complete protein (all 8 of the amino acids) or an incomplete protein starts to break down.

Many vegetable protein sources, it turns out, are just as “complete” as the traditional animal protein sources of meat, dairy & eggs. Two of my favorite veg protein sources are quinoa & chia seeds, both of which are considered “complete.” Neither of these two sources, however, have the concentrated protein punch of the brown rice protein powder at 6g per tablespoon.

But do I really need 6g of protein per tablespoon? After all, how much protein can one woman really need, even when carrying 20+ pounds on her back while striding up a 10,000′ pass, day after day after day?

WHO (the World Health Organization) estimates that most folks need to consume 4.5% of total calories from protein sources and suggests, with the realization that all proteins are not created equal (see above), that we consume 10% of our calories as protein. I may be going out on a limb, but I would speculate that since our calorie needs expand while on the trail, that increased 10% would adequately cover our protein needs.*

Reviewing my personal menu for 1-day on the JMT & discovered that I ate close to 90g of protein per day! Yikes! That seems like a lot to me, but let’s do the math using a 2-part word problem:

  1. If Jo ate 89g protein per day, and 1g protein = 4 calories, how many calories of protein did Jo eat?
  2. If Jo’s daily total caloric consumption was 2,158, what was the percentage of protein calories?

89 x 4 = 356 daily protein calories
356/2,158 = 17%

Okay, that’s a little high in protein according to WHO standards, but well within the 20% limit suggested by around by other folks, including the good Doctor Andew Weil.

A caveat is that the 20% should be mostly vegetable protein, per Mr. Jack’s query about foregoing beef jerky. Is this where the protein powder comes in?

One last 2-part math problem before I go, using the formula provided by

  1. If backpackers need to consume .5g protein per lb of body weight to maintain muscle mass and Jo weighs 125 lbs at the trail head, how many grams of protein should she be carrying per day?
  2. What would be the percentage of calories that that amount of protein would provide?

125 x .5 = 62.5g daily
62.5 x 4 = 250 calories
250/2,158 = 16%

Happy holidays!

*MORE ON THIS: If you want some absorbing reading on protein to hold you over to the next blog, delve into this WHO report.