Protein and healthy fats are extremely important when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet. You’ve probably heard the phrase food is fuel more than once, and it’s true. Our bodies are very complex machines, and what we put into them, and how we maintain them, matters. A doughnut and coffee can leave us sputtering on the side of the road, while an egg with bacon and whole-grain toast can keep us chugging along happily until the next gas station comes our way.
In my last article 5 Components of a Healthy Lunch, I talked about something called “staying power.” Staying Power is somewhat akin to the glycemic index, but stated in much simpler terms. Basically it’s what foods make us feel full for the longest amount of time. My Naturopath describes “staying power” as “a long slow burn” meaning the food gets burned off slowly. It’s not rocket fuel. Unless we need a burst of high powered energy (like for a sprint) we are going for foods that leave us feeling full, satisfied, with a steady blood sugar that isn’t wavering up and down like a Richter scale.
To more fully understand how food fuels our bodies, let’s take a quick look at how protein, carbohydrates, and fats are processed once they’ve gone from fork to mouth.
Protein is made up of essential amino acids. Once you’ve chewed and swallowed that protein and it lands in the stomach, protein starts to be broken down into individual amino acids. The individual amino acids are further broken down in the small intestine and are then sent to the liver. The liver is “the boss” and either uses up the protein for itself, or sends it on to do such jobs as grow new cells, repair damaged cells, grow hair and skin, make hormones, etc. As you may have noticed, that protein is busy. Although it can be broken down into glucose (the sugar that your body uses for energy) it’s not done so at a rapid pace. It’s valuable and your body treats it as such.
Carbohydrates come in many forms (grains, fruit, vegetables, sugar) and, of course, are not created equal. A piece of white bread will be dealt with in a much different way than a piece of a kale. That being said, carbohydrates, by their very nature must be turned into something called “free glucose” in order to be absorbed through the intestinal wall and used by the body. Whether they have fiber to slow down that absorption is another matter.
Take that white bread for example. Add some jelly and maybe a spoonful of brand name peanut butter (the kind they add sugar and trans fats to) and take a bite. The enzymes in the saliva start to break down the carbohydrate immediately. The stomach does not digest the carbs however. Once they move on to the small intestine, the breakdown of sugars that already started in the mouth makes it so that some of that sugar (monosaccharides) can enter the blood stream directly. The rest quickly break down into single molecules called free glucose, and are absorbed through the intestinal wall and transported into circulation. Basically, unless you have fiber (fruit veggies, whole grains) or healthy fat (peanut butter with no added sugar or trans fats) to slow down the absorption of sugar, your body treats that PBJ, much the same as if you’d eaten a candy bar.
Fats have gotten a bad rap in the last century or so. The problem is not the fat, it’s the type of fat. Margarine, shortening and other man-made fats that have been concocted from chemicals and sold as a healthy alternative, have wreaked havoc on our nations over-all health. Healthy fats in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and fats from healthy grass fed/pastured animals work with our bodies to create optimal health. Why? Because we feel full, stay full and our bodies use that fat, not to get fatter, but to support proper functioning of everything from the lungs, to the brain.
Because avocado’s are one of my favorite foods. Let’s use an avocado as an example of how fat is processed in the body:
The avocado is chewed up, is not chemically altered by the enzymes in the saliva, and gets plopped into the stomach. As with carbs, fats don’t get digested in the stomach. So, as Robb Wolf says in his very informative book The Paleo Solution, the “fat and carbs are just hanging out drinking coffee, and playing cards to pass the time.” The small intestines are up next. Now this is important because we want that fat to be absorbed and digested. We might not feel that way if we’d just downed a large bag of chips, but we didn’t, we ate avocado, so we’re hoping the body will put it to use- say, in the brain, versus the derriere (where the chips will be firmly planted).
Once that fat enters the small intestines, it is the job of the pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to dissolve the fat and break it apart (into glycerol and fatty acid molecules- quit yawning!).
Just a little side note here. If you’ve had your gall bladder removed you need a little help when it comes to the bile salts. Your gall bladder is in charge of producing bile salts and since you no longer have a gall bladder you need to actually take bile salts in the form of a pill if you want to digest fat.
Moving on. The fats (in the form of triglycerides/TAGS) are then paired up with a personal attendant (see, even your body treats fats like royalty!) to escort them via a royal carriage (known as the lymph vessels) to the liver or to be used by tissues of the body (lung,brain,etc).
So you see, the fat takes a looooong time to get where it’s going. Plus, who would be in a rush when treated like the queen herself!?
If you find yourself ravenous within a couple of hours of eating, then you may want to really think about what you ate, and assess whether you ate enough fat and protein. Sometimes I’ll eat a salad with chicken breast and a little drizzle of olive oil and I’ll be starving in an hour. Why? Because I didn’t eat enough fat to slow the absorption, of even the protein, down. Next time I’ll up the oil and add a quarter to a half of an avocado. And voila, I’ll be full for 3-4 hours, and not feel like going for coffee, or be tempted by the M&M’s sitting at my co-workers desk.
Baby Steps Lead to REAL Change
Adding both fat and protein to the diet may take some time. Our bodies are meant to run most efficiently off of fat, but if you go from eating a bowl of oatmeal in the morning to eating 3 eggs, 4 pieces of bacon, and a glass of full-fat milk, you’re likely going to feel sick. It takes some time to adjust to eating more fat and protein. Start by adding 2 pieces of bacon to the oatmeal. Then change it to an egg and bacon, then move on to cooking your egg in some of the bacon fat or coconut oil. It will take awhile but soon you’ll not only be able to digest those fats with more ease, you’ll find that you feel really good when you eat them. You won’t long for the candy bar when you’re standing in the check-out line.
Knowing how much fat your body needs also takes some time. At first you might over-do it. You may eat too much fat for your particular needs. However, once you start to feel satiated from the foods you eat, you will be able to tell if you are hungry because you need fat, protein, or carbs. It will be like a craving, but not like an addiction/controlling craving. It will feel like “Yeah, I’d better put extra chicken on my salad, I need more protein today.” Or “I feel like lentils for lunch” and you’ll know it’s because your body needs the carbs. Sometimes you might crave peanut butter or even a spoon full of butter or coconut oil. Have it! Your body is signalling that it needs something, and it’s so very different than the signal for chips or candy or soda, because it’s real food.