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If you follow nutrition information on Instagram, Facebook, and other media outlets, you’ve probably heard the recommendation that you should be eating high quality protein. It might make you question your own choices for protein in your diet — are they high quality?
The inevitable follow up: what is a high quality protein?
Depending on what’s important to the writer of that information, “high quality” can mean a lot of different things. Try to determine based on the context, before questioning your own protein choices, whether the source of the info may subscribe to any of the following values:
Environmental concerns. In the context of environmental concerns, a “high quality protein” might be one that has a minimal environmental impact on climate change and the environment. This would mean a plant-based protein such as lentils, beans, peas, tofu/tempeh, and whole grains would be considered high quality.
Food Industry concerns. For some, the processing of food is the highest indicator of quality. Here, this typically means how protein sources are raised or grown: are they organic or genetically modified (in the case of soy products), are animals raised with or without antibiotics, allowed to eat a “natural” diet or corn fed, and so on. Organic protein raised free range without antibiotic use would be considered highest quality in this case.
Ethical concerns. High quality protein can refer to ethical treatment of animals, and therefore plant-based proteins would most likely top the list. For ethical animal treatment, a certified humane certification or indication of free-range or pasture-raised would likely constitute a higher quality protein than those that are conventionally raised.
Maximum physical performance and medical diets. For those interested in muscle growth, performance, and optimal nutrition, bioavailability is often considered the main criteria for a “high quality” protein. Scientific research indicates that protein digested from animal products is more efficiently digested and utilized by the body compared to plant-based proteins. Within this context, a faster-digesting protein would be considered higher quality, and animal sources of protein would win out over plant-based.
Given the conflicting views and opinions, it’s impossible to have a definitive answer for what a high-quality protein is. This decision is up to each of us individually; it’s about deciding what’s important to you and making choices based on those values.
Not sure yet where to land on this issue? My general recommendation in nutrition counseling is to aim for a mix of both plant- and animal-based proteins on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis – whatever feels right to you!
You’ve cleaned up your diet, you’re exercising 3-4 times per week or more, and despite a great initial weight loss over the last 6-9 months you have seen results grind to a halt. What gives? A weight loss plateau is a real phenomenon for many people looking to lose weight, and it can be an incredibly frustrating experience that makes us want to throw in the towel and take a break from the diligence.
Here are a few major signs to help you confirm you’re in a weight loss plateau, along with two surefire ways to get out.
- You’ve gone low/no carb, keto, paleo, vegan, cut out all flour/sugar, etc. One of the primary reasons we get stuck in a weight loss plateau is cutting out too much. When we cut calories too low, we get a huge benefit in the beginning (maybe the first or second time you tried it) and then see diminishing returns. This is because our body, over time, learns to adapt to a “famine” environment and will stop burning fat for fuel. Instead, it will switch into primarily fat storage which, for our biology, is a long-term survival tactic. Will your body burn fat for energy? Yes, but it will also retain and store as much fat as it possibly can, as well. Kind of a zero-sum game, in the end. In the meantime, muscle mass is broken down for a more efficient source of fuel, and as a result, your resting metabolic rate drops meaning you need even less food than when you started.
- You’re not hungry anymore. In “diet mode,” hunger can sometimes be taken as a signal that things are going well. We resist and fight hunger, we don’t eat in response to it, and we think, hah, yes! Burn your own calories! There’s plenty there! Over time, in ignoring those signals, our brain will eventually stop producing them anymore. It gives up on trying to find food from the environment. It shifts into creating its own energy, which it is not efficient at (see #1.)
- You’ve slept a full 8 hours, but you could sleep more. All our most basic metabolic reactions that produce energy require nutrients from food: B vitamins, iron, folate, choline, zinc, iodine, etc. Without adequate calories, we aren’t likely to be getting adequate nutrients; the result is feeling run down and exhausted. Supplementation with a multivitamin can potentially be a band-aid for this, but over time it will wear us down.
- You’re frequently sick, cold, experiencing hair loss, or have irregular periods. All the above indicate a major biological system potentially impaired by lack of nutrients, protein, and calories. These conditions are considered a progression of #3 and should be a sign to increase food intake immediately. Visit a dietitian and get a professional to calculate your calorie needs. If this does not resolve the above conditions, consult your healthcare provider.
- It hurts to eat. Sometimes, going extended periods without eating (over 5 hours) can lead to discomfort or even severe pain when eating again. Think of this the way you would after sitting down for several hours: upon getting up, your muscles are likely to be stiff and sore. Your digestive system is one extremely long muscle group; it too, can experience cramping and soreness after long periods of not eating. To avoid or minimize discomfort aim to eat every 4-5 hours minimum or eat small frequent amounts if going large periods of time without eating.
If any of the above apply to you, talk to a dietitian about how to evaluate whether you’re in a weight loss plateau and how to address it to meet your individual needs. Your metabolism is likely in a slow, altered state and needs to be kicked back up again. In a general sense, there are 2 very important things that will be prescribed to you in order to reverse it.
- Eat enough. Counterintuitively, eating an adequate amount of food for your body and your exercise program will be the key to kickstarting your metabolism for weight loss again. A dietitian can help you calculate your needs and come up with a meal approach and nutritional strategies to get there, along with customized recommendations.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise will maintain and build muscle, as long as nutrition is adequate. This will increase your metabolic rate, meaning more calories are burned at rest and body fat is better managed. Continue an exercise program that is appropriately challenging, progressive in nature, and contains a mix of strength training and cardio conditioning. A personal trainer can assist with developing a customized program that meets your needs for your specific goals and movement patterns.
Looking for exercise ideas? You might enjoy “5 Tabata Moves and Why You Should Close Out Your Sets With Them“
There is a LOT of diet advice out there to take if we’re looking to make changes to our bodies. Do paleo, cut carbs, go vegan, eliminate sugar, count macros. They make the advice list because they all work: people see results when they follow those rules! Changing our eating in any extreme way will typically result in weight loss — at least temporarily. For as long as we can sustain it, most likely we will see the changes in our body we want to see. But often when a diet is NOT sustainable, we see 3 things happen:
- Our body stops changing or “plateaus”
- We crave foods, have a hard time managing hunger, and eat impulsively
- Weight regain occurs after we stop following the rules
Any of those three signs means it’s time to adapt your diet to something more long term. Any of the diets listed above — paleo, vegan, reducing added sugar, macro counting, and others — can be modified to achieve smaller changes over a longer period for more long-lasting change. Check out the 10 steps below for some guideposts to follow when adapting a diet for long-term change.
- Re-establish your “why.” Losing weight can sometimes take huge behavior shifts that can be a struggle if there are other important things going on in your life (demanding career/finances, family, relationships). The reason you’re losing weight has to be internally driven and motivated. If you’re doing it because “everyone’s doing it,” or “I feel like I’m supposed to,” or “I’m worried what other people think about me” — that is not going to take you very far. Connect to the reasons and values weight loss is important to you.
- Be proactive with your hunger. In a weight loss mentality, hunger can be seen as an ally: “If I’m hungry, that means I’m not eating enough, so it must mean I’ll lose weight.” That type of weight loss only works for certain people, at certain points in their lives, for certain amounts of time. For long-term sustainable weight loss, hunger is the enemy. It almost inevitably leads to overeating, which can then lead to guilt and undereating, creating a cycle in which the body’s metabolism can never get a clear picture of whether it should store body fat for a starvation “famine” or whether it’s okay to utilize it in exercise. Plan to eat 3 meals a day plus 1-3 snacks, and eat to your fullness. Avoid eating “just enough” — this will lead to hunger within an hour or two after eating, and will set you up to overeat later in the day.
- Create a system for meal prep. Meal prep is most well-known as a Sunday or weekend thing, but to do it all in one day is a lot. Break it into 3 steps: recipe searching/list making, shopping, and then prepping and cooking. Commit to create time every week to doing these 3 things to make sure that you have nutritionally dense and satisfying meals to eat all week long.
- Prioritize water, fiber, and protein. Use the color of your urine to determine the amount of water to be drinking (light yellow — if it’s clear, you’re probably drinking too fast for the body to use the water you’re consuming). Get enough fiber through 5 servings of fruits and veggies daily and 1-2 servings of whole grains at each meal and snack. Include protein at every meal and get a mix of plant- and animal-based proteins.
- Revisit portion sizes. Eating well-balanced, appropriately portioned meals is the key to a satisfying day of eating that doesn’t end in relentless snacking at night! Look online or meet with the dietitian here to get a guideline for visual estimation; no need to bring measuring cups, spoons, and scales into this. Learning how to estimate how much food is in front of you will help you understand and internalize how much food you need to feel full and satisfied.
- Eat 80%+ of your meals at home. Even if it means frozen or quick-made meals ready from the grocery store, you have more ability to evaluate nutrition information and ingredient quality in products with labels as opposed to food out at restaurants and takeout. There are some establishments that take food quality to the highest degree, however, so use your judgement — and don’t be afraid to ask what sauces, spices, salt, and fat sources your favorite menu items are made with!
- Don’t skip breakfast. Ideally eat within an hour of waking up, even if you’re not hungry. It will help with moving your food intake to earlier in the day rather than having it stack up on you in the evening.
- Reduce screen time. Either in front of the TV or our phones, we tend to be stationary. Move any way you can think of: walking, stretching, foam rolling, dancing, squatting, whatever it takes!
- Log your food. I typically recommend just 2 days a week: one “planned” day and one “unplanned” day to compare how you’re eating on those two types of days. Aim for consistency through those days. Consistency tells your body that food is plentiful, it does not need to keep fat stores, and becomes much more adept at burning them through exercise.
- BE PATIENT. Resorting to drastic weight loss measures like over-exercising, cleansing, eliminating carbs, or other drastic food reductions may have temporary success but will only set back long-term weight loss with more weight gain once you return to normal eating. Stay the course!
Supplementation is popular for everything from muscle gain to hair and nail growth. But did you know that supplements are not actively regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration?
What is a supplement?
A supplement is any product that has a “Supplement Facts” label rather than a “Nutrition Facts” label. This can include multivitamins and pill supplements but also protein powders, herbs, probiotics, teas, oils, and other food-like products.
By FDA standards, supplements are preemptively considered safe until proven unsafe. Where food and pharmaceuticals have to meet rigorous standards in order to be proven safe for public consumption, supplements are only taken off the market if adverse events occur.
Why is regulation important?
Lack of regulation before market leads to an enormous loophole in product quality. Products can and have been shown to manipulate consumers by putting ingredients on the Supplements Label that are not actually in the product. A product stating it contains 500 mg of calcium does not, by any law or standard, have to include 500 mg calcium. Many supplement manufacturers have incentive to put less in their product than advertised in order to save money.
The quality of supplement ingredients also does not have to be traced or regulated, so there is limited ability to guarantee freshness or that the ingredients included contain active properties. Supplement manufacturers may also put other “filler” ingredients into their product that are not, and do not have to be, listed on their label. They are also not required to test for contamination.
Some supplements carry a certified organic label; while this means that any of the ingredients they use meet standards of organic products, this has no bearing on whether what is listed on the label is in the product you consume.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
The number one way to make sure the supplements you purchase are of a high quality is to look for a third-party certification statement. For supplement companies wishing to gain consumer trust and elevate the quality of their product, they will hire an independent laboratory to test their products. This testing can verify that what is stated on the label is in the product.
Supplements that have undergone this testing are able to bear the logo of that third-party testing company. The most well-recognized is the U.S. Pharmacopia or “USP” seal of certification. The Nature Made brand has the majority of their products verified by USP and can be assumed to be safe and containing what the label states they contain.
Two other popular verification companies are NSF International (“NSF”) and Consumer Lab (their symbol looks like a science beaker.) Of note, products by GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe do not appear to utilize third party verification.
Supplements can cost a lot of money; take every possible precaution to make sure that the money you’re putting down is going toward what you think it is. Find brands that utilize third party certifications and stick to them! If your supplement of choice doesn’t seem to have a brand that uses a third-party verifier, read a little bit more about the supplement. More digging may show that the supplement doesn’t have any real scientific evidence to do what it claims to do in the first place.
There is a lot of fear these days regarding sugar intake and its role in long term health. High sugar intake has been implicated in the main diet-related chronic illnesses: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s.
This fear drives many diets out there to encourage minimizing or even completely eliminating sugar from the diet, including natural sources like fruits (fructose) and dairy (lactose). Grains also get lumped into this category, as the carbohydrate in grains gets broken down into the same basic unit sugars do: glucose.
As a nutrition professional I don’t believe sugar should be eliminated from the diet. It’s a surefire way to build cravings for it and overeating it later down the line. The body also requires glucose to run efficiently – particularly your brain and muscles. Well-timed sources of sugar can actually provide some benefit, as any endurance athlete will be quick to validate.
Here are a few guidelines to follow when making decisions about sugar so you don’t go overboard in either direction!
- Is it a natural source of sugar?
There are two main natural sources of sugar: fruit (fructose) and dairy (lactose). For dairy, there are typically about 12 grams of natural sugar per 8-ounce serving. Fruit varies greatly, but as an example there are about 19 grams of sugar in an apple, 17 grams in an orange, and 15 grams in a cup of blueberries. The average nutritional recommendation for dairy is 3 servings per day, and for fruit it’s 2 servings per day. If you stick to your general recommendations, that equals about 60-70 grams per day.
This source of sugar comes packed with nutrients; for lactose, you’re also getting protein, calcium, and vitamin D — all of which are nutrients many Americans are looking to increase in their diets. For fruits, it’s micronutrients like potassium and folate, as well as fiber and protective antioxidants.
Eliminating these sources of natural sugar also eliminates all of the nutritional benefit that comes with it! Stick to and enjoy your dietary recommendations, and the natural sugars that come with them.
- Is it an artificially added sugar?
Any food product that has added sugar is required to list that in the ingredient list of the nutrition facts label. For example, any energy bar that does not have dairy or fruit will contain added sugar. Look to the ingredient list to identify the source. If the ingredient list includes “sugar,” and there are 18 grams of sugar in the bar, then all 18 of those grams are added sugar.
The tricky thing here is that added sugars have many names. The more obvious will be sugar, honey, and maple syrup. Other forms of added sugar include agave, brown rice syrup, molasses, caramel, corn syrup, corn sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, sucrose, and nectars — to name a few!
If you want to evaluate your sugar intake for a week or two, pay attention to food labels, take note of grams of sugar per serving, and then check the ingredient list to see whether any sugar is added.
- Does it fall within my daily recommended guidelines for sugar intake?
The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily calories as part of a healthy diet. For the average 2,000 calorie diet this amounts to 200 calories, or 50 grams of sugar, per day. As a reference point, there are about 4 grams in a teaspoon of sugar, so that’s about 12 teaspoons of sugar per day.
There are 2 ways to stay within your recommended sugar guidelines without completely eliminating it. First, stick to the recommended servings and portion sizes of dairy (3 per day) and fruit (2 per day). Second, read labels to determine amounts of sugar in a product, and whether there’s any added sugar in the ingredient list.
If the product contains dairy, subtract about 12 grams of sugar per serving to account for natural lactose. If the product contains fruit, subtract about 15 grams of sugar per serving to account for natural fructose. Whatever is left is considered added sugar. Try to limit that amount of added sugar to less than 50 grams per day and you’re armed with everything you need to know to navigate nutrition labels for sugar!