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More protein = I feel better?

April 20th, 2010 (02:56 pm)

I'm planning to post my first Hong Kong travelogue entry today, but first I have to get this off my chest. (No, not a purring cat. That's at bedtime.)

Erik was doing a little internet research today, because he's been thinking his climbing/running progress is slower than it should be, and he wondered whether this was due to diet. To make a long story short, he figured out that according to the USDA guidelines, we're both eating much less protein than we should be. This was a shocker for me, because my entire veggie or quasi-veggie lifestyle for the past 9 years has been predicated on what I've read in vegan book after vegan book: don't worry about protein, because Americans all eat more protein than they need to. What Erik figured out was: (a) we don't eat like normal Americans, so the above mantra doesn't apply to us, and (b) protein RDA is calculated by weight, so since I'm about 20 pounds overweight, my body requires more protein than I think it does.

The overweight thing first: for years, ever since I first started to take an interest in nutrition, I've assumed that I need to be eating for my goal weight, not my actual weight. The USDA says to eat 2,000 calories per day; weight-loss calorie calculators tell me to eat between 1,500 and 1,800. So this is what I've been striving for. It's probably a good standard when it comes to stuff like sweets and refined starches, but maybe it doesn't hold as true for fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, or protein. This was something that had never occurred to me before.

Now to the SAD (Standard American Diet) stuff: frankly, I have to say I don't even know what most Americans eat anymore. If the supermarket flyers are any indication, it's a lot of high-sodium, high-sugar, heavily processed convenience food. But truly I don't know. When forced to make a guess, I imagine something rather heavy on protein: sausage, egg, and cheese at breakfast, a bacon cheeseburger at lunch, and maybe a big piece of chicken or beef at dinner. There's protein in wheat, too, so the breakfast bagel, burger bun, and evening pasta would contribute to the protein count as well. My food choices are nothing like these. A normal day for me might go like this: a boiled egg and whole wheat toast, a tuna sandwich for lunch, beans and rice and vegetables at dinner. In my mind that's a lot of protein, but it's nothing compared to eating big servings of meat and cheese, and it's not at all unusual for me to skip protein with a meal either. Even when I eat meat -- which is much more frequent now -- it'll be maybe a drumstick with dinner. So all those times when I thought I was going kind of heavy on the protein, I'm realizing now that I probably wasn't.

The reason I think this not-enough-protein theory is probably true is because of what we ate while in Hong Kong. My Hong Kong diet was completely different from my diet here. Partly the serving sizes and meat/carb/veg proportions are different there; we also ate substantial restaurant meals that were not ordered by us. Here's what my standard Hong Kong day looked like: two eggs, a piece of ham, and a single piece of white toast for breakfast, a lunch that consisted of several different kinds of seafood and meat and only a single bowl of rice, dinner the same. I ate a shockingly low amount of starches, far fewer sweets than I do at home, a little less fiber, and way more protein. Probably too much protein, but the fact remains: jet lag made me dizzy, and we walked about 5 miles a day in heat and humidity. Normally that would leave me exhausted, but on our trip I felt fine (aside from sore feet, and the sleepiness). I didn't crave sweets, I didn't feel disgustingly stuffed after meals, and I didn't want snacks. I never got headaches. We existed on a dramatically smaller dose of carbs and sugar than we're used to, but I never had a problem with low energy. This goes against everything I've been thinking for many years.

Our Hong Kong eating habits have been on my mind ever since our return. The way I felt when I was there was just so different from the way I feel here, and the way I responded to food and eating was so much more balanced. I still can't believe how little dessert I ate there! I've been pondering many things: variety in each meal, freshness, flavor, and portion size. Now I'm thinking about protein too. When we came back, we bought some eggs, ham, and roast beef; we ate the last of the lunch meats yesterday. Today I was out shopping and I picked up a package of smoked salmon and another of veggie meatballs. I felt like I was buying tons of protein, but it felt like the right thing to do... then I got home and Erik explained his protein theory.

I think it's very possible that if I want to feel as good as I did while we were on vacation, I need to start eating a lot more protein. Intellectually I don't really like this, because I was just on the point of wanting to cut out meats again, but from a purely objective standpoint, it's going to be harder for me to change the protein ratio in my diet if I do it veggie-style. (I've written about my veggie diet difficulties before.) But from a brainless, instinctive, physical standpoint, I really really want to try this more-protein diet (and I also want to walk more, like we did on our trip). I was sleep-deprived and hot and dizzy, but I felt really good in Hong Kong. I want to hang on to that feeling. So... possibly... I will be eating omnivorously for a while. I'm still not quite sure how this will work, because our trip also reminded me, more than ever, that meat is death (not a value judgment, just the truth -- more on this in later entries). But I'm guessing I'll continue to order veggie food in restaurants, while preparing veggie meals and humane meat at home, since this is how it's panned out since we've returned.

I know this entry is already getting ridiculously rambly, but one more thought. When I first went veggie as a college sophomore, it was always an emotional and intellectual choice. I've never been one of those vegetarians who actually can't stand the sight, smell, or taste of meat. Then when I started eating some meat again, it was also an emotional choice; I was having all those worrying stomach troubles, and I was just feeling rebellious and wanting to eat food that felt comforting and good. So it's going to be interesting, this time around, to try it from a place of instinct and intuition... I think of it as "thinking without using my brain." I know it sounds crazy, but I've lived long enough with overanalytical thinking to know that there are all different kinds of intelligences, and the body does have its own. If my conscious brain provides the exercise opportunities and the good-quality foods, will my body be able to do the rest? If I just let it make its own choices, will it be able to make me healthier and happier? Let's find out.

Oh, and dear readers, I'd love to hear what a normal eating day looks like for you! What's your standard diet?


Posted by: mousemarket (mousemarket)
Posted at: April 21st, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)

Standard diet...hmm. That's a tough one. I guess a typical day would look something like this: whole wheat toast with peanut butter or oatmeal and a glass of kefir for breakfast, salad and fruit for snacks, lunch is usually last night's leftovers, and either seitan or tempeh in some sort of vegetable and whole grain combo for dinner. Of course, dinner varies wildly depending on what we have in the house, but pasta with veggies, tempeh wraps with veggies and beans, or some other vegetarian protein/veggie/grain combo is typical.

I can't say that I've ever tried to target the USDA's guidelines, simply because I've read so many accounts of ways that certain industries (like the cattle industry) have lobbied heavily to change the balance, and I simply don't trust it. That's not to say that it's completely false, but it's not something I value enough to allow to dictate my diet.

Your account of how you felt in HK is way more convincing to me than anything the USDA might have to say. If you felt better, then possibly the protein had a lot to do with it. My vote would also be for the reduction in sweets. When I eat less sweets, I crave less sweets, I have less headaches, and I experience fewer energy drops throughout the day. Lots of things to consider!

Posted by: lisa bug (satsumabug)
Posted at: April 21st, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Good thought on the sweets

Oooh, I used to love kefir when I was still doing dairy. Yogurt is one of the few dairy products I really miss, but the last time I tried it, I was really sick that evening. :(

I don't usually trust the USDA either. If I hadn't felt so amazingly healthy in HK, I would have dismissed their protein RDA outright, but it really does seem like my body is trying to tell me something!

I've also read that cravings for sweets can be attributable to lack of protein. So maybe it's a combination of less sweets and more protein that makes me feel so much better!

It's so weird to be talking to you on LJ! Haha!

Posted by: mousemarket (mousemarket)
Posted at: April 21st, 2010 06:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Good thought on the sweets

I know, I feel so out of place on LJ! ;) That's interesting that there's a connection between protein consumption and sugar cravings. My thoughts are racing with ways to consume more protein without contributing to massive overfishing and factory farms, and unfortunately, I know more about veggie options, but simple things like sprinkling a handful of kidney beans on a salad or eating a serving of quinoa are ways that I up my protein intake every day, and it's amazing how a few conscious eating choices can quickly rack up the protein...without even having to think about animal products.

If I did eat meat, I'd definitely look for local farms where I could verify that the animals are being treated in a humane way, although they are still being killed, so I suppose "humane" is arguable, but I'd also avoid seafood entirely since humans have done such a number on ocean ecosystems. Plus, it's hard to find seafood that isn't contaminated with all of the crap we dump in the water. I'm still concerned about the effects of animal-based protein on overall health, though, so from my very biased point of view, I'd be seeking out alternatives.

But then again, you're talking to a die hard vegetarian, so I'm probably not the best source for information on meat, since I'll simply try to bring you over to my side. ;)

Posted by: lisa bug (satsumabug)
Posted at: April 21st, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Good thought on the sweets

Oh yes, thank you for reminding me about quinoa! I always forget to use it, even though we always have some in the pantry. Beans are a grievance for me... I love them, but I have to be in the mood. It's the same with nuts. If only I felt like eating them all the time, I'd have no protein worries at all.

I don't mind being barraged with veggie info as long as there's never any judgment involved. :) I've met so many vegetarians and carnivores alike who are off-puttingly militant about their stance, it's just depressing. Actually, if you've got any why-seafood-is-bad articles to send my way, I'd appreciate that; all the veg books I've ever read have been strangely quiet on the seafood/environment issue, and I know it's a problem...

I definitely look for local/humane/sustainable meat, which is why I've decided to try to avoid it in restaurants since I can't do the research for their sources. It's also why I only buy eggs from our CSA and another farm where the chickens are pastured; both invite visitors, and our CSA maintains a blog too (the farmer is quite upfront about the often unsavory details of egg farming, including what happens to the poor male chicks at the hatchery).

I think the big problem is I still haven't found a way to eat veggie that hits all my happy craving spots and is healthy/sustainable (ie, no processed foods) and doesn't take a ton of time. For a long time I just ate a lot of mock meats, but when I stopped wanting to do that, that's when well-raised real meats started looking better to me. That's why I think I'm going to be omnivorous for a while; it's like being transitional meat-to-veg all over again. While I'm adding more recipes to my repertoire, stuff like ham is going to tide me over on the days when I just can't figure out what to cook or don't have time to figure it out.

As I write, though, I have a Chinese-style stew going on the stove, in which I've substituted tempeh for short ribs. I'll let you know if it turns out yummy. :)

Posted by: mousemarket (mousemarket)
Posted at: April 21st, 2010 08:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Good thought on the sweets

I'm going to be cutting myself off from online stuff tonight and tomorrow while I do my last minute show prep, but I just wanted to say that there's absolutely, 100% no judgment coming from my end, and I totally understand how tricky it can be figuring out what to eat and what not to eat.

I've been a strict vegetarian for over ten years, but I still remember relying heavily on manufactured meat substitutes during the first few years, and I didn't at all care about organic or local foods, so my diet was likely doing just as much damage, from a health, environmental, and human rights standpoint, as a die hard McDonald's lover, and even now, it's still a work in progress as I try to find more sustainable ways of getting healthy food to our table.

Moral of my rambling comment: I understand how complicated it is, and if there's anything I can be of help with in terms of vegetarian options, you know where to find me. :)

Posted by: lisa bug (satsumabug)
Posted at: April 21st, 2010 09:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Good thought on the sweets

Thank you :) And GOOD LUCK with the last-minute show prep!!!!!!! I can't wait to hear all about your successes and fun times when you get back! :)

Posted by: H.Q.C. (ning489)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2010 09:16 am (UTC)
Typical Day's Meals

Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your thoughtful post. I think it's important to be mindful in what we put in our body, so I'm glad that you are responding to what your body needs. I also think it's great that you are thinking about these issues, when many of us don't. I don't really know what my body needs or want, but I think I definitely need to change my diet.

My typical day's meals look like the following:

Breakfast: Either nothing or a bowl of cereal (usually Raisin Bran), or a quick smoothie of yogurt, bananas, orange juice, and crushed ice

Lunch: Either nothing or a sandwich (Tuna salad or ham/cheese or roast beef/cheese) that I buy at a kiosk outside our department, and three oatmeal cookies

Dinner: Usually either soup (clam, vegetable, or chicken noodle) or a chicken salad or pasta or rice and a grilled protein (beef, tofu, etc.)

I usually also snack on mixed nuts, trail mix, or fruits throughout the day. So I feel as though my diet isn't very exciting for me and it makes me want to cook more, but I also think that sometimes cooking for just myself isn't worth the effort sometimes or I end up cooking too much and have left overs for days. I think I also just need to plan more time in my day to cook.

Well, I hope this was interesting to you. I found this an interesting exercise as well:)


Posted by: lisa bug (satsumabug)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Typical Day's Meals

Dear Huy,

It's such a challenge balancing what we know we should eat with the difficulty of day-to-day life and time management! Ideally I'd want to cook everything, and go food shopping every day at farmers' markets and the like, but it's just too impossible. Maybe when I'm old. ;b

It's very interesting reading what you eat in a typical day. It sounds pretty tasty. :) I know what you mean about it being too much trouble to cook for one person. If Erik weren't here I would definitely be cooking far less frequently... when I first moved to LA my standard meal was bagged salad, pasta and jarred sauce and shaved Parmesan, all from Trader Joe's. ;) Later I also ate a lot of Tuna Helper and drank lots of Vitaminwater. ;b

Good luck exploring your diet and eating habits further :D
lisa :)

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