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Friday, January 20, 2006

The deal with protein

Most people probably rarely, if ever think about their protein intake. Maybe they do if they're on a special diet that requires keeping track of calories, carbohydrates, and whatever.

Personally, I never gave protein any thought. Until last night. Without getting into the gory details, my mom had a little episode Thursday night. Against her wishes, I called her doctor at 11:30 p.m.

She had been to the doctor Wednesday afternoon for her bi-weekly blood test. She does this to monitor how thin her blood is because she takes Coumadin.

Apparently, the doctor had the blood tested for some other things and those results came back as the doctor "was walking out the door" on Thursday. I don't know when she was going to tell us these results because, in the next breath, the doctor said she was leaving for out of town on Friday. But, that's another story.

Anyway, the doctor told me that my mom's albumin level is too low. But, she's not in heart failure. And, she needs to get more protein. Had it not been the middle of the night, I probably would have thought to ask a few more questions. Like, how much protein should she be getting?

Today, I tried to do a little research on the subject of protein on the Harvard School of Public Health website. Basically, my head is spinning with too much information. What I've learned so far is, "Surprisingly little is known about protein and health." But, they do know some things, like:

We know that adults need a minimum of 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day to keep from slowly breaking down their own tissues. That's about 9 grams of protein for every 20 pounds.

Okay. So, a 100 pound person should get about 45 grams of protein daily. I had no idea. And, does that mean a 200 pound person should get 90 grams a day?

I thought these two items, when read together, were sort of conflicting:

In the Nurses' Health Study, for example, women who ate more than 95 grams of protein a day were 20 percent more likely to have broken a wrist over a 12-year period when compared to those who ate an average amount of protein (less than 68 grams a day).


In this study, women who ate the most protein (about 110 grams per day) were 25 percent less likely to have had a heart attack or to have died of heart disease than the women who ate the least protein (about 68 grams per day) over a 14-year period.

Amy I'm reading this right? Consume 95 grams, or more, of protein a day, get a broken wrist. Consume 110 grams, save yourself from a heart attack. And, don't forget to balance this with the recommended daily protein intake. This is worded in such a way as to make it difficult to understand. I guess that's why we have doctors.

Before I finish, I do want to point out this one interesting tidbit for the vegetarians among us:

One protein source that has been getting a lot of attention is soybeans. Some research suggests that regularly eating soy-based foods lowers cholesterol, chills hot flashes, prevents breast and prostate cancer, aids weight loss, and wards off osteoporosis. These effects may be due to a unique characteristic of soybeans - their high concentrations of isoflavones, a type of plant-made estrogen.

But, then, later in the article:

Eat soy in moderation. Soybeans, tofu, and other soy-based foods are an excellent alternative to red meat. But don't go overboard. Two to four servings a week is a good target.

My oldest daughter has been a vegetarian for a couple years, now. She knows her soy products inside and out. I'm seriously considering making the move to a non-meat diet, myself.

I just have to get this thing figured out with my mom. I really wish her doctor hadn't gone out of town.

Posted by Marie at January 20, 2006 10:32 PM


Wow, that's some really good info. A little disturbing but good.

Posted by: Beachlady at January 21, 2006 7:35 AM

You might try a nutritionist in addition to her doctor. That's a lot of information to reconcile into a workable diet.

Posted by: Rob at January 21, 2006 12:29 PM

My cousin is a retired nutritionist and while my mother was ill, she was invaluable in helping me talk to the docs about nutritional needs and medicine/nutrient interactions. For my mother, lack of protein wasn't the issue but weight loss. I hope your mother and you are doing better this weekend.

I could never become a vegetarian. I don't have the strength to figure out soy products, it seems fraught with difficult decisions (what about Thanksgiving?, ice cream OK?), and I can't imagine not having a steak, crab cake, or grilled rockfish once in a while. I just limit the amount of meat; for me it averages about 1 serving per day.

Posted by: Kem White at January 22, 2006 8:17 AM

I think part of the difficulty in interpreting any of the statistics you're quoting -- they don't really seem to quality as "guidance" -- is that you can't really make sense of them unless you put them in the context of a person's overall health -- weight, fitness, whether they're ill or not, medical history, whether they're active or sedentary. The source of the protein is important, too. I mean, you can get a protein-loaded bucket of KFC, but what else are you getting with the protein? (According to this nutrition calculator linked from the KFC site, a single drumstick contains 25 percent of your government-approved dose of cholesterol.)

I'm not a vegetarian, but I do use soy in my diet. The caution expressed about the amount people eat seems to have to do with the fact that many products, like most soymilk, use a processed form of soy that may not be as beneficial as more naturally made products like tofu.

Posted by: Dan at January 23, 2006 11:43 PM