Protein is an essential macronutrient that we need not only for the health and balance of our hormones, but for our entire body and mind. However, both too little and too much protein is a cause for concern. In this article, we will discuss the role of protein for our overall health and how much is enough.
Listen to my podcast episode on this here!
The importance of nutrition for women’s health
What we put into our body has the power to heal or to make us sick. Unfortunately, for various reasons, one being hormonal contraceptive usage, women are very nutrient deficient. These nutrient deficiencies are highest in the following:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
- Folate and folic acid (forms of B9)
For a full, in-depth conversation on nutrition for women’s health and hormone balance, including the essential micro and macronutrients, listen to my podcast episode here or read my article here. Long story short, the optimal way of eating your your reproductive health is based on the Mediterranean-style of eating, which includes:
- Fresh, whole foods
- 6-8 servings of vegetables and fruit, combined, daily
- High quality protein, such as wild-caught fish, eggs, bone broth, and legumes
- Healthy fats such as avocado, olive, and coconut
- Nuts and seeds
- Complex, high-fiber carbs
What is protein and why the heck do we need it?
Protein is essential and found all throughout the body. It creates the enzymes that power various chemical reactions, as well as the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood. Protein is made from over 20 building blocks called amino acids. Interestingly, our body does not store amino acids, but instead makes them from scratch or by modifying others. Nine of these amino acids are essential and must come from food. For women’s hormone health specifically, protein is vital for the communication and efficacy of our hormones, which are our body’s chemical messengers. In fact, protein is the building block for most of our pituitary hormones, FSH, LH, TSH, and prolactin. These hormones are petite hormones that are in charge of the release of our steroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Without our pituitary hormones signaling properly, ovulation will not occur, and we will not be able to make adequate hormones as a residual effect. Putting this all together, we can understand why too little protein is linked to low estrogen, lack of ovulation, low progesterone, autoimmunity, compromised thyroid function, and low growth hormone. For all of my breast-feeding mamas, too little protein is linked to low prolactin levels which can significantly decrease breastmilk supply. Additionally, protein helps to balance blood sugar, regulate insulin sensitivity (hello hormone harmony), improve satiety, and decrease cravings. Truthfully, one of the best things that you can do for your hormones is to eat enough protein, especially at breakfast; aim for 20-30 grams of protein at each meal. Protein at breakfast decreases ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and increases leptin, the satiety hormone. An imbalance in blood sugar is more common than you think as attributes to the many hormone imbalances, PMS, period problems, etc., that are in existence today. However, more protein is not always best. We must find a balance of the right kind and amount of protein for our own body, and consider how that changes throughout our cycle and throughout our lifetime.
How much protein should you eat?
Just like too little protein, too much protein can cause blood sugar imbalance, hormone imbalances, and increase the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes, especially when the protein is strictly animal-based. There are various research studies that have linked a high intake of animal protein, along with refined grains, alcohol, and high sugar foods, to higher levels of estrogen, which increases the risk of breast cancer. Additionally, in diets (I dislike this word but for contextual purpose, I will use it here) that are high in animal protein, we commonly see a decline in fiber and an incline in saturated fat. This combination has negative impacts on the gut microbiome, which is essential for healthy production, utilization, and metabolism of estrogen. This can lead to the re-circulation of estrogen in the body and therefore cause symptoms of estrogen dominance.
So, Maddie, how much is enough protein, you may be asking? Just like all things, my sweet friend, everyone is unique. Depending on your age, current health situation (pregnant and post-menopausal women need more), exercise habits, stress levels, genetics, etc., your protein requirements will change. However, research concludes that 20-30 grams of protein at each of your 3 meals is substantial, for a total of 60-100 grams of protein daily. To avoid nutrient deficiency, women need at least .8g of protein per kg of body weight every day. However, I recommend eating more than the minimum to prevent deficiency because we live in a high-stress world, where nutrient demands can make or break our health. This being said, I recommend 1-1.5g of protein per kg of body weight, daily, and increasing accordingly based on activity and stress levels, etc.. If you are struggling in choosing between plant-based protein or animal-based protein, the next section is for you!
Plant vs. Animal Proteins
I was a vegan for 6 years. I have since started incorporating animal-based proteins because I was trending on the deficient side. My body and mind needed more, and after some time, I finally listened to her. I ran semi-annual nutrient panels, and no matter how conscious I was with my plant-based way of eating, I still fell short in various nutrients. Also, I had to supplement A LOT with nutrients that I now am able to get through high quality animal sources. This is a very controversial topic indeed, but personally, based on research and my personal experience, and that of countless women around me, is that incorporating 5 or so servings of high quality animal protein, weekly, is incredibly beneficial. I opt for grass-fed and finished beef bone broth, organic and pasture-raised local eggs, wild caught SMASH fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herrings), and oysters when I can get my hands on the highest of quality. I personally stay away from the animal products highest in saturated fats and known to cause inflammation when eaten regularly, such as dairy, red meat, and processed meats. I will say that eating only plant-based foods for all macro groups can cause some bloating and gut issues due to high levels of fiber. Additionally, it is vital to pair legumes and grains, grains and nuts/seeds, and legumes with nuts/seeds to make a complete protein. Finally, when going plant-based, if you have lost your period, or it becomes scanty, it may be due to consuming too many phytoestrogens. If you decide to incorporate animal proteins, quality is everything.
As for red meat, eat them sparingly (I am talking no more than once/week), and opt for locally sourced, organic, grass-fed and finished. In the largest ongoing study of women’s health and their nutrition, Harvard scientists have found that increasing the intake of animal protein, specifically red meat, even by just one serving a day, resulted in a 32% higher likelihood of ovulatory infertility. Those who consumed more plant-focused, even just swapping one meal/day with plant protein, had a 50% decrease in ovulatory infertility. For our emotional and physical well-being, I recommend a balanced way of eating, including 6-8 cups of organic fruits and vegetables daily and high quality protein at every meal, plant-based or not. Balance and happiness will help you achieve freedom and health!
Fish, bone broth, collagen, and eggs are my favorite animal proteins. When it comes to fish, I opt for wild fish that tend to be low in metals such as mercury, but high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. These fish are salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, oysters, scallops, and herring. Typically, the smaller the fish, the better. Salmon and oysters are my favorite. The smaller the fish, usually the more rich they are in docosahexaenoice acid (DHA), which is an essential omega-3 fatty acid needed for proper brain functioning. Asides from anti-inflammatory, brain-boosting omega-3, these wild and smaller fish are particularly beneficial for the gut microbiome. If you are looking for a reputable brand/source, I love Wild Planet and Sitka Salmon Shares. Overall, keep fish intake to about 12 oz, or less, per week (about 3 servings!).
Eggs are nutrient powerhouse that are a symbol of fertility. They are an abundant source of choline and provide stable energy and protein, therefore helping to balance blood sugar. However, not all eggs are created equally. Opt for organic, pasture-raised, and preferably local. You will certainly find them at your local farmers market! The yolks should be orange/red, not yellow. Do best by you, the animals, and the planet by supporting local farms and farms doing GOOD!
Bone broth & Collagen
Bone broth and collagen powder were the first two animal proteins I had incorporated into my way of eating. I felt so energized, stable, and nourished after consuming them. I knew that I was on the right path. I prefer to buy my beef bones (not chicken as they are highest in heavy metals), from my local regenerative farmer and make my own broth. A recipe for my broth can be found within the peace. love. hormones. menstrual health app here. Bone broth is fantastic for your gut as it contains high collagen content, which forms gelatin during the bone broth preparation. Both collagen and gelatin contain high amounts of the amino acids glutamine and proline, which are very nourishing to the digestive system and support a healthy inflammation response. Bone broth is very nutrient dense, containing hyaluronic acid, glucosamine, chondroitin, calcium, and magnesium. If I do purchase bone broth in-store, I like regenerative beef bone broth from Kettle and Fire.
Collagen molecules are too big to be absorbed through the skin, but when consumed via drinking, it is very bioabsorbable. I love Ancient Nutrition’s collagen powder as well and Physician’s Choice collagen.
Final note: What you put into your body is important for your physical health AND for your spiritual/emotional health. Invest in your health and happiness and everything else will fall right into place!
If your digestion needs support, include Bitters before and after meals!
If your hormones and period need repair, take Soothe daily in the morning!