Only Carbs, Only Protein, or Both?

How many times have you heard the following, “Yeah, man. You just need to eat a lot of protein.  Those carbs are what will make you fat”?

What you probably don’t hear very often is the fact that you need those pesky carbs for almost every function in your body.  For example, your brain requires six grams of carbs every hour for function.  If you do the math for twenty-four hours, then you realize that you need one hundred and forty-four grams of carbs for brain function alone.  And eating carbs for brain function alone is obviously too low because you’re assuming that none of your other organs are doing any work, your cells aren’t replicating, your immune system isn’t protecting you, etc.

Why do carbs have such a bad repertoire?  Because the type Americans eat typically have no fiber or nutrients (think French fries, candy, white bread, etc.).

To be clear, a simple definition of a carbohydrate is, “anything without a mother”.  If it’s plant-based, then it’s almost always a carbohydrate (with the exception of nuts and avocados).  The type of carbohydrates the human body needs for weight management are the types of carbohydrates that occur as nature intended them.  Namely, fruits and veggies.  Then, we can also throw grains in there as our higher-calorie carbohydrate friends.

So, by eating the carbohydrates like fruits and veggies, we’ll be able to eat fewer total calories because the ones we’re eating are so nutrient-dense.  Since fruits and veggies have so much fiber, vitamins, and minerals, they will make us feel full, and they will provide our bodies with the necessary nutrients to stay healthy and fight off disease.

Now, back to the original issue of protein and the question of “how much protein do you need a day?”

Really, the question can’t be answered unless we first know how many calories we’re eating per day because our bodies need calories before they need protein.  If you’re not getting enough calories, then you’re not getting enough protein.  If the body is forced to choose between using protein for energy or for muscle-building, it will choose to use it for energy.  Energy is simply more essential to the body’s survival.

This ties in with the fact that our brain needs 144g of carbs per day.  Let’s use the hypothetical example that someone just eats 100g of carbs that day.  They need 44g more for their brain.  How does that happen?  Well, if the person eats some protein, the body will convert the protein into carbohydrate in order to use it for the brain.  If the person didn’t eat protein, then the body will cannibalize itself and pull the protein it needs to convert into carbohydrate from that person’s muscle mass.  Why?  Because the body needs to survive, and it can’t turn fat into carbohydrate.

When our diets are deficient in carbohydrates, our bodies turn protein into carbohydrate.  And since the body doesn’t have protein stores other than our muscle mass, the body will tear down its muscle mass in order to feed its brain.  It’s a survival machine, and it doesn’t care that you’ll be a little weaker.

We need both carbohydrates and protein.  Both are absolutely vital to health and fitness.  The key is understanding how much of each you need.  We’ll get into that in Part 2.