So we had a #healthyfat week last week on the Wholist blog and social media.  This week, proteins!  Then we’ll get back into some exercise deep dives next week.  Proteins are an interesting topic to me, they aren’t as controversial as fat and carbs, but still have some idiosyncrasies about them that have some people very confused. 

First, the basics. Proteins have five essential roles:

1. Build. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage and skin. In fact, your hair and nails are comprised mostly of protein.

2. Repair. Your body uses it to build and repair tissue.

3. Oxygenate. Red blood cells contain a protein compound that carries oxygen throughout the body. This helps supply your entire body with the nutrients it needs.

4. Digest. About half the dietary protein that you consume each day goes into making enzymes, which aids in digesting food, and making new cells and body chemicals.

5. Regulate. Protein plays an important role in hormone regulation, especially during the transformation and development of cells during puberty.

In addition, protein is really touted for fitness benefits like…Speeding recovery after exercise and/or injury, reducing muscle loss, building lean muscle, helping maintain a healthy weight, and curbing hunger.

As with the other two macronutrients, there are a million interesting things about proteins….


Incretin is a hormone that functions for satiety with meat protein. Eat a small steak? You’ll fill full for a WHILE. Drink a sugary soda or pasta meal? You’ll be hungry quickly. So while proteins might still increase your insulin even though they aren’t comprised of glucose (see below), you are likely not to eat for much longer (like a little kid won’t eat when hungry).

Processing and Utilization

Another interesting fact, is that all proteins are not going to be utilized the same way.  There is definitely a data trend toward increased incidence of depression and diabetes in majority meat protein eaters and not in plant protein eaters. And the ‘protein’ in a processed ‘protein bar’ or ‘whey shake’ is going to be entirely metabolically different than the protein you get from plant that was grown or a pasture raised pig. In general, you are always going to want to lean toward going less processed, more ‘whole’ to minimize harmful health effects. Be wary of those touting protein products……

Insulin sensitivity and resistance

Now what about PROTEIN and my treasured insulin index and the confusing glycemic index: While dietary proteins are “low glycemic”, they still increase insulin levels and the insulin index. How is it that If it isn’t increasing glucose in the blood, then how is it increasing the insulin index? All proteins differ in how they stimulate insulin. Each has a different insulin index and different incretin response based on its molecular structure for sure, but also because of what it is mixed with as food. (we talked about this with fat earlier). And with protein it is widely variable. Of course, it’s complicated.   The type of food/proteins we are eating will drastically change how the incretin weight loss PROS (satiety and gastric emptying) is outweighed or not outweighed by its weight gain CONS (insulin release).

Animal or Plant Based

One definitive is the avoidance of processed animal meats like sausages and lunch meats etc, and unfortunately bacon.  These are actually definitively carcinogenic class 1.  Yuck.  Also realize that cooking meat in certain ways can increase their Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) that are linked to controversially perhaps to some, with inflammation, cancer, and a fair amount of other health concerns (might be a link to insulin resistance and diabetes in meat eaters). More to come I’m sure, but for now, try to cook meat at lower heat, shorter times and in a more moist environment.

You can absolutely get enough protein being only plant based.  Animal protein is a ‘complete’ protein, meaning you get all of the essential amino acids that you need in one sitting. Plant protein based diets require that you ‘eat the rainbow’ of vegetables, if you do this, you will for sure get a complete amino acid profile.  Our bodies break down all proteins and save free ones, and can remix when needed. Our bodies are too smart for something silly like having to go through all of the work of eating scarce animals to get an essential macronutrient. So don’t worry about that too much and tell your vegetarian haters to stand down.

Meal Frequency

So be wary, as with all “IT’S MY ROAD OR THE HIGH ROAD” type of diet plans, of the high protein folks. They are often doing high frequency meals, and often processed protein products.  The presence of food in the stomach releases 70% of the insulin, so increasing meal frequency, as high protein folks often are doing, isn’t fixing the problem of hormonally insulin-controlled obesity. I do have to mention briefly that there a cephalic phase of insulin release, where when you anticipate putting food in your stomach (think about eating or swish something in the mouth and spit it out) and your brain makes your insulin increase. So the more frequently you are accustomed to / expecting to eat, the more you are bringing this into play as well.


“Protein is essential to be taking in. It helps rebuild, regulate processes in your body, helps with weight maintenance and balanced meals and with fitness.  But eating high protein isn’t a long term answer and the increased frequency of these meals may be harming you.  Try to eat 1/3 of your meal as protein, and as much of it as you can as plant protein, and try to avoid protein products. You can eat some meat if you want, but l recommend only 2 servings per week and be careful with the way you are cooking it”

So, here we are. All foods make your insulin go up so all foods will make you fat, right?Well, this is where it is tempting to simplify and say to just calculate calories. But, we know that we are too complicated for that. Protein and fat both really help people stay FULL longer, and also have essential roles to play in the building and rebuilding and detoxifying and biochemical and energetic processes of our bodies…..and so are really essential in a balanced healthy meal.  You need them both. Protein is especially important in the post exercise phase for rebuilding muscle.  But don’t be swayed by high protein frequent meal people for long term health (just like you shouldn’t be swayed by the high fat people for long term health). You can learn tips from both, but for now, just realize that both protein and fat are as essential as complex whole plant carbs and both are available in whole healthy foods that will fit with a lifestyle medicine approach.

Now you see why eating just low carb isn’t the answer. Why eating just high fat isn’t the answer. Why eating just high protein isn’t the answer. Now you see why WHEN you eat is essential to understanding how this weight maintenance works as well as WHAT you eat.  Additionally, the understanding that the balance of what we eat is essential, the way the components of the balance of what we eat are processed and the MINDSET of why you eat is essential.   It is MODERATION of a balance of unprocessed, mostly naturally present foods that is important.

Join us at Wholist to transform your life… exercise, sleep, food,mindset and WAISTLINE in our lifestyle medicine guided WholeYou Weight Wellness™ programs.

Dr Heather Hammerstedt is a board certified lifestyle medicine physician and board certified emergency medicine physician. Find her at to find out more about services she offers, including 12 week transformative coaching programs on food / weight and fitness, lifestyle telemedicine consultations, speaking engagements, podcast interviews and more. @wholisthealth