Is Protein Hard to Digest? Are You Getting the Benefit of Protein in your Diet?


Our first day of the challenge has come to a close. With all of that protein I was consuming today, I was reminded of this timely topic. I had a recipe to share today, but I still need to take a photo of it, so I will bring it to you on Monday! Meanwhile follow along on facebook as I share what I am eating for each meal.

When I was in high school, I started leaning towards eating a beefless, more vegetarian diet. Not because I had any philosophical reason for it, I just seemed to feel good when I ate that way. Later I found out that a tendency for eating a meatless diet can be one sign of adrenal fatigue (of which I had many other symptoms). Pregnancy and nursing and a better understanding of healthy food soon cured me of my meatless diet. But I still am not attracted to eating whole steaks of meat at a sitting. I crave meat if I don’t get enough of it, but I still don’t want to eat a huge portion. A few years ago I got a controversial blood testing done which supposedly showed that I was not digesting my protein well (though I was digesting fats and carbohydrates very, very well, or so the test said).

I was not at a time in my life where I could really explore the topic of digesting protein then as I was concentrating on other family members health. But since I started this challenge, and have been happily eating my way through lots of protein, the question of protein digestion reemerged for me.

For a bit of a different perspective on protein consumption, I remembered this quote from the book Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora T. Gedgaudas (I should clarify that I disagree with many of the points in this book, but did find some very interesting thoughts and ideas). The author recommends a more moderate protein consumption.

She said,

“ Keeping protein consumption to a much more moderate level also makes digesting it far less challenging. You are more apt to easily digest and make better use of a small amount of protein at a meal, as opposed to a large slab of meat or fish in your gut that your body has to struggle with breaking down and assimilating. Many lack sufficient hydrochloric acid and pancreatic enzymes to do so; lesser amounts of protein ease the digestive burden. Protein digestion is also very energy intensive-in fact, digestion demands more energy than anything else we do-and moderating intake may improve energy levels and help minimize fatigue. Furthermore, the digestion of protein yields nitrogen by-products that the liver must process, which also burdens the elimination system somewhat. Minimizing this also helps your body’s eliminative processes function more efficiently, allowing for better detoxification, overall.” Pg210-211

Keep in mind that she advocates that you eat small amounts of everything in her diet (and no grains), yet the above rang a bell for me as I may be one of those people who have a hard time with large amounts of protein on a three meal a day basis. I realized today as I was eating all of that protein, that I ate a more moderate amount of protein when I was feeling so amazing during the testing of my book. It wasn’t always quite the amount called for by The Mood Cure. For example my breakfasts weren’t always protein rich, and I am not sure I always met the 20-30 grams of protein per meal after that- though I had close.

I do think that I often need more protein, so I was curious as to whether there was anyway to help your body digest protein. The Body Ecology had some interesting pointers.

  • Eat more protein in the early afternoon when you body has more energy to digest it. (Not helpful if you are trying to eat protein at each meal).
  • Eat your meat raw or medium rare so that it’s still full of enzymes (note: if you choose to eat your meat raw, please follow proper guidelines for safety)
  • Take Enzymes
  • Sip raw apple cider vinegar in some warm water while you eat to promote more HCI (hydrochloric acid) production .
  • And then the obvious, healing your digestive system so that you can digest protein better. They also make the interesting point that if you don’t digest your protein well, you could be eating plenty of protein but still be protein deficient! This leads to other problems down the road.

Read this whole article for more information.

For myself, I think that protein digestion is something I need to work on as I want to get the full benefit of eating all of this protein! Eating nutrient rich, digestive healing homemade broths (like chicken broth), eating lots of homemade lacto-fermented foods, and using raw apple cider vinegar in salads (like I did with many recipes in my book) or even drinking some in a bit of warm water while I eat are some of the ideas that seem reasonable to try. They certainly can’t hurt! I am also curious about trying to add enzymes as a supplement, but I need to research them more first (and also see if they will fit in the budget).

Once again, it comes down to digestive health. So, if you find it hard to eat a lot of protein, you could, like me, have a harder time breaking it down, that in turn may be preventing you from experiencing the benefits of eating more protein.

What about you? Do you think that you have a hard time digesting 20-30 grams of protein at each meal?

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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Comments

  1. says

    My experience with digestive enzymes was that they were incredibly helpful while I was ill and not digesting fats, but have little impact when I am healthy. Ironically, protein was the one food I was digesting at the time!

    I think I often get 20 g of protein with larger meals, although perhaps not with breakfast, but probably not 30 g. Personally, I’ve found very well cooked meat (tagines, curry, stews) to be easiest to tolerate; partly, because I don’t particularly like it.

    Homemade broth and pickles are great, but I don’t know that I believe that they will “improve protein digestion.” It’s not impossible, but it’s a bit of a stretch. Certainly, your gut flora has a huge impact on overall health so pre and pro-biotic foods can potentially have positive health impacts.

    • KimiHarris says

      Stephanie,

      Thanks for sharing about your experience with enzymes.

      I actually strongly believe in the healing properties of homemade bone broths and lacto-fermented foods. I notice a huge difference in my family. One thing that I forgot to mention or make clear in the above was that whenever you eat broth, the foods you eat along side it (or in it) are more easily digested (or so the GAPS book claims). The reason I believe that lacto-fermented foods could be helpful is because most of us have messed up flora. Correcting that could have a huge impact on digesting food in general. But that’s not to say that it’s going to do the trick for everyone, some may need to take other steps.

        • Michelle says

          I have heard that its not good to take enzymes regularly, because then your body stops making them and you become dependent on them. Has anyone had this experience?

        • Evi says

          Kimi try the ones by Garden of Life, they’re raw and very very effective!
          I’ve started using them a few months ago when my exclusively-breastfed baby girl started reacting to several of the foods I was eating, mainly dairy and eggs.
          After researching the topic a lot I realised that my baby is not allergic (as conventional doctors would have me believe!) but that I was having digestive problems so certain foods (like the proteins of the dairy) were not broken down sufficiently and were passed into my breastmilk partly undigested.
          I know I need to work a lot on my digestive problems (I had yeast issues for the first time in my life when I was pregnant with my daughter!) but I turned to the enzymes as a quick fix at first and found out that I could eat everything without my baby having any reaction at all!
          Now I’m reading Gut and Psychology Syndrome and trying to incorporate more raw and fermented foods in my diet to slowly heal my digestion, but still using the enzymes every now and then (like when I’m having a big meal or eating out) and feel great, no indigestion, bloating etc. :D

  2. Gail says

    I am curious about the blood test you had done to determine how well you were digesting proteins. Do you know the name or how easy it is to get done? Thanks!

    • KimiHarris says

      I can’t remember the name of it. It’s where they take just a dot of your blood and look at it under a microscope. It was very, very interesting. In fact the Weston A Price foundation had an article about it and how people who ate traditional diet had their blood looking way better under the microscope (obviously they didn’t use me as an example!). I think that there is a lady who advertises in their magazine who travels around to do this type of testing and then helps you make dietary changes (based on a traditional diet) to help you get better looking blood. It was pretty convincing when I had mine done and watched others have theirs done. But the guy who did mine just sold a lot of expensive supplements to correct it all (which could be beneficial, I just hadn’t looked into that brand yet).

  3. Tina says

    Kimi,
    My Dr. recommended that I take Betaine Hydrochloride to help aid in protein digestion.
    I have low stomach acid and therefore difficulty digesting proteins. I often feel like I need a nap after I eat much protein.
    I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but a friend of mine quoted something to me from the blood type diet that agrees with the above, my blood type theoretically has low
    stomach acid and has trouble digesting meats. I don’t know that I really believe in that theory or not, but in my case there may be something to it.

      • Tina says

        HI Kimi,
        Yes, I do notice a difference. If I don’t take them I feel full, sluggish and sometimes
        queasy from eating meats…We’re on GAPS and follow WAPF so lots of proteins
        in our diet- two eggs makes me need a nap…the betaine does help a lot, as does
        fermented veggies- our Dr. recommended having fermented foods with all proteins.

        Tina

  4. Meghan (Making Love In The Kitchen) says

    I know that I have a tough time with a lot of protein. It’s been both my peronal experience and experience with clients that often when we have low stomach acid, we naturally have a reduced appetite for meat. Supplement with HCL for a time, and often people who were once repulsed by eating meat, start craving it.

    • KimiHarris says

      Meghan,

      That’s really interesting! There seems to be some debate on whether to supplement with HCL or not. Some doctors take the approach of helping your body heal and creating more of it’s own HCL. Others supplement until the body can do it. How long do you keep your clients on it?

  5. says

    I am just learning about all of the above mentioned in the comments-the enzymes, and HCl, stomach acid (the book Why Stomach Acid is Good For You is quite interesting) and the relationship between gastritis and IBS so I’m really glad you blogged about this today. Love the helpful comments too!

  6. Lisa says

    In his book “fit For Life” Harvey Diamond talks about proper food combining and it’s effect on digestion. One rule is to not mix protien and carbs in the same meal. Protien should only be eaten with veggies so it’s easier to digest. I’ve found that I’ve had less stomach issues since following the “Fit For Life” way of eating. It’s worth looking into.

    • KimiHarris says

      Lisa,

      BED does the same, protein and carbs at different meals. I’ve actually eaten that way completely for 6 weeks. I certainly was hungry soon after a meal, if that’s any indication of digestion. LOL. I actually tried it out a few months back, but with nursing it left me feeling weak. But in general, I think it’s worth a try for those with digestive issues. I don’t think everyone should HAVE to eat that way, like some people do. But in a weakened place, it could be helpful. :-)

  7. KimiHarris says

    Two other notes:

    Both the BED and the GAPS diet (protocols for healing the digestive system) believe that when healing the digestive tract you can correct low-acidicy in the stomach. I believe that the GAPS might supplement as a temporary measure in the meantime.

    A friend who was tested with low acid in her stomach was told to drink kombucha to help. She claims it’s made a huge difference for her.

    • says

      I have to drink kombucha, ACV in warm water, or rejuvelac with my “heavy” protein meals, otherwise my digestion suffers greatly. We can’t afford the really good probiotics, but I seem to get the same results from using probiotic drinks + foods (sauerkraut, etc) with my protein as from the Bio-Kult products.

  8. Kelsey says

    I took the digestive enzyme recommended on tha GAPS website (can’t remember the name right now, but I know it contains HCl) for a while and I noticed a huge difference. I didn’t experience any discomfort or heavy feelings after eating like I often do, and I just felt better overall, probably because my body wasn’t having to work so hard at digesting (I’ve always had stomach issues since I was a baby, so that’s why I knew I needed them). I do believe they should only be used for a time, until your body learns how to produce them sufficiently again, but it probably just depends on the person as to how long exactly you should take them. I probably should’ve taken them for a little longer than I did, but I just keep forgetting to order more (not to mention the problem of budgeting everything in that I SHOULD be taking/eating).

  9. Lynda says

    I have a tendency to crave protein (and veggies) and feel bogged down by starches. I also learned years ago that I am hypoglycemic. With minimal or no protein in a meal, I inevitably have a low blood sugar attack. As long as I have a decent amount of protein, I do well. When I eat a generous portion for most meals, I do my best. (I have come to notice this in both my boys too.)

    I also suffer from low adrendal issues from time to time, as Kimi talked about, and during those times, I also don’t assimilate protein well and shy away from it. Interestingly enough, with Kimi’s comment about kombucha, since I have been drinking kombucha on a semi-regular basis, I have not experienced any adrenal issues or a desire to shy away from animal protein. (a few months now) The only exception being right at this very moment, as I am recovering from food poisoning! (which kombucha is handling surprisingly well)

    • KimiHarris says

      That’s so interesting! I wonder if kombucha was helping you? You’ve made me want to go brew some right now!

  10. says

    Hi there……Standard Process by far IS the best whole food supplement arou
    nd . They were started by Dr. royal Lee an acquaintance of Dr. price a
    nd also a dentist. A genius by far.
    .

  11. Andrea says

    I used to take enzymes all the time because I too had a hair analysis that pointed out I was not digesting protiens well. However, I was told by someone else that it’s bad to take them all the time because your body will end up decreasing enzyme production. Has anyone else heard this?

  12. says

    Hi Kimi,
    I have a question about something you wrote – did you learn or read somewhere that raw apple cider vinegar promotes hydrochloric acid production? From my understanding of the physiology (I’m in naturopathic medical school), its benefit on digestion is more so that it increases the acidity in the stomach (decreasing the gastric pH) due to its own acidity/pH. I haven’t learned that it stimulates or encourages an increase in HCl secretion. I was just wondering if you read this somewhere — I’d love to know where so that I could learn more about it! Although I do know that people use hydrochloric acid supplements very similarly – to help with digestion and by using them, it eventually helps your body increase its production of HCl in the long run, so I could see apple cider vinegar promoting an increase in HCl production in the long term picture. Technical, I know! Hope you don’t mind me asking. :)

    • KimiHarris says

      Archer,

      I believe the implication in what I read was just simply that it would help you digest your food since it lowers the ph in your stomach (and I guess it’s full of enzymes too). :-)
      I do think that lacto fermented foods could be part of the picture in healing your body to be able to have a better PH long term though.

    • Laura King says

      Hello,

      the production of HCl in the stomach is a positive feedback cycle. This means that as the acidity in the stomach increases more HCl is produced. So when you lower the stomach pH with apple cider vinegar or supplementary betaine hydrochloride your body responds by secreting more stomach acid. Hence apple cider vinegar does promote HCl secretion.

      • KimiHarris says

        Okay, so I’ve been told the exactly opposite! Specifically that alkaline water increases HCI production as the body works to bring the stomach back to a low PH. (You drink the water only between meals).

        Do you or anyone else have data on this issue?

  13. Rosemary says

    These comments are all kind of close to what I’ve experienced, so I had to chime in. After suffering through a few years of tremendous stress and upheaval in my life I began to experience significant hair loss. Being overweight, not sleeping, feeling depressed and achy all over led my doctor to believe it was all hypothyroidism. Supplementation with Armour thyroid made me feel a better, but made my hair loss much worse. Some blood work indicated I had food allergies I never knew about (dairy and egg whites). Eliminated those items, felt better, hair loss continued. More blood work showed low Vitamin D, and low Ferritin ( a good measure of how much iron reserves your body has stored). So, started those supplements, plus one Betaine hydrochloride with each meal. Ferritin crept up a bit, then wouldn’t budge, no matter how many iron pills I pounded down. Hair mineral analysis showed I was low on ALL my good minerals, and unfortunately there were toxic heayy metals present in reasonable amounts. My doctor suggested I up the dose of Betaine hydrochloride with each meal until I felt a burn in my stomach, then back off by one tablet. My magic number turned out to be 3 tablets with each meal.
    Now, FINALLY my ferritin number is up around 100. Since I was so low on ALL my ‘good’ minerals I know that rebalancing my body is going to take some time. But I’m in this for the long haul. And after falling out for 6 years my hair loss is slowing down finally. I’m feeling much more emotionally stable (had panic attacks during the worst phase), less achy, and have WAY more energy. And I sleep well at last!
    I do believe all the stress in my life taxed my adrenals into a state of fatigue. And one symptom of adrenal fatigue is reduced stomach acid production. Can’t absorb your minerals unless you have enough stomach acid. Can’t digest protein and rebuild body tissue unless you have enough stomach acid. Can’t break down harmful bacteria and candida very well in your body unless you have enough stomach acid. In my state of adrenal fatigue, my body was gradually depleted of ALL the important minerals and nutrients, because I couldn’t absorb any of them properly. So, I began experiencing fatigue from low iron, hypoglycemia from low chromium, anxiety and depression from low magnesium and zinc and omega-3s, hypothyroidism from low zinc, iodine and selenium, etc etc.
    I think the role of stress and poor digestion in diseases of the body is vastly underestimated. Can’t achieve health unless your body can take in the required fuel. But just popping a supplement isn’t a holistic approach. Yes, you may need more stomach acid for awhile to help your body rebalance itself. Reducing stress is also critical. Probiotics are vitally important. Nutritious food, clean water, good exercise – all necessary. My own journey continues, but my health continues to improve. Maybe some of this info may help others…..
    And on the apple cider vinegar issue, maybe ACV may help make your stomach SLIGHTY more acidic. This would only help a little if you are totally deficient I would imagine. The pH, or measure of acidity, of ACV isn’t anywhere near that of your stomach’s natural hydrochloric acid. Your stomach naturally has a pH of around 1 or 2, but I can’t imagine ACV would bring it any lower than 3 or 4. This is a HUGE difference, as each change of pH number is a 10-fold change. In other words, a pH of 3 is TEN TIMES more acidic than a pH of 4. A pH of 2 is (10 x 10) ONE HUNDRED TIMES more acidic than a pH of 4. So, I don’t believe that the ACV is helping with the digestion of food if you need such low pHs of 1 to digest properly, but maybe somehow it stimulates your stomach to produce more of it’s own acid. Don’t know how that works, but I’m sure about the pH stuff…… : )

    • KimiHarris says

      Rosemary,

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. It was very helpful. I hope that you are well on your way to vibrant health. :-)

  14. jamie says

    I take the digestive enzymes from Now Foods called ‘Digest Platinum’. They make an AMAZING difference. I no longer see undigested food in my stool, and no bloating at all when I take them. They work fabulous and I haven’t been able to find any enzyme supplement that is stronger than theirs.

  15. Melissa B. says

    About a 1/4 cup of sauerkraut or sipping water with a 1/4 to 1/2 of a lemon really has helped me to digest meat properly. No more stomach aches afterwards!

  16. says

    I believe the test Kimi is referring to is called a “Live Blood Analysis” (sometimes referred to as “Dark Stained Microscopy”. It’s quite a simple test and can be quite revealing, depending on what you are looking for and who is analyzing the results.

    As someone who has struggled with protein digestion for over 20 years, and now practices Chinese medicine and nutrition therapy (specializing in digestive health), this subject is particularly intriguing to me.

    I’m quite familiar with several of these approaches to nutrition that folks have been referring to, and I believe there is merit to be found in each of them. I do, however, believe that regardless of what each of these theories suggest, our nutritional needs are VERY individual, and VERY dynamic.

    Our ability to digest protein (or any food for that matter) varies throughout the day, month, season, and our life cycle. It is also impacted by our constitution, environment, state of health, quality of food, and as already mentioned … quantity.

    If you don’t mind me chiming in here… I would remind folks that balance is key, and trusting our own bodies (especially amidst so many conflicting beliefs) is the most valuable tool we can hone. With a little practice listening, our bodies will tell us how much protein (or other form of nourishment) we need, when we need it most.

    Again, it takes practice, but I do believe our body’s wisdom is the most reliable and rewarding resource we have.

    Thank you for your lovely work, Kimi!

    Kindly,
    Sharon

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