More protein = I feel better?

I’m planning to post my first Hong Kong travelogue entry today, but first I have to get this off my chest. (No, not a purring cat. That’s at bedtime.)

Erik was doing a little internet research today, because he’s been thinking his climbing/running progress is slower than it should be, and he wondered whether this was due to diet. To make a long story short, he figured out that according to the USDA guidelines, we’re both eating much less protein than we should be. This was a shocker for me, because my entire veggie or quasi-veggie lifestyle for the past 9 years has been predicated on what I’ve read in vegan book after vegan book: don’t worry about protein, because Americans all eat more protein than they need to. What Erik figured out was: (a) we don’t eat like normal Americans, so the above mantra doesn’t apply to us, and (b) protein RDA is calculated by weight, so since I’m about 20 pounds overweight, my body requires more protein than I think it does.

The overweight thing first: for years, ever since I first started to take an interest in nutrition, I’ve assumed that I need to be eating for my goal weight, not my actual weight. The USDA says to eat 2,000 calories per day; weight-loss calorie calculators tell me to eat between 1,500 and 1,800. So this is what I’ve been striving for. It’s probably a good standard when it comes to stuff like sweets and refined starches, but maybe it doesn’t hold as true for fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, or protein. This was something that had never occurred to me before.

Now to the SAD (Standard American Diet) stuff: frankly, I have to say I don’t even know what most Americans eat anymore. If the supermarket flyers are any indication, it’s a lot of high-sodium, high-sugar, heavily processed convenience food. But truly I don’t know. When forced to make a guess, I imagine something rather heavy on protein: sausage, egg, and cheese at breakfast, a bacon cheeseburger at lunch, and maybe a big piece of chicken or beef at dinner. There’s protein in wheat, too, so the breakfast bagel, burger bun, and evening pasta would contribute to the protein count as well. My food choices are nothing like these. A normal day for me might go like this: a boiled egg and whole wheat toast, a tuna sandwich for lunch, beans and rice and vegetables at dinner. In my mind that’s a lot of protein, but it’s nothing compared to eating big servings of meat and cheese, and it’s not at all unusual for me to skip protein with a meal either. Even when I eat meat — which is much more frequent now — it’ll be maybe a drumstick with dinner. So all those times when I thought I was going kind of heavy on the protein, I’m realizing now that I probably wasn’t.

The reason I think this not-enough-protein theory is probably true is because of what we ate while in Hong Kong. My Hong Kong diet was completely different from my diet here. Partly the serving sizes and meat/carb/veg proportions are different there; we also ate substantial restaurant meals that were not ordered by us. Here’s what my standard Hong Kong day looked like: two eggs, a piece of ham, and a single piece of white toast for breakfast, a lunch that consisted of several different kinds of seafood and meat and only a single bowl of rice, dinner the same. I ate a shockingly low amount of starches, far fewer sweets than I do at home, a little less fiber, and way more protein. Probably too much protein, but the fact remains: jet lag made me dizzy, and we walked about 5 miles a day in heat and humidity. Normally that would leave me exhausted, but on our trip I felt fine (aside from sore feet, and the sleepiness). I didn’t crave sweets, I didn’t feel disgustingly stuffed after meals, and I didn’t want snacks. I never got headaches. We existed on a dramatically smaller dose of carbs and sugar than we’re used to, but I never had a problem with low energy. This goes against everything I’ve been thinking for many years.

Our Hong Kong eating habits have been on my mind ever since our return. The way I felt when I was there was just so different from the way I feel here, and the way I responded to food and eating was so much more balanced. I still can’t believe how little dessert I ate there! I’ve been pondering many things: variety in each meal, freshness, flavor, and portion size. Now I’m thinking about protein too. When we came back, we bought some eggs, ham, and roast beef; we ate the last of the lunch meats yesterday. Today I was out shopping and I picked up a package of smoked salmon and another of veggie meatballs. I felt like I was buying tons of protein, but it felt like the right thing to do… then I got home and Erik explained his protein theory.

I think it’s very possible that if I want to feel as good as I did while we were on vacation, I need to start eating a lot more protein. Intellectually I don’t really like this, because I was just on the point of wanting to cut out meats again, but from a purely objective standpoint, it’s going to be harder for me to change the protein ratio in my diet if I do it veggie-style. (I’ve written about my veggie diet difficulties before.) But from a brainless, instinctive, physical standpoint, I really really want to try this more-protein diet (and I also want to walk more, like we did on our trip). I was sleep-deprived and hot and dizzy, but I felt really good in Hong Kong. I want to hang on to that feeling. So… possibly… I will be eating omnivorously for a while. I’m still not quite sure how this will work, because our trip also reminded me, more than ever, that meat is death (not a value judgment, just the truth — more on this in later entries). But I’m guessing I’ll continue to order veggie food in restaurants, while preparing veggie meals and humane meat at home, since this is how it’s panned out since we’ve returned.

I know this entry is already getting ridiculously rambly, but one more thought. When I first went veggie as a college sophomore, it was always an emotional and intellectual choice. I’ve never been one of those vegetarians who actually can’t stand the sight, smell, or taste of meat. Then when I started eating some meat again, it was also an emotional choice; I was having all those worrying stomach troubles, and I was just feeling rebellious and wanting to eat food that felt comforting and good. So it’s going to be interesting, this time around, to try it from a place of instinct and intuition… I think of it as “thinking without using my brain.” I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve lived long enough with overanalytical thinking to know that there are all different kinds of intelligences, and the body does have its own. If my conscious brain provides the exercise opportunities and the good-quality foods, will my body be able to do the rest? If I just let it make its own choices, will it be able to make me healthier and happier? Let’s find out.

Oh, and dear readers, I’d love to hear what a normal eating day looks like for you! What’s your standard diet?