Okay, the title sounds a little corny – but it’s really true! Most people realize that protein gives us energy and helps build muscles. What most people don’t know, however, is that one of protein’s most important roles is to produce the chemicals that help us feel happy, calm and less stressed.
There are 22 major amino acids in the body. Of these 22, nine must come from the protein in your food. The body needs these amino acids for hundreds of functions, one of which is to make the neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine. These two brain chemicals help us feel happy, tolerate stress and experience pleasure. In other words, if we are not eating enough protein, we might not feel happy about a new experience or manage our anxiety well. We need our protein!
Unfortunately, depression and anxiety can be a large part of early recovery from substance addiction. Drugs and alcohol deplete serotonin and dopamine. Eating well throughout recovery can help. A balanced diet providing protein, fat and complex carbohydrates gives the body a natural “mood support” and can keep sugar cravings in check.
So how much protein do we need? The usual range for protein is between 40 and 60 grams per day. Some examples of foods containing protein are:
Three ounces of meat – approximately 21 grams (fish has a little less)
One cup of black or white beans – 15 grams
One cup of cooked lentils – 18 grams
One egg – 7 grams
One half cup almonds – 10 grams
One cup of Greek yogurt – between 12-24 grams
One cup of quinoa – 8 grams
One half cup of tempeh, a soy product – 15 grams
Sprouted bread, such as Ezekiel brand – 8 grams per slice
It’s very easy to eat enough protein – overly processed protein shakes and bars are not necessary. Save those protein bars for emergency snacks when you can’t get real food. Let’s look at a menu for a typical day.
Breakfast – Two eggs, a piece of toast and fruit (15 grams), or quinoa hot cereal and nuts (20 grams)
Lunch – Turkey and cheese sandwich (15 grams), or a salad with black beans (15 grams)
Dinner – Three ounce salmon filet, brown rice and broccoli (24 grams), or stir-fried tempeh (15 grams)
TOTAL: First set of meals (54 grams) or second set of meals (50 grams)
If you eat meat, it is important to buy the healthiest meat you can afford. That means buying meat with no added hormones or antibiotics and processed meats without nitrates. If you are a vegetarian, be sure you do not depend too heavily on “meat alternatives” such as veggie burgers. Get your protein from other great sources, such as lentils, nuts, kale and quinoa.
Start your day with protein. Continue eating protein in meals and snacks throughout the day. Including protein in each meal and snack will help to keep your mood and blood sugar stable.
But don’t overdo a good thing. Your body cannot process large amounts of protein in one sitting, especially when new in recovery. Aim for approximately 15 to 20 grams of protein per meal, and five to ten grams per snack. Your body and your mood will thank you!
Victoria Abel, MA, MNT, is the founder and owner of Center for Addiction Nutrition. She has worked in the addiction counseling field for 20 years as a family, primary, eating disorders and trauma therapist. She is also a nutrition therapist working with people healing from addiction, mood disorders, cancer and other chronic illnesses. She teaches at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, and lectures nationally on addiction nutrition.