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Protein: building blocks for healing

Continuing our breakdown of the best foods for healing, here we take a look at protein: which sources are best, which sources to avoid, and how to help your body digest and absorb it!

Whole-food protein sources:

  • Red meat: beef, lamb, bison, venison, etc.

  • Eggs

  • Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck

  • Fish

  • Bone broth

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Spirulina

  • Beans, properly prepared

Why we need protein

Protein is one of the 3 "macronutrients," along with carbs and fats. It breaks down into amino acids required by our body for:

  • Building blocks of our bones, muscles, tendons, hormones, enzymes, nervous and immune system messenger molecules

  • Neurotransmitter production and balance - fundamentally impacts our mood

  • Regulates acid/alkaline state of the body's tissues and fluids

  • Helps maintain proper fluid balance in the body

  • Required for formation and repair of hair, skin and nails

  • Form visual pigments, blood clotting factors, collagen and elastin

  • Helps balance blood sugar

  • Required for liver detoxification pathways

Proteins vs amino acids

When we eat protein, it's broken down into amino acids.

There are 22 amino acids that our bodies use to rebuild and repair itself. 8 (some say 9) of these are considered "essential," meaning we do not make them, so we have to consume them.

Our bodies use the aminos it produces / consumes to reassemble them into 50,000 different proteins. This process takes place mainly in the liver and some in the kidneys.

If any one of the essential amino acids is low or missing, the body is unable to make other proteins it needs, even if overall protein intake is high.

Other limiting factors for making proteins we need:

- Liver dysfunction

- Vitamin B6 deficiency

Signs of protein imbalance

Protein deficiency signs*:

  • Poor muscle tone, muscle weakness

  • Lack of mental focus, confusion, irritability

  • Slow healing (injuries, surgeries etc.)

  • Food cravings

  • Fluid retention

  • Fatigue

  • Thin/brittle hair

  • Weak nails

Protein excess signs*:

  • Dehydration

  • Constipation

  • Foul-smelling gas/poop

  • Musculoskeletal issues

  • Kidney dysfunction

*These lists aren't comprehensive; there are other signs a practitioner can identify in labs to assess protein status

Amino acids for the brain and nervous system

Three amino acids are particularly important for a healthy brain and nervous system: the sulfur-containing amino acids:

  • Methionine

  • Cysteine

  • Cystine

Top sources of these aminos - these are listed in order of most to least, among the foods highest in them. Notice that animal products are much more dense in these amino acids than plants:









Brazil nuts

Hemp seeds

Pumpkin seeds

Chia seeds

Cysteine & Cystine









Sunflower seeds

Data from

Animal vs plant-based protein

Is it possible for some people to thrive on a plant-based diet? Can you get enough protein (i.e., can you eat adequate amino acids for your body's daily needs) on a plant-based diet? Yes.

Is it as efficient as eating animal protein?

No, but it can work, especially if you eat a wide variety of whole foods, pay attention to the types of amino acids in the foods you're eating and supplement as needed. Vitamins and minerals like B12, iron and zinc are also mainly found in animal products.

Is plant-based the best way of eating for everyone, all the time?

Based on my years of experience and observing hundreds of clients try out different ways to eating, I have to say no. The vast majority of people I've worked with tend to feel their best when *some* animal protein is part of their diet, at least intermittently, and often adjusted seasonally (e.g., eating more meat in the colder months).

Tips for protein digestion & absorption

I consistently see clients who eat plenty of protein (from animal and plant sources) and are still amino acid deficient. Protein digestion requires a number of processes working together, including adequate stomach acid levels and enzyme production. While you can supplement stomach acid and enzymes with meals, it's controversial, especially long-term, and I recommend working with someone to determine whether it's right for you.

Before supplementing, there are practices you can start right away:

  • Eat sitting down, as calmly and mindfully as possible. Your body will literally produce more digestive fluids and enzymes when you're out of fight-or-flight, aka stress mode.

  • Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly! More than you think you need to.

  • Try a few sprays or dropperfuls of bitters, like Urban Moonshine, in your mouth or some still/sparkling water 10-20 minutes before meals. This also stimulates digestive fluids and enzyme production.

Some nuances: pork, soy, dairy

The deal with pork...

Pork is thought to carry a higher risk of parasites than other types of meat. I typically recommend limiting it, and avoiding it if you're dealing with gut issues or have a history of parasites.

The deal with soy...

Controversy persists surrounding soy, estrogen levels and hormone-related cancers. My view is organic soy in its whole and/or fermented forms - edamame, tempeh, miso - are fine for moderate consumption, unless you have a soy allergy.

The deal with dairy...

Dairy tolerance varies widely. If you digest it well, high-quality organic dairy from grass-fed animals may be a good source of nutrition; in Chinese medicine, it is thought to increase "dampness" (heaviness, fluid imbalance, sluggishness, acne and more) in the body; I typically recommend everyone do a 30-day trial off dairy, then reintroduce it and see what happens. Grass-fed butter and ghee tend to be well-tolerated by most people.

What about protein powders and supplements?

While whole foods are always preferable to processed foods, there are times when protein powders and supplements can be helpful, including:

  • While gut healing - optimal protein digestion and absorption requires a well-functioning digestive system; providing the body with easily-absorbed amino acids can be helpful during that process. It's a chicken-and-egg thing - you need those aminos in order to heal, and you need to heal the gut to properly absorb aminos from your food.

  • When trying to gain muscle mass - while technically you could get what you need purely from animal products, supplementing can make it easier to hit your goals, especially if you eat a plant-based or plant-forward diet.

My favorite protein supplements

Protein powders:

Form Nutrition plant-based protein powders

Daily Benefit Active Protein Powder


Ora So Lean So Clean

Protein bars:

Sakara Metabolism Bars - code XOSMW for 20% off

Sakara Beauty Bars - code XOSMW for 20% off

Go Macro bars

Protein supplements:

Perfect Amino tablets from Body Health

How much protein do I need?

While many sources will say something like 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight up to 1.3 grams or higher, there remains a lack of clarity around this. My take, based on my education, years of research and experience with hundreds of clients is that - unless you are working toward a very specific goal - protein needs vary widely from person to person, and it's more important to focus on getting the full scope of essential amino acids throughout your day, from a variety of foods than counting grams of protein. Herbalist Rachelle Robinett has a wonderful well-researched article about this with great information.

What's right for you...

Everyone's needs are different and they will vary at different points along the healing path. Carb needs also change at different ages and different times of year.

Any of the foods mentioned here may not work for one person, for one reason or another.

Always listen to your body, and consider partnering with a knowledgeable practitioner to help guide you.

*All information shared in this post is intended for educational purposes only and does not serve as medical advice

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