Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Protein, glorious protein!
Protein helps us heal, and protein builds muscle. Two major needs for every person. It is no wonder we want more protein. How do you define protein? Meat eaters consume large steaks, athletes add protein powder to water, and parents make sure there is protein at every meal. Still they wonder if it is enough.
Some people think they need a “complete protein” to describe an adequate and quality protein source. Technically speaking, protein is made of 20 amino acids. Our body can manufacture 11 amino acids, and 9 other amino acids must come from our food. When all 20 amino acids are present in a food, it is considered a “complete protein.” Meat, dairy and eggs are all complete proteins. For many older adults, who were raised with the notion of the four food groups, it is a concept that we have a hard time letting go. Fortunately, science has debunked the myth of a complete protein. Scientific circles widely accepted that vegetarian diets are quite healthy, and there is no need to fuss over food combining. Turns out, our bodies are smarter than given credit for, so as long as you are providing your body with a full spectrum of amino acids over the course of a week, then your body will receive the protein it needs.
Do you get enough protein?
You see, the reality is that everyone who is eating enough calories is almost guaranteed enough protein! You literally have to eat potato chips and drink pop all day long to fall below the mark. This is because protein is present in a variety of foods and is easy to incorporate into any meal plan. Vegetarians can easily obtain the 9 essential amino acids by eating a good variety of plant foods. There are several vegetarian foods that are stand-alone complete proteins, including soybeans, quinoa and chia seeds. So regardless of your diet preferences, if you eat enough, you will get enough protein.
Quality protein is important
Sadly, for the meat eaters, animal protein comes with saturated fat and cholesterol. Red meats are associated with higher rates of cancer. Chicken is high in cholesterol, which is implicated in heart disease. Fortunately, there are many ways to eat protein without negatively impacting your health. Fish provides an excellent source of protein with minimal cholesterol, along with a bonus of healthy omega fats. Plant protein sources include all vegetables, and are free of cholesterol. Healthier fats, such as the omegas, and the poly and mono unsaturated types, often accompany them. For example, nuts and seeds are high in protein and fat, but the polyunsaturated kind, which are actually beneficial to your body.
Who needs additional protein?
1) Elite athletes who are looking to build muscle. College and professional athletes are generally in this category. This is where a nutritionist is helpful. While tempting, it is a mistake to load up on a meat-based high protein diet. A nutritionist can assist with diet strategies that will meet these high needs, without overloading the body with excess saturated fats and cholesterol. Consider this: There are many professional athletes, like tennis star Venus Williams, who are vegetarian. Without question, she has achieved great success on a diet that has built a strong body without eating meat.
2) The next category of high protein needs: People who have been injured and their tissues need to be rebuilt. This is especially true of those with burns and open wounds. Doctors may even prescribe a protein supplement because protein is so vitally important in the healing process.
Do children need additional protein?
No. Their bodies need a wide variety of food - from fruits and vegetables, to grains and protein. As long as they are getting enough calories and getting sufficient exercise, then they will develop strong and healthy. Children are naturally curious and may develop a preference for a variety of foods, including tofu (or “toad-food” as my kids called it)!
Just remember that when it comes to protein, quality matters. You can build muscle and keep your heart healthy by eating higher quality proteins. So put those protein powders down, and explore some new foods.