Recently I’ve started to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. Aside from all of the amazing health benefits of having a veggie-based menu, I started losing my appetite for meat. Nothing sparked it, it was gradual. I didn’t watch a segment on the inhumane treatment and killing of industrial animals (however, I have been reading about it in an amazing book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivores Dilemma). So this topic is very interesting to me right now. Put aside your notions that protein is something reserved for body builders or deficient in vegetarians. Let me bust some myths about protein and teach you what it is, why you need it, and how to get it.
“Protein” is a term used to describe 22 amino acids that make up this macronutrient. Eight of them are essential, one of them is debatably essential. Essential means that the body cannot create them, and they need to be consumed from food and/or food supplements. It can be found in both animal and plant food sources. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of life.
There are two types of protein classifications:
Fibrous: used for structural purposes (skin, bone, hair, fingernails)
Globular: used for nonstructural purposes (blood clotting, fluid balance, cell repair, vision, hormone and enzyme production, proper brain function and so on)
A protein-deficient body can occur for several reasons:
- Poor consumption
- Environmental pollution
- Processed foods
- Hormones and drugs from cattle and other meat sources
- Agricultural pesticides
- Personal habits (smoking, drinking)
A few signs of protein deficiency are fluid retention in hands and feet (this is called edema), anemic conditions, depression, poor immunity, muscle wasting, hair that is dull, loose and falling out, low vitamin A levels, cataracts, and a whole range of other symptoms.
Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids. These are meat, fish, eggs, milk, quinoa and soybeans (debated by some). So how do those with soy sensitivities or vegans get their protein?
Foods low in some amino acids are called incomplete proteins. For example, legumes are low in methionine and tryptophan, but high in lysine and isoleucine, whereas grains are high in tryptophan and methionine and low in lysine and isoleucine (these are a few of the essential amino acids). Two incomplete protein foods eaten together can provide a complete protein. Here’s a handy guide:
Vegetarians get their protein, have no doubt (at least, the ones that consume more than just pasta do). Plant-based protein is also way easier for the body to digest and assimilate (when was the last time a bowl of quinoa left you comatose on the couch with your buttons undone?). Another thing to note is that you don’t have to combine proteins in the same meal. The body has an “amino acid bank” that accumulates over a couple of days.
One way that you can get your protein is supplementing. A lot of women I talk to don’t really know what the big tub of whey protein that their son/boyfriend/husband drinks, is. Well, given the marketing on those tubs, I can see why. Whey protein has an incredible biological value rate of 130%. Biological value (BV) describes how easily the body can use the broken down protein in the cells of your body. However, whey protein is very bloating, and often very allergenic for many people. Also, depending on your source, it may contain growth hormones and antibiotics. Since learning about Sun Warrior protein (a raw, vegan protein), I’ve had no need to use whey protein. It tastes fantastic and has a 98.2% BV. Casein protein has a 80% BV, soy has 65-70%, and egg has a 100% BV.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those guys (and girls) you see guzzling their whey protein like it’s going to kill them if they don’t get those extra 35 grams in one sitting. Signs of protein excess are kidney problems, liver problems, elevated blood cholesterol, bone wasting (leading to osteoporosis and periodontal disease) and increased bacterial growth in the intestines. Not cute. When excess protein breaks down in the digestive system, it breaks down into ammonia. Ammonia is incredibly toxic, so the body protects itself by converting it into less-toxic urea, which the kidneys excrete. Too much urea puts too much stress on our kidneys and poisons the blood. This can cause kidney inflammation and failure. The body can also store it in the body as uric acid, which can cause gout (you can’t lift much weight at the gym if you’ve got gout).
The World Health Organization estimates protein needs at .45 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight. North Americans consume 100-200 grams of protein daily. According to WHO, this would be enough for 3 to 6 people. Remember when meat used to be a delicacy, a treat even? I don’t, but my parents and grandparents do. We don’t appreciate the fact that we’re consuming another life. Choosing free-range, grass fed, naturally raised meat makes a world of difference. You’ll taste it, trust me.
Hopefully this has cleared things up for some of you. Protein is very much a grey area, and it’s important to know what, and why, you’re eating what you do. I’m not sure I’ll never consume meat again. I think the most important thing to remember is to listen to your body. If one day I start craving a piece of chicken and my protein shakes and bean salads just aren’t cutting it, I’ll listen to what my body wants.
Want to know more, or are you curious to know where you stand with protein consumption? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Haas, Elson. Staying Healthy with Nutrition – 21st Century Edition. 2006, Celestial Arts.