Protein is an essential nutrient that is made out of nitrogen-containing molecules called amino acids. There are 25 amino acids that are pieced together in different combinations to make different kinds of protein. These different proteins are what make up our cells and organs. There are eight "essential" amino acids; they are termed essential because the body cannot produce them itself and therefore they must be obtained through the diet. The eight essential amino acids are tryptophan, valine, leucine, isoleucine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and lysine. The balance of these eight essential amino acids in the protein of a food determines its quality or usability in the body.
When you hear the word 'protein,' what foods generally come to mind? For the majority, foods such as eggs, meat, and cheese come to mind. It's a common misconception that you have to eat these types of foods to get enough protein to grow big and strong.
Additionally, the perception of how much protein is really needed is not accurate. According to the World Health Organization, around ten percent of total calories should come from protein (which is approximately 35 grams a day). This is much easier to get in the typical diet than most believe; many would be surprised to discover that essentially all lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and most vegetables and fruit provide more than the ten percent protein recommendation. This means that if you are eating enough calories, it is almost certain that you are getting enough protein, unless you are eating a high-sugar, high-fat junk food diet.
In fact, many people today are in danger of consuming too much protein, which is dangerous to health. Too much protein can lead to osteoporosis, acidosis, kidney problems, bone problems, and several other common health problems.
There is also a common misconception that animal protein is superior to plant protein. This, however, is not true; plant proteins are just as good for supplying protein, if not better because they tend to be easier to digest and assimilate. Often, it is assumed that animal proteins are the only sources of complete proteins. Complete proteins are protein sources that provide all eight of the essential amino acids. However, many plant proteins are complete proteins. Quinoa is an example of a plant protein that is also a complete protein, as are soybeans. Furthermore, combining grains and lentils, such as beans and rice, is also a way to ensure that you are getting all eight of the essential amino acids. The reason for combining, say, vegetables and beans is that vegetables tend to be lower in the amino acids methionine and lysine, while beans and lentils are high in these two amino acids. Therefore, combining plant-based proteins that complement each other provide a complete protein source.The best protein foods, however, are not always the foods that are highest in protein; other nutritional considerations of a food need to be taken into account as well. For example, a particular piece of meat might be high in protein, but might also be high in saturated fat and preservatives. On the other hand, plant proteins such as quinoa are also high in protein, but don't contain saturated fat, hormones, etc; furthermore, they provide complex carbohydrates and other essential nutrients. Plant proteins are also easier for the body to break down, digest, and assimilate (use) in the body. This makes plant proteins a superior protein source. More and more studies are showing that high meat consumption has detrimental health effects, such as increasing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, which is another reason why plant proteins are superior to animal protein. To summarize, most people think that they need more protein than they actually do, and most think that this protein needs to come from animal proteins such as meat and eggs. These proteins are hard on the body and have been highly correlated with many diseases. Plant proteins are superior sources of protein because they supply the body with the essential amino acids while also providing complex carbohydrates and essential nutrients. Some great vegetarian sources of protein are listed below.
- Whole grains, such as quinoa and brown rice
- Soybeans (Tofu)
- Seeds (chia, hemp, flax, etc)
- Vegetarian protein powders
- Meat substitutes