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The Importance of Protein

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For both vegans and non-vegans alike, I often get asked, “Why do I need protein?” It is a fair question, as generally people regard protein as something that people use to ‘bulk up’. The purpose of this article is to debunk a few myths about protein, and make you aware of why adequate protein is an important part of your diet, as well as how to choose healthy protein sources and the role of protein combining.

The body is made up primarily of protein; in fact it is the most plentiful substance in the body excluding water. Protein is a major building block of bones, nerves, muscles, internal organs and tissues, and is involved in the growth, development, repair and maintenance of all body components1.

What else does protein do for you?

  • Provides fuel as an energy source
  • Helps to produces antibodies as part of the immune system4
  • Synthesises some hormones including insulin and thyroid hormones
  • Regulates the pH balance of the blood and body tissues
  • Assists water balance in the body1

So, how do you know if you were protein deficient? Some of the symptoms of protein deficiency in adults may include weakness and low energy, recurrent infections, mental depression and poor wound healing1. It is worth noting that protein deficiency is not the only cause of the symptoms listed above, as they could also be caused by nutrient deficiencies or be a symptom of other health conditions. You can also tell if you are protein deficient at a cellular level by looking at a full blood count (this will require a test performed by your GP).*

Some people ask, “How could you possibly get enough protein from a plant?”

You may have heard or read about ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ proteins before. Basically, complete proteins include all of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts, while incomplete proteins contain either some or most of the essential amino acids. Amino acids are the substances that construct proteins to be used by the body. Essential amino acids are amino acids that the body must obtain from the diet. There are also non-essential amino acids, which the body is able to manufacture1.

Essential amino acids

Histidine

Isoleucine

Leucine

Lysine

Methionine

Phenylalanine

Threonine

Tryptophan

Valine

 

Animal foods such as meat, dairy products and eggs are all complete proteins and contain all essential amino acids2, while most plant sources are incomplete containing either all, some, or most essential amino acids. Animal proteins are complete because, in short, they come from a living, breathing animal, just like us! Livestock eat incomplete proteins, and then manufacture them in combination with other foods into complete proteins. Therefore incomplete proteins are not ‘second grade’ to animal proteins, it just means that they are not pre-digested before they get to our plate.

There are some plant proteins that contain all 9 essential amino acids3, with some examples being soybeans (tofu, soy milk, tempeh etc.)2 and quinoa3.  A diet that lacks any of the essential amino acids will prevent the proper synthesis of protein1, and will eventually lead to health problems. However, as long as you are eating a wide variety of vegetable proteins (including those from vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, seeds and nuts) you will have adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. There are so many benefits of eating plant-based protein, such as it being low in saturated fat, higher in fibre and richer in some vitamins and minerals than animal proteins4. It is a common misconception that animal protein is necessary for human health.

How do you know how much protein you need? To calculate the average protein requirement per day for yourself, you can multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8 grams. For example, a 60 kg person would require approximately 48g of protein per day. This amount is suitable for the average person, as protein needs are increased during growth periods such as childhood and adolescence, pregnancy and lactation, endurance exercise and in some chronic disease states3.

How can you get more protein?

If you feel that you may not be getting enough protein in your diet, here are some meal ideas and handy tips:

  • Supplement your diet with a daily protein shake with a vegetable protein such as Vital Protein pea protein powder mixed with soy/rice milk or water
  • Make a natural protein shake with 1 cup of soy or almond milk, 1 tbsp. chia seeds, handful of baby spinach, 1 banana
  • Snack on protein rich foods such as raw mixed nuts and seeds or hommus and rice crackers
  • Have a high protein breakfast including seasoned scrambled tofu, rye toast and wilted spinach
  • Eat a wide variety of quality protein foods throughout your day such as quinoa, brown rice, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds, chickpeas, lentils and beans
  • Add LSA mix (ground linseeds, sunflower and almonds) to cereal or smoothies

Interesting facts! The highest sources of plant protein

The vegetables highest in protein are artichokes, garlic, kale, brussel sprouts, rocket, broccoli, asparagus and spinach.

The highest protein fruits are raisins, prunes, dates and avocado.

The highest protein grain is oats by far, followed by amaranth.

The highest protein legume is the soybean, followed by lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans.

Peanuts are the highest protein nut (even though technically a legume), followed by pine nuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and then sesame seeds, flaxseed and sunflower seeds3.

{Note- the above vegetables proteins are not all complete proteins, meaning that even though they have the highest overall protein content, most do not contain all of the essential amino acids. Meaning that you still need to eat varied sources to obtain complete proteins. It is also important to eat a wide variety of foods to obtain all of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients necessary for human health.}

* Please This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it for further information about assessing protein deficiency by the use of a full blood count.

Corinne

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it has recently completed her Advanced Diploma of Naturopathy, Herbal Medicine and Nutritional Medicine receiving the Outstanding Academic Achievement award for 2011 upon graduation. Corinne is a vegan with a passion for healthy living, organic food and animal rights and is available for email consultations. Please This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

References

1. Kirschmann, D. John (2007) Nutrition Almanac 6th Ed. McGraw-Hill, USA.

2. Balch, A. Phyllis (2006) Prescription for Nutritional Healing 4th Ed. Penguin Group, New York.

3. Murray, M; Pizzorno, J; Pizzorno, L (2005) The Encyclopaedia of Nutritional Healing, Atria Books, USA.

4. Whitney, E; Rolfes, S.R (2005) Understanding Nutrition 10th Ed. Wadsworth, USA.

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