The power of protein

Without adequate protein, we wouldn’t be able to grow, or repair the everyday wear-and-tear that our muscles endure. Hormones, which act as ‘cellular messengers’ are proteins, and enzymes, which help the body perform many of the chemical reactions that occur inside cells, are also proteins. The body needs these specialised proteins to keep the body functioning properly. So we need to get good quality protein, and the right amount of it in our daily diet.

Dietary protein has another benefit, too — it helps to keep hunger at bay. When you eat and digest a protein-rich meal, the brain receives signals that decrease your hunger and keep you satisfied.

All proteins are made up of ‘building blocks’ called amino acids. Many of these amino acids are essential. Which only means that our body cannot make them and so they must be supplied from the diet. When a protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is considered a complete protein. All animal sources of protein — meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and milk and milk products — are complete.

But if one or more of the essential amino acids is missing, the protein is considered incomplete. And, with the exception of soy protein, vegetable sources of protein are considered to be incomplete. So how do strict vegetarians meet their needs for all their essential amino acids? The answer is actually simple — they eat a wide range of plant proteins, and learn how to combine plant proteins in a complementary way — one protein can provide the amino acid that the other one lacks and vice versa.

For example, legumes (beans, peas and lentils) lack a particular essential amino acid. Whole grains (wheat, rice or corn) also lack an essential amino acid, but not the one that’s missing from the beans. The beans have the amino acid that’s missing from the grains, and the grains have the amino acid that is missing in the beans.

So by combining the two foods — brown rice with lentils, split pea soup with whole grain bread, or black beans with corn tortillas -— the two complement one another by providing all the essential amino acids.

Soy is unique — it is the only vegetarian source of complete protein, and the quality of soy protein is as good as animal sources of protein such as meat, eggs and milk.
Since soy protein is derived from plants, it contains naturally-occurring phyto-nutrients, beneficial compounds from edible plants. Soy protein comes in many forms, including soy milk, tofu, tempeh, fresh soybeans (edamame). Soy protein is also available in powder form that can be mixed with milk or soy milk and fruit to create a protein shake.

Ideally, a combination of plant and animal proteins in the diet is the way to go. When you include some low fat animal proteins, you’re sure to get your essential amino acids, and if you lean towards fish, you’ll be sure to get the health benefits of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Meats, poultry, and most eggs and dairy products are not significant sources of omega-3, and they can be high in saturated fat. That’s why it is best to use non-fat or low-fat dairy products, and to choose poultry breast meat and the leanest cuts of red meat.

Plant proteins have their own unique benefits. For one, they are naturally much lower in fat and saturated fat than animal protein. And, unlike animal proteins, beans, peas and lentils have absolutely no cholesterol, and can contribute a fair amount of fibre to the diet, too.

Daily protein needs are different for different people. Men generally need more than women. The former have larger bodies and more muscle mass to maintain. A general guideline is to consume somewhere in the range of 100-150 grams of protein a day, while women should aim for 75-100 grams.

Your body gets the most benefit from the protein you eat when you distribute your intake throughout your meals and snacks. In the morning, an egg white omelette, some cottage cheese with fruit, or a protein shake can all provide a good start to your day. If you include some meat, fish, poultry or plant proteins at lunch and dinner, and include some protein with your snacks — like a small carton of yoghurt, some low-fat cheese or a protein snack bar — you’ll likely hit your protein target.

(The author is a member on Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board)

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