What’s The Big Deal About Protein?

Especially for those of us working in the health and wellness field, we hear this word so many times that it’s lost its meaning. Even for those who aren’t involved with health on a professional level, “protein” is plastered on so many advertisements, social media, and grocery store products. But despite its ubiquity, do we actually understand why we need protein?

What is protein?

Firstly, proteins are macromolecules that contain long chains of amino acids. Proteins are important for many functions in the body such as catalyzing metabolic reactions, DNA replication, response to stimuli, and transporting molecules. The protein sequence of amino acids distinguishes each protein. The activity of the protein is also determined by how the nucleotide sequencing of the gene is folded into a specific three-dimensional structure. All of this may sound like a lot of medical jargon but we’ll get to the practical application right…now.

How much protein do we need to function as healthy individuals?

In a word, men need 56 grams of protein daily and women need 46 grams. This may cause you to want to reach for a protein shake that gives you that exact amount, but it’s important to know what kind of protein you’re consuming.

Even if you douse yourself with protein shakes, supplements, and other products, you still might not be obtaining the proper nutrients your body requires. The human body doesn’t react to all protein sources in the same way. For instance, protein derived from animal and plant sources contain many diverse nutritional building blocks, otherwise called amino acids. These nutritional building blocks are very different when compared to protein supplements that are added to processed foods and nutritional supplements.

The first and most important step is to understand the best source of protein. We can do this by determining which amino acids are present in the food source. This is important to note because amino acids are the genetic “building blocks” that our bodies use to support the cardiovascular system and many other systems of the body.

There are twenty different types of amino acids, but only nine qualify as essential amino acids. There are only nine essential amino acids because the body can produce or modify the other eleven non-essential amino acids. Histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine are all amino acids that can be found outside of our bodies in the food we consume.

Is it true that vegans don’t get enough protein? 

The answer is a resounding no.

If your meals aren’t well-rounded in their protein sources, consuming adequate protein can be a problem, but it’s a problem that can be easily fixed by eating a variety of plant-based foods – basically, by “eating the rainbow.” In order to have a complete protein diet, you should aim to mix all nine essential amino acids into your diet.

This is actually the fun part. Think of it as a puzzle and create a menu that’s full of variety and color, and you’ll be all set. For example, mix together any legume (beans, lentils, or peanuts) with almost any whole grain (rice, corn, or wheat) and voila, you’ve made a complete protein containing all nine amino acids. Knowing which food combinations provide the needed essentials will add tremendous health and abundance to your life, and don’t worry; it’ll come naturally after a short while!

Some plant-based sources contain all nine essential amino acids, like soy. What’s great is that there are so many soy-based protein-rich products available in today’s every grocery stores. Tofu, soymilk, soy nuts, and imitation plant-based meats are some examples of the soy products you’ll be able to experiment with for protein-packed, nutrient-dense meals.

Can’t I just eat meat for protein?

What most people don’t realize is that people who eat meat as a protein source are four times more likely to die of cancer in comparison to those who don’t eat animal protein. While it’s true that meat contains protein, it also contains high levels of cholesterol, fats, and sodium – all negative factors that damage the cardiovascular system. We need to weigh the cost. Not only does animal provide the risk, but they also lack high levels of fiber. Plant-based proteins are high in fiber, them easier for your body to digest.

What are some optimal protein sources?

 This list is by no means comprehensive; there’s so much protein in the plant-based world! We just listed some of our favorites here:

  • soy
  • wheat
  • quinoa
  • corn
  • tree nuts
  • beans
  • peanut butter
  • spinach
  • broccoli seeds

Looking for a place to start?

Here’s a popular, plant-based, protein-packed recipe (try saying that five times fast): Crispy Walnut Roast

Ingredients

Quantity Unit Name Link Alternatives
1 (16 oz) block of soft tofu
¾ cup chopped walnuts
1 small onion, chopped
6 cups rice crispy cereal
4 teaspoons powdered vegan broth (preferably G. Washington’s Seasoning and Broth)
¼ cup unsweetened soy milk (use only if mixture is too dry)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Drain tofu and squeeze out moisture. Mash tofu with a fork in a large bowl and mix in remaining ingredients.
  3. Lightly spray 9×13” baking dish with oil and transfer mixture into dish. Tightly cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes.
  4. Uncover and bake for additional 15-20 minutes.
Raeann Leal
Raeann Leal

Raeann is a graduate student at Loma Linda University School of Public Health pursuing her MPH in Lifestyle Medicine. In her free time, Raeann likes to cook unique and healthy dishes, read relevant and recent research articles related to diseases and their cures, and experience the outdoors.

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