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We need the building blocks of protein (amino acids) to make muscle, bone, tissue and skin. We also need amino acids to make enzymes, hormones and even our DNA. In fact, 16% of our body is made up of protein!
We cannot make protein from carbs or fat and we don’t store a lot of protein so we must constantly replace protein by eating it in our diet. If we do not have enough protein in our diet we start to break down muscle to obtain it. A diet chronically low in protein will prevent you from being able to build up muscle and therefore build strength. Exercise will become harder and you will feel weak and tired (similar to over-training).
Enzymes and hormones may be in short supply due to lack of the right amino acid building blocks. Children with low protein intake are slow to grow and may be short and thin. Protein deficiency in children often results in a swollen abdomen and fluid retention known as kwashiorkor. As we get older we lose muscle bulk, so it’s important to keep up an adequate protein intake and do exercise to keep the muscles strong and healthy. There is also some evidence that poor protein intake is related to osteoporosis.
So we must eat protein in the form of meat, fish, eggs, cheese or vegetable sources, break it down into amino acids then build it back up into the right kind of protein that we can use.
Sources of Protein
Animal protein – meat both red and white, fish, cheese, dairy and eggs.
Vegetarian sources of protein are legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, tofu and soy as well as pea protein and hemp, spirulina.
There are many people today surviving as healthy vegetarians and vegans. It is quite possible to get all the nutrients from vegetarian sources but you must eat a balanced diet to include the whole range of nutrients. There is no point in people living on toast and cereal and calling themselves vegetarian because they don’t eat red meat. Many vegetarian people eat very few vegetables but fill up with pasta and cheese which will only lead to ill health and a weak immune system.
Vegetarian sources of protein are short on some of the essential amino acids, so people living on only one type of food may run into protein deficiency. By combining protein from different vegetarian sources the whole range of essential amino acids can be found. For example by combining legumes or nuts with grains, tofu or dairy all the amino acid bases will be covered. This does not necessarily need to be at each meal but over a period of 24 hours is fine.
Beans are great, as they contain plenty of fibre and are a cheap source of protein. They are excellent in soups and casseroles as well; use kidney beans, cassiolet beans, black eyed peas and pinto beans to reduce the amount of meat in a stew. This is a great way to make a small piece of good quality meat go a bit further to feed a family or make a vegetarian stew using only veggies and beans. Try making chilli with a smaller amount of good quality low-fat ground beef and twice as many kidney beans as usual. It costs less too!
Legumes: Lentils are also a good vegetarian source of protein, as well as peas, and can be added to soups and casseroles. Chickpeas are another type of bean, which you find in humus, a Middle Eastern dip. These can also be added to casseroles to add healthy vegetarian protein, as well as put in salads and dips.
Soy and tofu contain high levels of protein, but some forms have a lot of natural oestrogens and phytic acid, depending on the quality of the source – and may also contain harmful chemicals formed during processing.
Also, a lot of soy and tofu are highly processed or genetically modified (over 90 percent of soy is now genetically modified). Source out organic soy milk and tofu to ensure that you’re not getting extra chemicals and use fermented soy products such as miso.
Other plant proteins: Quinoa, chia, pea, hemp and spirulina are great sources of vegetarian protein. They have a wider range of amino acids than other sources, so they contain all the amino acids you need as well as some healthy Omega 3 oils.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are good sources of protein, so a daily serving of nuts is a healthy snack. However they are calorie dense, so portions need to be controlled if obesity is a problem. Each nut has a different proportion of vitamins and minerals, so a variety of nuts is a good choice. For example, most nuts contain magnesium, calcium and potassium, as well as good protein. Walnuts are full of omega 3, and Brazil nuts are a great source of selenium. Pumpkin seeds have the highest level of zinc of any nut or seed.
Avoid peanuts or groundnuts as they’re not a true nut but a legume. Peanuts are high in inflammatory Omega 6 – arachadonic acid – so avoid peanuts and choose healthy macadamia nuts. Almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are also healthier options.
Try to source organic raw nuts and seeds, rather than eating those roasted in oil. Roasting destroys most of the nutrients, and the oil is often inflammatory Omega 6 and refined with chemicals.