When I say protein, I know most immediately think “meat.” I’m not just talking about meat! Protein is found in far more than meat so, for the sake of this discussion, I hope you will not simply note the information provided here to be a recommendation to “eat more meat,” as it most certainly is not! Eating too much meat can have many serious health consequences.
Many like to treat animal protein as far superior to plant protein because of it’s complete amino acid profile. However, the body doesn’t just absorb whole proteins and add them to muscle mass. It has to break them down into their amino acids to construct its own proteins. While we won’t delve too deep here, know that proteins that don’t get broken down completely can birth inflammation and disease while too much animal protein can do also be harmful to the bones, teeth, kidneys and other vital organs.
Protein is not only essential for muscle mass, but also for spurring on a plethora of physiological processes (as enzymes that break down food and catalyze reactions; as antibodies that fight off foreign invaders). While carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source (see our article on Carbohydrates: Foods that Fuel), protein can also satisfy the body’s energy needs and will in fact do so over the body using it for protein synthesis.
Protein is calorically dense but because proteins are harder for the body to break down than starches, it is not quite as efficient as an energy source as carbohydrates. This is why high-protein/low-carb diets are such a trend. The body burns more energy attempting to convert protein to energy, thereby aiding in weight loss or so is the theory but it has to be understood that carbohydrates are necessary to support this energy conversion process. The lack of adequate carbohydrates is why most find that they’re diet/weightloss efforts come to a screeching halt as the body lacks the resources needed to convert alternative energy sources from amino acids/proteins and fats.
It should be thoroughly noted: more protein does not necessarily equal more weight loss. Animal proteins are often packaged with excessive fats and other health hazards. Even too much of the leaner cuts can still lead to weight gain as an excess of calories is an excess of calories (energy which gets converted and stored as fat). This may only be worsened as an excess of animal protein can cause acidity and constipation, which stalls weight loss and health efforts.
For many looking to consume more protein out of a desire to increase visible muscle mass, remember: a lack of muscle mass is more commonly due to lack of demand placed on those muscles than a lack of resources for them. Simply consuming protein will not in itself, increase muscle mass. There must be a demand placed on those muscles for the body to determine it must make them larger to perform the tasks demanded of it. The body is incredibly efficient. If nothing is signaling to it that it needs more muscle, it won’t build it. On that same line of thought, a lack of muscle mass is not always indicative of inadequate protein intake.
All this considered, proteins are an essential part of a healthy diet and should be gathered from a variety of sources. Just as not all sugars are created equal, so is the same with protein. There are healthful and unhealthful sources. For example, a steak may be loaded with protein but may also be loaded with saturated fats. Ham may be loaded with protein but also overloaded with fat and salt (not to mention the parasites…). It’s important that you seek to get your proteins from the healthiest, cleanest sources possible to help your family maintain a healthy weight and an overall healthy body.
Proteins are found in every cell of the body, in bones, skin, hair, muscles and every other body part and tissue. They give us the enzymes that power a multitude of chemical reactions throughout the body and the hemoglobin that transports oxygen in our blood. It takes at least 10,000 different proteins to build and sustain you! It’s certainly worthwhile to be sure you’re getting the best sources possible.
Proteins are comprised of amino acids. These amino acids are found in every whole food, in varying amounts and proportions. Fruits, vegetables, grains, greens, nuts, seeds, meat, poultry, fish and dairy all contain amino acids. In animal products, the proteins are generally considered “complete” only meaning that all of the amino acids needed for protein synthesis are present. Essentially, the animal you are consuming has harvested all of the amino acids for you.
Plant-based proteins are often considered “incomplete” only because most individual plant sources do not contain all of the amino acids needed to make protein in that one single source (though there are some “complete” plant protein sources, such as hemp). However, these amino acids can be easily acquired by eating a variety of healthful, plant-based foods. THIS DOES NOT MAKE PLANT PROTEINS INFERIOR TO ANIMAL PROTEINS. It only means that you should aim for diversity among sources which you should be doing with your diet anyways.
HERE’S THE FACT: Protein deficiency in the United States and most of the world is incredibly rare! Deficiencies are typically seen in parts of the world where starvation is a real issue. Most people, especially in the United States would need NO ADDED PROTEINS in adopting most any exercise protocol. Most people are already consuming more than enough protein to support the growth of muscle mass WITHOUT added supplements, protein shakes, and extra chicken with their chicken.
On a personal note, if I’m going to have a (plant-based) protein shake, it would be either pre-workout where I don’t want to heavy my stomach with a full meal, or post-workout when I’m on the go and won’t likely be eating for a while. (Post-workout is actually a perfect time to grab a Complete Shake while the muscles are primed and ready to rebuild and replenish nutrient levels.) Protein rich foods and beverages can be great for staving off hunger and promoting the rebuild – just be sure you don’t get caught up in the head game of “I exercised therefore I need more protein.” What you do really need post-workout are carbohydrates. Not a ton, but consuming some within an hour of working out is great for restoring glycogen levels in the muscles so they’re ready to rock again when you are.
It was once thought foods had to be properly combined in one meal for the body to utilize those amino acids in protein production (such as in combining beans and rice). This has since been found to be false. While they can be consumed this way, the body will acquire amino acids throughout the day and assemble them as needed.
Essential vs. Non-Essential Amino Acids
What’s also key to understand here is the difference between essential and non-essential amino acids. An essential amino acid is one that we must get from food. The “non-essentials” are not un-needed, but are those that don’t have to be acquired from our diet as the body can convert other present amino acids into the ones it needs to comprise the proteins. (Didn’t God just make you so awesome?!).
While many try to depict plant protein as being “inferior” to animal proteins, nature shows us this is simply not true. The largest animals on the planet (elephants, giraffes, cattle, etc.) only eat plants. Even the omnivores we’re most closely biologically acquainted with, such as gorillas, only eat enough small animals, eggs and lizards to comprise about 1% of their diet. The rest of the proteins that build up these powerful creatures all comes from plants.
Don’t Get Duped!
While I am not trying to tell you to not eat meat, I do want you to see that your family can get loads of clean protein from healthful plant sources. Quite frankly, I’ve had enough of the marketing schemes and tactics employed by the meat and dairy industry duping family’s out of their health and into doctor’s offices and pharmacies.
There are many myths and misunderstandings surrounding digestibility and bio-availability, nutritional needs and more so be mindful when reading articles telling you why you should be eating more protein, as well as in recommendations as to which kind. Our capitalist culture places the burden on the consumer to consider who is making the recommendations and why. Too much of even a good thing can be bad for you.
These industries would have us believe that we really have to make an effort to get enough protein, (i.e., that we should buy their products to aid us in our deep need). Protein deficiency, especially in America, is ridiculously rare. Even the CDC states that most Americans get more than enough protein and should be more focused on an overall healthy eating plan that consequently incorporates plenty of proteins along with many other essential nutrients. Again, excessive amounts of animal protein have been linked to numerous diseases and health problems. If you’re looking to boost overall proteins, look at ways you can broaden your nutritional horizons and get them from whole food plant sources that will simultaneously boost your intake of healthy fiber and other key nutrients/phytonutrients.
For now, look to acquire your protein from a wide variety of lean, nutritious sources but fret not over acquiring enough. Be sure to incorporate plenty of beans, greens and other plant sources such as hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, asparagus, cauliflower, peanuts, mung bean sprouts, almonds, spinach, broccoli and quinoa to get a broad array of amino acids and other amazing health benefits!