Since I tackled the major hurtle of FAT, I figured protein sources would be a good topic to attack next. Second to fat, poor protein is one of the most misunderstood and falsely condemned sources of nourishment. Most “experts” in society consider protein one of those necessary but very limited food groups. Obviously, protein can be obtained from a large variety of foods, so rolling it all together can be troublesome. While meat is the logical first thought for most when it come to protein, modern society likes to tell us that we can get equally good nourishment from soy (cringe). Other sources tell us that it is preferable to get protein from a powdered concoction of dried whey and chemicals. Others (like Atkins) say that meat, meat, and only meat are the only acceptable sources of protein and that all carbs were created bad.
Proteins, on a strictly molecular level, are made up of amino acids in a linear chain. The sequence of amino acids in a protein molecule is defined my the sequence of the gene for that protein. There are 20 standard amino acids specified by the genetic code, though proteins can work together for certain functions and form complex proteins. Proteins are absolutely essential to every cell function within our bodies, many as enzymes that are catalyst for metabolic reactions.
While many plants and microorganisms can create all 20 proteins in house, but animals (including us) must get some of them from diet. The proteins we can’t create ourselves and must get from diet are called essential amino acids. We obtain these amino acids from different types of proteins in our diet. Through digestion, proteins are broken down for use in all parts of the body. Protein can be broken down into glucose if the body is in need of it, but it is the least preferable source of fuel for energy as it difficult to convert (unlike carbohydrates). This is also the reason that contrary to popular “wisdom” we don’t need to eat constantly to “keep our metabolism burning” so we don’t “cannibalize muscle.” The body naturally uses other forms of fuel first, breaking down muscle last. That being said, a long-term, low-fat, restricted calorie diet will lead to muscle burning.
The human body needs a diet that contains adequate amounts of proteins from the right sources (we will get to this in a minute). This is the reason a vegetarian diet can (not always) cause problems within the body. (Vegetarian diets, in general, also tend to be higher in carbohydrates and lower in fats, and both of these factors contribute to the potential problems with a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle).
Adequate protein is absolutely vital, especially in growing children, as the body uses it for:
- Immune function and support
- Building of cell membranes
- Cell and tissue creation and repair
- Transporting oxygen and nutrients throughout the body
- Producing hormones and enzymes
Complete proteins are high-quality proteins that contain the essential amino acids we need for basic body function. These proteins are more easily absorbed by the body and are found in meats, eggs, fish, poultry and dairy.
Incomplete proteins are a lower quality protein that do not contain all the necessary amino acids. These are found in grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
If you’ve been around my blog much, you know my feeling on grains and high carbohydrate foods. Animal-based proteins are superior proteins anyway, and should be a substantial part of a healthy diet. That being said, not all animals are created equal. If grains are bad for us (and they are), it isn’t the best idea to eat a bunch of animals that have been fattened up on genetically modified corn or soybeans in an attempt to get health. On an interesting side note here, they feed these high-carbohydrate foods to the animals to fatten them faster. Seems logical enough that those high-carbohydrate foods might have a similar effect on us. Not convinced? Check out the cows and the humans the last 50 years… both are becoming more and more obese!
The old saying “You are what you eat” rings true here. The confounding factor is that your dietary protein (meat) is what it eats, also. Besides the extra body fat caused by these grain foods, these poor animals get really large doses of toxins to store in this fat from all the pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics used in these grains.
For those of you who haven’t seen Food, Inc., (I recommend it!) commercially processed meats in America today (i.e. the kind you buy at the grocery store) are fed large amounts of modified, high carbohydrate feed to speed the process of getting it to slaughter. These animals are also usually kept in cramped, unsanitary condition and walk around in their own feces. Even chickens today are kept in dark houses and only live 28 days from hatching to slaughter. Their bodies grow so fast that their bones and organs can’t keep up and they can only waddle a few steps before falling over. While this may be enough to convert us all to vegetarians or PETA members, there are other, healthy options of obtaining animal protein.
Let’s look at beef for an example. Cows were meant to eat grass (they are ruminants). When cows do eat grass, they function without disease and when slaughtered, have over 5 times the nutrients of grain-fed cows. The problem is that cows who eat grass don’t gain weight and don’t sell for as much. In the name of fast profit, we have converted entire species of animals to diets they were not meant to eat. To find healthy sources of protein, you will have to get a little creative, but it is possible.
Grass-fed and free-range meats can often be found at farmers markets or through local farmers. (Just be sure to make sure they are truly eating only grass and truly have room to run) Some farmers offer cow-sharing or cow-pooling, which allows you to purchase 1/4 or 1/2 of a cow when it is live and then receive the meat after it has been butchered. Similar arrangements often exist for chickens. These naturally raised, grass-fed and free-range meats boast a much higher nutrient profile and contain much more Omega-3 fats than their conventional counterparts. These naturally raised foods also taste better! If you do make the jump to organic, consider consuming organ meats as well. Organ meat consumption has gone down in America, but organ meats contain high levels of purines and proteins and are a great source of nutrition. For those of you who have access to it, wild game meat is also an amazing source of nutrition. (As I have just gotten access to this myself, I will be chronicling my trial and error of preparing wild game in the next few weeks!)
Another benefit to these naturally and organically raised meats is that they are treated humanely, allowed to exercise and breathe fresh air. It seems that many vegetarians oppose not the consumption of meat, but the horrible treatment of most conventional animals (rightly so!).
I personally buy our meat from local farmers through cow-sharing, but there are also online options for those who don’t happen to live down the street from a grass-fed beef ranch. Just search for cow-sharing in your area or “organic Grass-fed beef” to find some online options. If buying at stores that carry these options, look for labels like “organic,” “exclusively grass fed,” and “free-range pastured.” Beware of labels like “all-natural,” “hormone and antibiotic free,” and simply “free-range,” which carry no real weight and are not monitored.
Sadly, our manipulation of the food chain doesn’t stop with the poor cows and chickens. We are now commercially farming fish like salmon (and catfish, which are almost completely raised in farms, and fed dog food… appetizing, huh?) The same rule applies here… we are feeling animals foods they were not meant to eat, and their health suffers because of it. These fish suffer from disease and have much fewer nutrients than wild caught varieties. Wild caught fish, on the other hand, have a much higher nutrient/trace mineral profile and are much healthier for human consumption. Look for labels like “wild-caught” on fish. Avoid fish that doesn’t specifically say it is wild caught, and avoid like the plague any fish that boasts that it is “farm-raised.” If you have to opt for conventional fish, go for cans of chunk light tuna in cans or sardines. While this may seem weird, these fish contain the smallest amounts of mercury and are wild caught. Shrimp and lobster are other great sources, again if wild caught.
Foods like raw nuts (note: peanuts are not nuts) and organic high-fat unsweetened plain yogurt also contain adequate amounts of proteins and are acceptable options (though in lesser amounts). These are incomplete proteins, so you won’t get the same nutrient-bang for your buck, but they do contain some good protein and are a good way to mix-it-up once in a while. Make sure to choose organic on both of these, and raw when possible. With yogurt, opt for the high-fat, unsweetened varieties.
So, once you find these healthy sources of protein, how much should you eat? As a general rule, most adults need upwards of 50 grams (many need closer to 100 grams) of protein a day. Pregnant women and many men need to consume the higher range of this scale. This protein can come from beef, chicken, organ meats, wild game, eggs, nuts, seeds, yogurt and other healthy sources, and even 100 grams really isn’t much when you cut the processed foods and carbs. Check out my food page for some recipe ideas!
- Grass fed beef and beef organ meats
- Wild game like deer, elk, turkey, etc.
- Free-range pastured chickens and eggs
- Wild-caught salmon and other fish
- Wild-caught shrimp and lobster
- Chunk-light (not albacore) tuna or sardines (in water, not vegetable or soybean oil!)
- Raw, organic nuts and seeds (soaked overnight and dried) and their butters
- Whole, full-fat, organic plain yogurts
- Conventionally raised beef and organ meats
- Conventionally raised chickens and eggs
- Farmed seafood
- Sweetened or processed dairy sources
- Nuts cooked in hydrogenated vegetable oils (most of them!)
- Beans and legumes
- Fermented soy
What is your daily protein intake? What is your favorite source? Tell me about it below!