by Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Dear What Does Your Gut Say,
I’m toying with becoming a vegetarian, and I want to understand more about daily protein intake. Can one single food (other than meat) provide all our essential protein? – Jon P
It’s great that you’re researching protein before jumping into a specific nutritional lifestyle like vegetarianism. Understanding the basics of protein will provide you with a better nutritional foundation, regardless of your protein choices.
Similar to Legos, you can’t build a tower of wellness without the interlocking ability of complete and incomplete proteins. Without protein, our bodies would have no structure – it’s found in every cell, muscle and tissue of our body. What bricks are to a bridge, building or tower, protein is to cell nutrition.
Metabolic mechanisms that control bodily functions, such as enzymes and hormones, are also made from protein. They forms blood cells and antibodies that protect us from illness, disease and infections. Combined with carbohydrates and healthy fats, proteins provide the fuel that is vital to sustain efficient functionality of our body’s cells.
While protein is sourced from the food that we eat, what our bodies do with it is a complicated process. Once animal and plant proteins are consumed, our digestive systems break them down with the aid of specific enzymes. These digested proteins are re-synthesized into new proteins that are used to replace cellular membranes that have become weakened or worn out. These secondary proteins, also known as amino acids, are vital for our strength and the integrity of the cells that make up our muscles, ligaments, tendons, skin, hair and nails.
Daily, our bodies require twenty-two amino acids to function on a basic level. These amino acids are categorized into two groups: essential and non-essential. Eight of these amino acids are considered to be essential, meaning that they’re derived only from food that we eat. The remaining fourteen are considered to be non-essential and are manufactured by our bodies rather than through food. However, the twenty-two amino acids work together, and one category can’t function without the other.
Picture going to the grocery store to get your weekly essentials for survival. When you get home, you unpack your groceries and put them away in the areas of your house where they are best utilized. Toilet paper is stored in or near the bathroom, laundry soap goes by the washing machine, and so on. This succession of actions is analogous to how our bodies assimilate protein into essential items that your body (your household) uses daily.
Complete proteins, such as meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, some dairy products, and some seed-based proteins such as quinoa and chia, contain the eight essential amino acids that form new proteins together with the non-essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids and are found in grains, nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Interestingly, much like how the sum of two odd numbers equal an even number, the combination of two or more incomplete proteins forms a complete inventory of essential amino acids. A perfect example is found often in developing countries or in regions where protein is scarce, but the combination of grain (rice) and a legume (beans) does the trick.
Although critics argue against this, carnivores, vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans get adequate amounts of protein through plant-based foods. While carnivores and pescatarians get more meat-based proteins – and therefore a complete protein – vegetarians and vegans can combine two or more incomplete plant-based proteins to ensure a complete protein diet. They can also consume quinoa or chia seeds for their daily-required protein amount.
One card-deck sized portion of meat will fulfill a carnivore of their daily required protein needs. When our bodies reach their quota for animal-based protein for the day, they store the extra protein in our fat cells. Plant proteins react differently, and depending on our metabolism level and body weight, they will be digested and nutritionally used by our bodies differently than meat-based proteins; it’s still stored, but it’s stored and ultimately used differently.
The best sources of complete and incomplete protein come from the same list that defines a whole foods diet such as fish, shellfish, lean meats, eggs, legumes, unprocessed grains, some dairy, quinoa, chia seeds, nuts and other seeds.
Carnivores, vegetarian, pescatarian and vegan dietary lifestyles can be achieved by being mindful about the type, quality and quantity of proteins for optimal body performance. While the combination of foods from a whole foods diet provides enough over-all protein for most anyone, those with medical and dietary restrictions may require a different set of recommendations. They are encouraged to consult a nutritionalist or medical advisor who is knowledgeable in specific nutritional needs.