Proteins are one of the most fascinating macronutrients to me in the way that they function. We literally are what we eat and proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, predominantly providing structure and function.
- they help build cells
- they act as enzymes
- they help regulate the bodies fluid balance
- some of the bodies hormones are proteins
- they act as transporters and antibodies
- and much more
Proteins are made up of amino acids and there are 20 amino acids altogether. 9 essential, 11 non essential. The body can make the non essential amino acids but it needs the essential amino acids to be provided by food in our diet, and that’s where consuming protein comes into the picture. During digestion our body breaks the protein down into the amino acids, then we reconstruct it for use.
The amazing construction of proteins in the body
This is perhaps one of the most facinating things about protein. You see, each and every one of us is born with individual DNA and when the amino acids reconstruct into usable chain formations, they can be constructed to suit our individual DNA.
We have a ‘messenger RNA’ that instructs the amino acids to form the chains we need. And we have ribosomes that are essentially the protein making machines doing what the messenger RNA tells them. Transfer RNA then brings the amino acids into line. These chains of amino acids can be anywhere from 20 to 200 or more long and can vary in their construction depending on the nature of their work and our individual DNA. Isn’t that amazing!!!
One example is insulin, it’s made of 51 amino acids in 2 polypeptide chains joined by bridges. Another hormone is leptin, which is a 162 amino acid chain. The fascinating part is that your chainof insulin and leptin will be different to mine because it is based on our individual DNA.
So we certainly need good quality protein to help all of our cells and bodily processes function. So I thought I’d write a guide to healthy proteins to help you figure out what’s best for you.
Guide to Healthy Proteins
Meat, poultry and fish
They provide a full array of amino acids that the body can readily use and provide iron, zinc and the B group vitamins, thiamin, riboflavin, nicain, B6, B12 and so forth.
When shopping at conventional stores, choose lean cuts of beef, pork and other meats. If you’re eating grass fed or organic you can branch out to eat some of the more fatty cuts such as chops or cutlets. I’ll explain why below when I cover grass fed vs conventional.
Try to make fish more central to your diet as fish contains the essential fats EPA & DHA, also known as Omega 3s.
The mercury in fish is something to be aware of and most fish will contain small traces of mercury but shark species, swordfish, marlin, king makarel and snapper have especially high levels.
The best sources of fish/seafood lowest in mercury are shrimp, most shellfish, trout, salmon and canned tuna. Including a few servings of fish a week is a good thing to aim for. I find that eating some salmon cakes or including some tinned fish is an easy way to do it.
Organic, Free Range or Grass Fed – Is it Better?
Conventional Meat Produce
- The animals are fed grain, hormones, antibiotics, and who knows what else. Sounds funny to say but even my partner raised his eyebrows when I told him to buy grass fed beef, he said ‘all cows eat grass don’t they?’…and I went on to explain that no they didn’t! It’s a commonly held assumption because we picture cows out in the field grazing. But even here in Australia we still have a lot of the cattle being grain fed. The good thing is that most Australian cattle are not given hormones like other parts of the world and many of them still do eat grass as well.
- Toxins are stored in fat so if you are eating conventional cuts, choose the leanest cuts you can because you will be consuming the toxins these animals store.
- There is a major imbalance of Omega 6 fats found in coventional meats so make sure you are supplementing or getting your omega 3s elsewhere. Omega 6 fats are proinflammatory, which can promote the onset of disease.
- If you have a gluten intolerance or immune disorder, don’t discount conventional meats as a contributer because we can be directly impacted from consuming these meats because of their excess consumption of grains. It passes on to us. So if you suffer gluten intolerance and are still having issues, cut out the conventional meats and see what happens.
Grass Fed / Organic / Free Range Meat Produce
- Free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and toxins, and obviously the better choice when you can.
- Rich in essential omega 3 fats
- 30-40% higher in conjugated linoleic acid, another highly beneficial fat we need
- It’s okay to consume the fattier cuts with grass fed organic meats because you’re not consuming all the toxins.
- More available vitamins and minerals that our body can use
- Note: Not all free range meats and chicken are free of hormones and some are still grain fed so make sure you do some research on the brands you buy.
Grass fed, organic or free range will clearly rule every time. It is obviously better for you. BUT don’t let that stop you from eating conventional meats as they are still okay and there are many reasons why we have to.
I can’t always afford grass fed, organic but I choose the lean cuts. Go with the best you can get and afford.
Processed & Cured Meats
Everyone loves bacon, it makes everything taste better, wouldn’t you agree? But truth be told bacon is not really healthy and it’s best to keep bacon and other processed meats to a minimum as they are as their name suggests ‘processed’! Research has also shown that processed meats may contribute to colon cancers.
Bacon is a cured meat that is high in added salt, and often contains sugar, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, and other preservatives and additives.
The same goes for other various cured and sandwich meats such as salami, sandwich ham or chicken and most other things that come in a pack. A bit here and there is okay for sure, I love my bacon sometimes too. But unprocessed meats far outweigh these guys when it comes to nutrition so focus on those as your main source of protein.
Eggs are natures wonderful little package and such a versatile ingredient. They can be eaten alone or mixed with savoury or sweet dishes to make many delights.
I eat eggs almost everyday, they are a high quality source of protein and provide many vitamins and minerals including selenium, iodine, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, vitamin A, E & B12, iron and phosphorus. It is true that eggs are a dietary source of cholesterol but they don’t significantly impact blood cholesterol levels and shouldn’t have you worried.
Click here to listen to this short podcast for more info about eggs.
Not suited to everyone but they do provide a source of protein. Approximate protein content per 100-120g is cheddar cheese 33g, mozarella 25g, ricotta 28g, cottage cheese 28g, milk and yoghurt 8-9g. Clearly the cheeses provide much higher value for protein.
Seeds and nuts
Seeds and nuts provide a great source of protein but should only be consumed in small doses. 1/4 cup almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts provides 4-5g protein. Sesame seed paste/tahini 2.6g per tablespoon. I absolutely love tahini and it’s a great source of non dairy calcium too.
Beans and lentils
If you eat beans and lentils you can get some of the amino acids but most beans and legumes do not contain a full amino acid profile, meaning you could miss out on some if you don’t go for variety or food combining. Protein content per 1 cup for chickpeas is 11.9g, adzuki beans 17.3g, lima 14.7g, lentils 17.9g, and mung beans 14.2g.
Beans and legumes can cause digestive irritations for some people which may be an issue if you are trying to lose weight or have health problems. They also contain phytates and lectins which are known to bind to minerals such as zinc, calcium, and magnesium, inhibiting their absorption.
However, if you properly prepare beans and legumes some but not all of their anti nutrients can be reduced. This is really not something to be concerned about as many plants contain inhibiting features and are not necessarily a problem unless you have something going on with your health.
There is lots of evidence that shows beans and lentils provide good soluble fibre that encourages production of healthy gut bacteria, byrutate, and vitamin K. The evidence shows that a reduction in colon cancer is seen with increased dietary fibre, so beans and legumes do provide good health benefits too.
Personally, I do eat beans and lentils probably once or twice a week. I find that my digestive system handles them okay but it’s really a personal preference. They take a lot more time and preparation with the soaking, pressure cooking, and then making the meal than simply throwing some chicken or fish in a steamer. Of course you can buy the readily canned beans and legumes and this is the easier alternative to preparing them yourself.
Vegetarians & Vegans
If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet you need to be particularly aware of consuming good quality protein because many plant foods do not contain the full spectrum of amino acids so you need to do food combining and eat more of a variety to meet your nutrient needs. You also get quality B vitamins from meat sources and vitamin B12 deficiency is particularly important to watch out for.
The best sources of protein for vegetarians will be eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, nuts and nuts butters, seeds like sunflower, chia and flax, almond milk, quinoa, a variety of beans and legumes, and bee pollen.
The best sources of protein for vegans will be nuts and nuts butters, seeds like sunflower, chia and flax, almond milk, quinoa, a variety of beans and legumes, and bee pollen.
Fermented Soy Products may also be something to consider. Tempeh and natto are the best sources of fermented soy products, the ones often consumed in Asian cultures. Soy beans are one of the beans with the highest levels of phytates, lectins and other gut inhibitors so unless eaten in fermented form may be harmful to your health. Despite commonly held assumptions, tofu is not really a fermented product so should be kept out of your diet or to a minimum.
How Much Protein Should We Eat?
In Australia the 2013 recommended guidelines suggest two and half servings of protein for women, 3 servings for men, aged 19-50 years.
One serving equates to approximately 65g cooked or 90-100g raw weight meats such as beef, lamb, pork, venison, kangaroo. 80g cooked or 100g raw chicken, and turkey. About 100g cooked or 115g raw fish fillets or one small tin of fish. 2 large eggs approximately 120g. 1 cup or 150g cooked beans, lentils, chickpeas and the like. 30g nuts, seeds or nut/seed paste.
Protein is filling and satisfying so to make it easy you really don’t have to weight and measure, just include some good quality protein with every meal.
Anyway, I hope this guide helps you learn a thing or two about proteins and what sources provide the best bang for your buck 🙂
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Nutritionist & Health Coach
P.S. You may also like to read:
Whitney E, Rolfes SR, et al. Understanding Nutrition. Cengage Learning. South Melbourne.
Department of Healthy Aging. Australian Dietary Guidelines 2013. Australian Government. Canberra.