Health & Habits

Back to the Basics: Protein 101

Posted August 3, 2021

There are all kinds of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals that we need in our diets, and, undoubtedly, protein is among the ones we need most. Besides being essential for muscle growth, it plays an incredibly valuable role in many other functions of the body. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary describes protein as:

Some of the numerous naturally-occurring, highly-complex substances composed of amino acid residues joined by peptide bonds, containing elements such as oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, usually sulfur, nitrogen and sometimes other components (such as iron or phosphorus) and containing several important biological compounds (such as antibodies, enzymes, or hormones).

Protein is one of the three macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and fats) found in the foods we eat, and is vital to our survival. It’s naturally found in every human cell, including our muscles, bones, skin, and hair. Our bodies are composed of tens of thousands different proteins, and these make up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions within us. Protein is crucial for organ health, hormone production, energy, endurance, immune function, and many more vital functions. They carry nutrients in and out of cells, and we need to consume

Amino Acids: What they are and how they work

Many people correctly associate protein with muscle mass, since protein constitutes the building blocks of muscle tissue in the body. If our muscles are a house, protein is the bricks. The composition of these “bricks” are amino acids, which are a group of 20 organic compounds that share specific formation traits. They are the building blocks of proteins in both plants and animals and play a foundational role in our overall well-being.

Of the total 20 amino acids, 9 amino acids cannot be synthesized in the body and must be consumed through our diets. These are called essential (or indispensable) amino acids, which include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. The 11 remaining amino acids can be synthesized from other amino acids in the body and thus are called non-essential (or dispensable) amino acids. They include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. Both essential and non-essential amino acids play important roles in supporting our bodies. They’re involved in almost every function including growth and development, healing and repair, and normal digestion, and make up 75% of our physical bodies.

Quality of protein

The only way to get the essential amino acids we need is through the food we eat. Foods that contain all of them, and in amounts similar to those required by the body, are called “complete” proteins. Meanwhile, those that do not contain enough of one or more essential amino acids are labeled as “incomplete”.

All animal-based foods including meat, dairy, and eggs contain complete protein. The majority of plant-based protein sources such as whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, spinach, broccoli, and mushrooms are incomplete. However, there are a handful of plant-based foods such as soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and algae that are complete. It’s commonly believed that incomplete protein sources have none of at least one of the nine essential amino acids, but that’s not actually the case. Many incomplete protein sources have some of every single essential amino acid, just not in levels high enough to accomplish everything we want.

For those who regularly consume meat or a lot of animal products, obtaining the adequate levels of essential amino acids is fairly straightforward. The animal being consumed had acquired its proteins from the plants it ate, and assimilated them in the product we ultimately eat. But for those who don't eat animal products and focus on a plant-based diet, obtaining these essential amino acids just means eating a larger variety of plant foods. Experts agree that eating a wide variety of plant-based protein sources offers all of the amino acids needed to thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, and after all, filling up on plant-based protein sources is associated with better overall health and longevity, according to an August 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers explain this may be due to the fact that high-protein plants also tend to be higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. 

Sources of Protein

Here are some additional details and tips for shaping our diet with the best protein choices:

Animal-based foods:

Generally, poultry (chicken, turkey, duck) and a variety of seafood (fish, crustaceans, mollusks) are considered healthiest. Eggs can be a good choice, and dairy is recommended in moderation with sources from milk, cheese, and yogurt. Red meat - which includes unprocessed beef, pork, lamb, veal, mutton, and goat meat - should be consumed on a more limited basis and in small amounts or only on special occasions. Processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages, cold cuts, turkey bacon, chicken sausage, and deli-sliced chicken and ham are generally less healthy options. Processed meat refers to any meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.

Plant-based foods:

Eating legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other plant-based sources of protein are generally considered healthy for both our bodies and the planet. The plant kingdom offers plenty of options to mix and match foods to form complete proteins. Legumes such as lentils, beans (adzuki, black, fava, chickpeas/garbanzo, kidney, lima, mung, pinto, etc.), peas (green, snow, snap, split, etc.), edamame/soybeans (and products made from soy: tofu, tempeh, etc.), and peanuts contain some of the highest protein content from plants. Nuts like almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and seeds like hemp, squash and pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame, and chia provide not only great sources of protein, but also healthy fats as well. Whole grains such as kamut, teff, wheat, quinoa, rice, wild rice, millet, oats, and buckwheat are already staples of many different diets around the world. While many vegetables and fruits contain some level of protein, it’s generally in smaller amounts than other plant-based foods. Some examples with higher protein quantities include corn, broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and artichokes.

How much protein do we need?

There are many factors to consider when evaluating our ideal protein intake, such as age, sex, height/weight, activity level and health goals. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient we need to meet our basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount we need to keep from getting sick, not the specific amount we’re supposed to eat every day.

To determine our daily protein intake, we can multiply our weight in pounds by 0.36. However, many recent studies suggest more (up to double that amount) for optimal muscle health, especially in older adults and those trying to lose weight or build muscle. The National Academy of Medicine also sets a wide range for acceptable protein intake from 10% to 35% of calories each day. Beyond that, there’s relatively little solid information on the ideal amount of protein in the diet or the healthiest target for calories contributed by protein.

An easy way to ensure our protein levels are accounted for each day is with a protein supplement, most commonly found in the form of protein powder. Vedge Plant Protein delivers 25 grams of quality protein per serving - nearly half our recommended daily value - with a complete amino acid profile. This blend of vegan proteins is U.S.D.A. certified organic, and aids not only muscle protein synthesis but also an overall healthy body.

TRY IT FOR YOURSELF! 

Emily Arentson-Lantz, Stephanie Clairmont, Douglas Paddon-Jones, Angelo Tremblay, and Rajavel Elango. Protein: A nutrient in focus. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 40(8): 755-761. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2014-0530

Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(10):1453–1463. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182

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