We all know about protein. Well…we know we need it. But how much do we really understand about this vital nutrient? Protein has a mixed reputation. Some people advocate for a high protein diet, while others believe that protein should form only a small part of our food intake. The typical Western diet is typically carbohydrate-heavy, with cereal, pasta, bread and flour forming the centrepiece of most meals. This can mean that protein is edged to the side (or off) the plate, leaving us in need of important nutrients essential for our wellbeing.
In addition, we’re urged to eat less fat, which means many of us are consuming a diet high in processed, grain-based foods and low in protein and healthy fats—and that means depriving ourselves of many essential nutrients we need for growth, repair and healthy function.
So, how much protein do we really need and what are the best sources to include in our diet?
Protein is essential for almost every biological process known to the human body. It’s the Lego block of nutrition and is used to build just about everything in the body.
Protein drives growth. Without it, we couldn’t make or repair our muscles, tissues, bones, blood, organs, skin, fingernails and hair. It is essential for heart and brain health, and builds our red blood cells so we can transport oxygen around our bodies. It is also crucial for essential processes like digestion, eliminating waste, hormone production and processing cholesterol and fat in the body. Protein helps us feel fuller for longer and maintain a healthy weight, and provides us with the energy we need for our busy, full and fabulous lives.
The many forms of protein
There are hundreds of forms of protein, each performing different functions in the body. All protein is made up of amino acids that are released when we digest protein-rich foods, and absorbed into the bloodstream where they are channelled to meet the body’s needs. We need 20 separate amino acids for proper growth and function. While the body can make some of these itself, there are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce, that must be sourced daily through the food we eat.
The amount of protein and essential amino acids that we need changes over time, depending on our age, gender, life stage, health and lifestyle. But no matter who we are, our bodies need the right combination of amino acids, in the right proportions, to maintain wellness. And unlike other nutrients, such as fat, protein cannot be stored by the body, but is depleted through normal metabolic processes. So we need to eat enough protein-rich foods to replenish our body’s supply of this vital nutrient, every day.
So where can we get a plate full of this wonder nutrient? Luckily, it’s pretty simple.
Where to find the best sources of protein
Protein is found in a wide range of animal and plant-based foods. But it’s important to understand that not all sources of protein offer the same benefits.
Animal sources—such as ethically-raised, grass-fed meat and dairy products, high quality fish and free range eggs—offer complete forms of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Being protein-dense, these foods offer the richest and most biologically available form of protein, even when consumed in relatively small amounts.
Plant sources of protein include legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables and high-protein grains, including quinoa, buckwheat and teff (which contain complete protein). While highly nutritious, many plant sources contain incomplete protein—lacking one or more essential amino acids, or containing them in insufficient proportions.
For this reason, people choosing vegetarian or vegan diets who are drawing all their protein from plant sources, need to combine their foods carefully to ensure that they receive adequate quantities of complete protein in their diet. For optimum nutrition, choose high quality, organic, plant-based protein and make sure you eat these foods in the right combination and quantity.
The best of both
Consuming a balanced combination of high quality animal and plant-based foods, and limiting processed food products, offers the best and healthiest option for ensuring you consume enough complete protein to meet your body’s needs.
What about plant-based protein powders?
A lot of people are now turning to plant based protein powders on the advise that these are ‘cleaner’ proteins. Presently, the most popular products are based on rice, pea, hemp and soy. Interestingly, these sources (in their whole-state) are not especially rich sources of protein - so many steps are required in manufacturing these products before a high concentration of protein is yielded. What we’re left with can be difficult to digest and metabolise.
Protein powders have certainly come a long way and can be a convenient way to boost our nutritional intake, but the nutrients are mostly in a form that is difficult for our bodies to absorb and can often irritate the gut so be sure to keep this in mind when including them in your diet. Sometimes the nutritional panel on the side of a packet can look amazing, but as the saying goes, "You’re not what you eat, you're what you absorb”.
What about gelatin?
Gelatin and collagen peptides are an animal-based protein source and offer the same nourishing proteins found in the bone broths, soups and stews of traditional diets. Whilst they are not a complete protein (they are missing Tryptophan), they have one big plus: digestibility and absorption.
The great thing about both gelatin and collagen is that they are extremely gut-friendly and offer proteins and nutrients in a form which is easily absorbed and utilised. Gelatin is impressively rich in the amino acids glycine and proline, which are known for playing an important role in strengthening and healing the gut. In particular, glycine can improve your ability to produce adequate gastric acid and digestive enzymes. This means your body can digest and absorb nutrients more effectively.
Gelatin can be added to many savoury recipes to thicken and enrich them, or used to make delicious gummy treats, while collagen peptides can be added to smoothies just like other protein powders. Both Paleo and Keto friendly, the spectrum and ratios of amino acids in both gelatin and collagen peptides have the additional benefit of supporting healthy skin, hair, nails and resilient gut lining.
I hope this article has helped you see how easy it is to include delicious, protein-rich foods in your diet, and make sure you find the right balance of healthy protein to promote wellness and vitality.