We all know about protein. Well…we know we need it. We know it’s important. We know people on Paleo diets really, really love 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 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 deprived of important nutrients that are essential for our physical and mental 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, just like those nifty, multi-use, recreational construction bricks, protein 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.
- Is essential for heart and brain health
- Builds our red blood cells so we can transport oxygen around our bodies
- Is crucial for essential processes like digestion, eliminating waste, hormone production and processing cholesterol and fat in the body.
- Helps us feel fuller for longer and maintain a healthy weight
- Provides us with the energy we need for our busy, full and fabulous lives
Essential amino acids - don’t leave home without them
There are hundreds of forms of protein, each performing different functions in the body. All protein is made up of amino acids—high-nitrogen organic compounds 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. 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.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Where can I get a plate full of this wonder nutrient right now?
Solving the protein puzzle
Luckily, it’s pretty simple.
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, vegetable, or…?
- 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.
When too much is…well, too much.
Protein has a lot going for it, and so it’s understandable that some people believe it should form the major component of our diet. But, when protein is the primary source of kilojoules (such as in an all-protein diet), the body converts it to useable energy in the kidneys, by removing nitrogen from the amino acids. This causes stress on the kidneys and can lead to long-term adverse effects.
…and too little is not enough
On the other hand, a diet that is too low in protein can result in poor growth and reduced physical and mental development. While some traditional cultures have been known to thrive on high carbohydrate/low protein diets, the protein they did eat (insects and fish eggs, anyone?) was exceptionally high quality, the carbohydrates were usually fermented, and the diet contained no refined foods.
The answer, of course, is that our bodies need a healthy balance of nutritious, wholesome foods—including high quality protein. Maintaining good health and wellbeing is as simple as ensuring that you eat a variety of properly prepared, nutrient-rich whole foods in the right proportions—ethically-raised, grass-fed meat and dairy, free range eggs, wild-caught fish, organic and fermented fruits and vegetables, and healthy, high-protein carbohydrates (such as buckwheat, quinoa and teff).
That sounds like a delicious solution to me.
The GPA Wholefoods pantry offers a range of protein-rich products including:
- Activated nuts and seeds - Soaked and dehydrated to lock in nutrients and enzymes and neutralise toxins, our delicious range of activated nuts and seeds make perfect, protein-rich snacks.
- Organic jerky - This delicious, protein-packed jerky is made from organic, ethically-raised, grass-fed beef, sustainably farmed in New South Wales.
- Buckwheat, quinoa and teff - Our Ancient Grains range includes a selection of these highly nutritious pseudo-grains, offering complete sources of plant protein, including all nine amino acids.
- Beef gelatin and collagen hydrolysate - These high protein supplements provide the many health benefits of bone broth in an easy-to-use powder or capsule form.
- Mirrabooka Whey Protein Concentrate - is a pure, nourishing 100% Australian whey protein concentrate produced from the milk of grass-fed Mirrabooka dairy cows. Cold processed for maximum nutrient benefit, Mirrabooka Protein is GMO-free, and has no chemicals, hormones or antibiotics. Available in natural, chocolate strawberry or vanilla flavouring, this delicious protein powder is easy to use in drinks, smoothies and as an ingredient in energy bars.
You can learn more here