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Proteins! For many people, the word protein probably conjures up an image of a muscular man doing a strenuous work-out in the gym. However, the notion that proteins do far more than simply building up muscle tissue as part of a body-building regime is fortunately gaining ground. The fact of the matter is that proteins have a major impact on our physical and mental well-being. At the same time, we are seeing a significant shift away from animal sources of protein to vegetable ones. This article attempts to explain what proteins actually are, why they are essential for a healthy lifestyle, what the differences are between vegetable and animal proteins, and many other issues.
What are proteins and why do we need them?
Proteins, like carbohydrates and fats are macro-nutrients. Simply put, proteins are the fuel that gives us energy. But that’s not all: proteins are made up of different amino acids. These amino acids can be seen as the building blocks of a protein, as links in a chain, each with their own role and function. Our bodies are fashioned from these proteins: they are the bricks on which our house is built. However, as opposed to a house, our bodies need replenishing with new bricks every day. After a certain time, most cells in our bodies are broken down and rebuilt. Take, for example, old cells that have to be repaired and replaced on a daily basis: the renewal of muscles, intestinal cells, the epidermis, the production of red blood cells, enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones. This constant ‘rejuvenation’ of our bodies is therefore reliant on the presence of sufficient proteins.
Essential and non-essential amino acids
We can differentiate between essential and non-essential amino acids. The former cannot be produced by the body itself and so have to be absorbed via nutrients or suppletion.
A deficiency in (essential) amino acids can bring about problems such as:
In short, a balanced diet is extremely important for taking in the right amino acids. These amino acids (i.e. proteins) are essential for the proper functioning of the system as a whole, inside and out.
Sources of protein
Proteins can be digested from all sorts of different food sources, including meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds, pulses, soya, and meat substitutes such as seitan. Likewise, products like bread and fruit contain proteins, but you would have to eat an awful lot of these before you took on board all the proteins you need. It’s important to be aware of the biological availability of a protein source. Food sources which, in terms of structure and composition, closely resemble naturally produced proteins are most easily absorbed and therefore have the greatest levels of biological availability. The implication is that these sources contain all the amino acids you need. Animal products have a greater biological availability, for instance, than vegetable products. The fact is that the latter do not always contain all the amino acids we need. For this reason, if you eat next to no meat, it’s additionally important to combine a number of different vegetable sources and to vary your diet in such a way that you take on board as sufficient and comprehensive a range of amino acids as possible.
How much do you need?
When you consider the amount of protein a person needs, you will soon come to the conclusion that we require some protein with every meal in order to meet this need.
An adult with normal levels of activity needs a net quantity of between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day.
There are others, such as vegetarians, vegans, professional athletes, severely ill people and those who have to undergo a major operation, who need high levels of protein (at least 1.2 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight).
In practice, for some people this means a shortage of protein is never far away. On the one hand, there are many people who are simply unaware of the importance of taking enough protein on board and, on the other hand, who have no concept of essential sources of protein. In my experience, more and more clients have a desire to supplement their diets with vegetable-based foodstuffs. Of course, this has major benefits for humans, animals and the environment, but it is important that it gives us health advantages too. I was told by one of my clients that she could get enough proteins, for example, by eating oats and whole grain rice. It’s true, these products contain proteins, but because they are vegetable-based, this is too one-sided. One look at her food diary was enough to convince me she wasn’t getting enough.
Rice coconut milk
4 crackers with peanut butter and hummus
1 slice of bread with chocolate vermicelli
1 piece of fruit
2 desert spoons of whole grain rice
2 slices of bread
Late night snack
Piece of chocolate
Client’s protein requirements: 75 g
Total amount of protein for this day: 35 g
My advice to this woman was to combine cereals and pulses more frequently, to use - where possible - meat substitutes, nuts and seeds, with an option to supplement her diet with vegetable protein shakes. Apps like ‘MyFitnessPal’ can help when it comes to information on the intake and share of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This is a quick and easy way of finding out if you’re getting enough and you will learn about useful sources of (vegetable or animal) supplements.
Vegetable or animal?
When it comes to nutrition, vegetable and animal proteins each have their pros and cons.
Advantages of animal proteins
Disadvantages of animal proteins
Advantages of vegetable proteins
Disadvantages of vegetable proteins
A healthy lifestyle can best be achieved with a diet that is made up of lots of vegetable proteins, no processed meat and small amounts of animal products such as fish, poultry, eggs and grass-fed meat. Since vegetable nutrients often contain proteins whose quality is less, vegetarians and vegans must vary their diet to make sure they take on board all the essential amino acids. What is clear however, is that our consumption of animal proteins exceeds the sustainability levels of the planet and impacts on the environment much more heavily than the consumption of vegetable proteins. By reducing our consumption of animal proteins, we can significantly reduce the demand for water and land use, as well as cut carbon emissions. This choice is being made easier because we now have greater access to vegetable proteins, such as algae, amarant, quinoa, funghi, vegetable protein shakes and pulses of every shape and size. Armed with the knowledge we currently have, it is more than possible to avoid consumption of animal protein and still lead a healthy lifestyle. This in turn helps safeguard the environment and also reduce our reliance on resource-intensive industries producing animal proteins.