Why do we need protein?

By Amanda Tesser

“Where do you get your protein from?”

There’s a reason why people who have adopted a free-meat diet hear this question over and over again: the myth that only meat can provide us with protein.

So, first, let’s define proteins. They are organic molecules formed from the connection between two amino acids. Proteins participate in several processes involving our cells and perform vital functions. One of their key tasks is to produce antibodies.

Meat, fish, eggs, cow’s milk and cheese have high levels of protein. These are all animal sources and can be considered complete, which is related to the composition of their amino acids.

What many people don’t know — and that’s why I mentioned there’s a myth involving this topic — is that we can find proteins also in vegetal sources.

The difference is that most of these sources are considered incomplete so, depending on the vegetal sources you’re getting your protein from, they won’t have all the essential amino acids that you need.

Amino acids are called “essential” when they are obtained from food (because our bodies don’t produce them). When our bodies produce them, they’re called “non-essential.” But don’t be misled by this term. Non-essential amino acids are also important.

Most of the protein found in vegetal sources have a very small amount of one or two essential amino acids. The consequence? The remaining amino acids won’t be completely absorbed by our bodies.

If you’re vegetarian, don’t worry. As long as you have a balanced diet and mix different sources of protein, there’s no need of supplementation. I’ll give you an example based on rice and beans.

Rice has a small amount of some essential amino acids — the same that can be found in high quantities in beans. If you eat both in the same meal (as it’s common in countries such as Brazil), you’ll have the right amount of essential amino acids. What matters, then, is the combination.

The most adequate foods among vegetal sources are the legumes (all types of beans). From 10% to 30% of their nutrients are proteins. Grains, seeds and nuts are also significant sources.

Regardless of your diet, vegetarians of all types and omnivores should consume the same amount of protein daily. The total is based on your weight: 1g per kilo, if you’re sedentary.

If you’re very active or an athlete, you’ll need to consume more (up to 2g per kilo). All will depend on the intensity of your physical activities. To play it safe, always consume a bit more than you need.

It’s relevant to know what proteins are, in which categories they can be divided and in which foods they can be found. But it won’t help much if you don’t know how to balance your meals to get the amount of protein you need.

To give you a better idea of combinations, I’m providing below some examples of balanced meals, according to different diets:

VEGETARIAN
> Ovolactovegetarian (includes plant-based foods, eggs, dairy products and honey)
Breakfast – granola with yogurt and a fruit
Lunch – quinoa, beans, eggplant lasagna and broccoli salad
Dinner – veggie omelette, rice pasta and tomato salad with lettuce

> Lactovegetarian (includes plant-based foods, dairy products and honey)
Breakfast – yogurt, a slice of simple cake and half papaya with oats
Lunch – whole grain rice, beans, veggie burger and beet salad with carrot
Dinner – lentils soup with veggies

> Strict vegetarian, known as vegan (includes only plant-based foods)
Breakfast – almond milk with rolled oats, whole grain bread with vegan cheese and a fruit
Lunch – whole grain rice, beans, sautéed eggplant, and arugula salad with nuts and flaxseeds
Dinner – sweet potato purée, veggie burger and quinoa tabbouleh (*)

OMNIVORE (includes animal- and plant-based foods, eggs, dairy products and honey)
Breakfast – low-fat milk with cocoa power, four toasts with cream cheese and a fruit
Lunch – whole grain rice, grilled beef, sautéed zucchini and garden cress salad
Dinner – potato purée, grilled salmon and chard salad with tomatoes

(*) Quinoa tabbouleh can be made with quinoa, cabbage, and chopped tomatoes and onions. Add sea salt, vinegar and olive oil.

If you’re interested in more information about proteins, stay tuned. My next post will cover one of its good vegetal sources: flaxseed.

Photo credit: Rusty Clark via Flickr

Note from the blogger: my posts are generic. If you have any disorder, talk to your practitioner about the best diet for you.

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