Protein Sources

Protein Sources - What is protein?

Proteins are organic compounds made up of building blocks called “amino acids.” There are about 20 common amino acids. Nine of them are considered “essential” because the body cannot produce them, and therefore, they must be supplied by the food we eat. If your diet does not contain enough of these essential amino acids, you may suffer the effects of protein deficiency.

Complete or Incomplete Protein Sources?

Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called “complete proteins.” These complete protein foods are generally animal foods. Plant foods don't, as a rule, have complete proteins, but by eating combinations of plant foods, called “complementary proteins, ” you will obtain a complete protein.

For example, when you eat rice with black beans, such as is often found in Mexican cuisine, you will make a complete protein. The beans and rice complement each other, in that each has some of the essential amino acids and when eaten together, they provide all of the essential amino acids. It is generally believed by nutritionists that it isn't necessary to eat complementary proteins at the same meal.

Here is a list of complementary protein sources, i.e. proteins that when eaten together become complete.

Legumes... with Nuts

Legumes... with Grains

Legumes... with Seeds

Legumes... with Dairy

Grains... with Dairy

Nuts/Seeds... with Dairy

Nuts/Seeds... with Legumes

Dairy... with Nuts/Seeds and Legumes

Generally speaking:

Complete Proteins = Animal proteins

Incomplete Proteins = Plant Proteins

Vegetarians and Vegans, in particular, need to be aware of the importance of the essential amino acids.

Fun Fact about Protein Sources: A tiny grain called "quinoa" (pronounced keen-wah) is one of the few plant sources of complete protein. It comes in a red and a white variety and can be cooked to make hot cereal or used in place of bulgar in some recipes. It is also becoming more popular as an ingredient in gluten-free pastas.

The Simple Answer

The answer to the question of what is protein is simple--you are! If you take away the fat in your body and the water in your body, what is left--your bones and muscles and tissues and hair and skin and fingernails and toenails and hormones and enzymes are mostly protein. When you think of it like that, you can see how important it is to include protein in your diet.

When we talk about protein, we're mostly talking about meat, eggs and dairy products. Another way of saying this is, generally, most of the protein in our meals comes from the main course.

Steak… Hamburger… Roast Beef… Pork chops… Ham… Bacon… Sausage… Hot dogs… Lamb chops… Chicken… Turkey… Duck… Capon… Fish… Shrimp… Lobster… Crab… Scallops… Venison… Egg Salad… Omelets…

Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt are also good sources of protein.

In addition, there are some plant foods that are significant sources of healthy eating protein. These are the legumes, grains, some vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Lentils… Split peas… Kidney beans… Pinto beans… Black beans… Soybeans… Garbanzo beans… Navy beans… Peanuts… Peanut Butter… Rice… Wheat…. Barley… Oats… Peas… Kale… Okra… Walnuts… Brazil Nuts… Almonds… Pumpkin Seeds… Sesame Seeds….

Many of the foods you eat have some protein in them, but those foods listed above, are asignificant source that will make it easier for you to fulfill your daily healthy eating protein requirements.

Fun Fact about Protein Sources: Your body actually can reuse the protein from the cells of your gastrointestinal lining when they are sloughed off (about every three days) and replaced with news ones. This allows you to have protein available from another source besides the food you eat.

How much Protein do I need?

The answer to this question is not an easy one. The amount of protein needed can vary based on age, gender, genetics, health and the quality of the protein. It is generally thought that we need about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight every day. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you would need about 52.5 grams of protein each day.

150 ÷ 20 = 7.5 7.5grams x 7 = 52.5grams

Many health experts put it differently by saying that we should get about 30% of our calories each day from healthy eating protein sources. Protein has about 4 calories per gram, so if you consume 2400 calories a day, about 720 of them should be from protein.

2400 calories x 30% = 720 calories

Yet another way of putting it is in reference to the Food Guide Pyramid, which is a way to visualize the amount of food you should eat from each of the five food groups, each day. By this method, depending on your weight, you need two to three 3-ounce servings of meat, fish, poultry or meat analog each day. (A meat analog is a grain or soy-based product that is manufactured to look and taste like certain meat products.)

In an attempt to simplify the concept of a healthy diet, the USDA has changed their visual representation for eating healthy from a pyramid to a simpler model called "MyPlate." This latest version of the Food Guide shows a dinner plate divided into four portions for Protein, Vegetables, Fruits and Grains, with a side of Dairy.

The Bottom Line

Okay, so you’re not a mathematician, you’re a gourmand, and you don't want to sit around doing equations to find out what you should eat. Suffice it to say, that if you live in a developed country such as the USA, it is more likely that you are getting too much protein than not enough.

When you consider that most foods have some protein and many foods, as listed above, have significant protein, if you are eating three square meals a day, you are probably getting enough protein. However, if you live in an underdeveloped country, protein deficiency can be a real concern. People in poor countries struggle to meet the minimum requirements for protein.

If you have eggs (possibly with bacon or sausage) or cereal with milk or toast with peanut butter for breakfast, a salad with chicken breast or a ham and cheese sandwich or minestrone soup for lunch, and a hamburger or a pork chop or spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, you are most likely getting more than enough protein. Even if you skipped one of those meals, you probably are still getting enough protein.

What does a serving of protein sources look like?

If you misplaced your meat scale, the usual guideline for visualizing meat servings is that the portion should be the size of a standard deck of playing cards. (Just imagine how many servings are represented by that platter-sized prime rib served at your favorite restaurant!)

For non-meat protein sources, a serving, which is 1 large egg, ½ cup cooked beans or rice, or 2 Tablespoons of seeds, nuts or peanut butter, is equivalent to only about 1/3 of the protein in a serving of meat. Tofu can also be included in this group with a serving size of about 4oz.

In addition, most health experts recommend that, whenever possible, choose a leaner or lower-fat version of the significant protein sources.

What do I need to remember about protein sources?

Nearly everything you eat has some protein in it, but to be healthy, you need to eat several servings a day of the significant sources such as meat, dairy, eggs and/or certain plant foods. This is particularly important for children, pregnant women and athletes.

--Caveat for Protein Sources: Even if you eat a lot, if you eat mostly foods with little or no nutritional value, you are putting yourself at risk for protein deficiency.

Click here to go from Protein Sources page to Vegan Protein page.