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Why Not All Protein Is Created Equal

Beans Just Don’t Cut It

 

For all you vegans out there, be warned, this article won’t be pretty. Continuing my previous three articles regarding the six nutrients we all need to consume as part of a healthy balanced diet – i.e., proteins, fats, carbohydrates (“carbs”), vitamins, minerals, and water – this article focuses on protein.

 

So what exactly is protein? Why should you eat it? And what are the best sources to get it?

 

Proteins are complex compounds that are made of different connected amino acids, which uniquely contain nitrogen. Or, as I was explaining to my 5 year old boy recently, protein is the Lego that builds your body. Put simply, protein comprises small molecules called amino acids that link together to help build and maintain tissue in your body, from skin to muscle, from head to toe.  There are between 50 and 75 trillion cells in the human body, some of which are replaced in as short a cycle as three or four days; you literally are what you eat.

 

Additionally, as well as building and maintaining tissue, one needs protein to help transport nutrients around your body; as an energy source (in addition to carbs and fats); to produce hormones; to maintain normal fluid and acid-base balances; and to produce enzymes and other necessary compounds. All in all, it’s a pretty important nutrient – aren’t they all? – that you should know something about.

 

Sources of protein include eggs, milk, meat, fish, legumes, cereal grains, and nuts. In fact, short of candy and fruit, you’d be hard pressed to find a food without some protein in it. However – and here’s the part I warned you vegans about – not all protein sources are created equal…

 

You see, there are a total of 20 amino acids including 11 that can be produced by the body itself and don’t have to be obtained from food – these are called non-essential amino acids; and 9 that cannot be generated by the body itself and must be provided from dietary sources in order to be available for use by the body – these are called… you’ve guessed it… essential amino acids.

 

A complete protein source (also known as high quality protein) contains all 9 essential amino acids, and includes eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, fish, and chicken; this means that you don’t need anything else other than one of these foods to give you all the building blocks you need to keep your body well stocked and ready for construction.

 

Incomplete protein sources (also known as lower quality proteins) are generally plant-based, such as legumes (e.g., beans and peas) and cereal grains (e.g., rice, wheat, and oats), and don’t contain all the essential amino acids. What this means is that if you relied on any one of these foods for your protein source, you’d only be getting a portion of the Lego set; and, if you’ve ever lost even a single piece of Lego after you’ve spent an hour putting the whole set together while your kids play in the other room “helping you” build it, you know that not being able to finish the set is definitely NOT cool.

 

So what happens if, for whatever reason, you can’t or don’t want to eat any high quality proteins? Fear not, all you vegans and vegetarians out there, all is not lost. Although you are clearly more at risk for an inadequate protein intake, with some wise dietary planning, eating a varied and balanced diet will ensure you consume enough low quality proteins from different sources to give you the complete Lego set (and, thankfully, no progeny meltdowns).

 

Eating enough protein (at least 15% of your daily caloric intake) and enough of the right type of protein is vital as part of a healthy well-balanced diet. We, as Jews, know this well, of course; for generations we’ve celebrated Shabbat with only the best sources of protein – basar v’dagim, meat and fish. Throw in a decent chulent with beans, meat, and lentils, and you’re good to go.

 

Build your body well, and it’ll look after you.

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