Protein: Just for Musclemen?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

In our previous issue of this InstaHealth series, you were introduced to carbohydrates. In this segment, we will unveil the world of proteins.

Many folks out there hear the word protein and immediately associate this macronutrient with big tough muscles. But as you can see below, protein has a number of other roles:

Have a look this UK food label below. Can you see that protein is listed near the bottom?

Foods such as seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy, and meat contain plentiful quantities of protein.

But guess what? There are non-animal sources of protein too! In fact, all living things contain some protein.

Foods like legumes, soya, brown rice, quinoa, and nuts can be good non-animal protein sources!

For example, take a look at the figure below:

You can see that 100g of chickpeas contains almost as much protein as 100g of salmon. So, vegetarians and vegans, fear not!

You can think of proteins as being the building blocks for our bodies.

Once ingested, proteins get broken down into smaller pieces known as amino acids. These are key components that help us to build and repair the body.

Although proteins can be found in many places, the quality of the protein is much higher in fish, meat, or eggs than it is for vegetables and legumes.

A complete (high quality) protein food offers us all of the essential amino acids (those that the body cannot make itself).

Once these high-grade materials (essential amino acids) are ingested, the human body can make other non-essential amino acids from them.

A food may provide a large quantity of protein, yet the quality of this protein may be low.

All animal sources provide high-quality protein. Does this mean that vegetarian and vegans can’t get their full complement of amino acids?

Fortunately, this is not the case. There are also non-animal complete protein sources (see below):

Plus, as long as a wide variety of different protein-containing food sources are consumed, vegetarians and vegans will still be able to obtain all the essential amino acids they require for maintaining optimal health.

Even individuals who don’t consume high-quality protein food sources can get all the amino acids they need by combining several lower quality protein foods (such as in the example below).

Now you understand the basic functions of protein and know where to find them. So, the next time you meet a vegetarian or vegan, you won’t have to ask, “but where do you get your protein?”.

That said, do vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of other nutrient deficiencies? This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, with a carefully planned, balanced diet. But there are some key nutrients that need to be looked out for to minimise the risks. Find out which ones here.

 

 

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The-Health-Sciences-Academy-Alejandra-Ruani-small1-right Alejandra "Alex" Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for their students. She is a Harvard-trained scientist and UCL doctoral researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups.

Connect with Alex via email.


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