Protein benefits

What is protein?

Protein is a word that is frequently used on television, in advertising and on packaging and so most people are familiar with it. However, you might be surprised at just how few people actually know what protein is, how it is used by the body and how to identify quality protein foods.

If you are thinking, “why do I need to know more about protein”, the answer in a nut-shell is because it is an essential macro-nutrient – one of three primary nutritional compounds consumed by humans in the largest quantities and which provide bulk energy.

The two other macro-nutrients are fat and carbohydrates.

Protein is required by our bodies for a wide range of critical functions. In other words, we cannot live without it.

What are proteins – the technical bit

Proteins are a component of each and every cell, tissue and organ in our bodies and they are constantly being broken down and replaced.

The protein that we take in through the food that we eat is basically the same as the protein in our bodies, except that it is structured differently. Once eaten, food protein is broken down into amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and later used to replenish our bodies’ own protein stores.

There are 22 different amino acids required by the body in order to function properly and there are over 10,000 different kinds of protein in the body.

Functions of protein

Protein is used to:

  • build and repair muscles and ligaments (whether as part of normal growth or following exercise or injury)
  • provide the body with energy
  • maintain organs
  • balance blood sugar levels
  • grow skin, hair, nails and bones
  • produce haemoglobin in blood
  • digest food
  • make antibodies and support the immune system
  • transfer messages between neurotransmitters in the brain
  • make hormones, such as insulin and metabolism-regulators
  • and more.

As you can see, protein has an incredibly wide application in the body and can be used for anything from providing a physical structure to assisting in a biological process. This is why it is essential to incorporate adequate levels of high quality, lean, protein-rich foods into your daily diet.   

A high-protein diet

There are lots of differing opinions about the benefits or otherwise of high-protein diets.

Going a step further, opinions will again diverge according to whether you are talking about plant-based protein or animal protein because (for example) plant proteins are lower in fat, calories and cholesterol, yet usually higher in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.

However, the fact remains that protein is an essential component of every person’s diet for the various reasons set out above. The key is to ensure that you are receiving enough protein on a daily basis and that it is natural, lean, balanced and complete (i.e. contains all of the essential amino acids that cannot be manufactured by your body).  

High-protein foods

While most people associate protein with meat and other animal products, these are not the only high-protein foods.

You might be surprised to learn that there is a significant amount of protein in fresh leafy greens and even in fruit – this is often referred to as plant-based protein – you just have to choose your fruit, vegetables and other whole foods carefully.

Wheatgrass, hemp and quinoa, for example, are all examples of so-called “first class” proteins from plant sources, which contain all the essential amino acids. People following the Living Foods programme also use fermented seed and nut sauces and pates, seed and nut milks (all sprouted), sprouted millet, sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds, avocados and green drinks as good protein sources.

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Quinoa nutrition

About quinoa

Quinoa is a fantastic example of plant-based protein, which not only offers a viable alternative for meat and other animal products, but also supplies a broad spectrum of other nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals) at the same time.

An annual plant that originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, quinoa was used by the Incas as a staple food. They also believed the crop to be sacred, not least because they recognised its value in supporting the stamina of their warriors.

Although often categorised along with other grains, quinoa is actually only a grain-like crop that is grown primarily for its edible seeds. As a chenopod – a sub-family of the flowering plant family Amaranthaceae – it is closely related to species such as Swiss chard, beets and spinach.

Nutrients in quinoa

Quinoa is highly nutritious, which means that it is now generally thought of as a “superfood” – a natural food with a high nutrient-per-calorie ratio. It is naturally low in fat and calories and contains:

  • an incredibly high level of protein (18%) – more than grains
  • Essential Fatty Acids – “good” fats that are required for a healthy body and mind
  • iron
  • calcium
  • phosphorus
  • magnesium – a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes, including those involved in the body’s use of glucose and insulin ecretion
  • manganese – a mineral that serves as a co-factor for the superoxide dismutase enzyme (an antioxidant that helps to protect the body against the damage caused by free radicals)
  • tryptophan
  • folate
  • copper
  • riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • beneficial dietary fibre (both soluble and insoluble)
  • and a balanced set of essential amino acids, such as lysine (essential for tissue growth and repair) – making it a complete protein source for humans. By contrast, wheat and rice are low in lysine.  

Gluten

As mentioned above, quinoa is a pseudo-cereal; it is not a grain, as it isn’t a member of the grass family.

It is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. Quinoa is not a commonly allergenic food and is not known to contain measurable amounts of purines.

Integrating quinoa into your daily diet

If you love carbohydrates, but are trying to stick to a lean and healthy high-protein diet, quinoa is a fantastic alternative! It has the nutty taste of brown rice crossed with oatmeal and has a pleasant fluffy, creamy and crunchy texture.

Although a seed, quinoa can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley – except it takes less time to cook than other whole grains – just 10 to 15 minutes. It is extremely versatile and can be prepared in a variety of ways.

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Plant based protein benefits

Plant-based protein

Who would opt for plant-based protein?

The most obvious groups who might opt for plant, as opposed to animal, protein sources are vegetarians, vegans, raw foodists and those following the Living Foods Programme.

However, you might be surprised to hear that, more and more, people from all walks of life and with varying lifestyles and health goals are opting for plant-based protein instead of meat, dairy and other animal products.

But why?

Plant-based nutrition

Why might you prefer plant-based protein?

Foods are either acid- or alkali-forming following the process of digestion.

Studies have found that sick people tend to have a blood pH within the acidic range, while it is thought that a neutral (or slightly alkaline) pH is required for healthy blood and the efficient delivery of balanced nutrients to the cells of the body. Meat and dairy products are at the top of the acid-forming list, along with foods high in sugar.

Similarly, a high level of protein from animal sources has been linked to a number of health risks and diseases, including arthritis, osteoporosis, kidney stones, diabetes, cataracts, heart disease and high cholesterol (given the high level of saturated fats found in meat and other animal products).

So how can we access high quality protein without these undesirable aspects?

Well, for those who think that animal products are the only food sources that rank as a first class protein, that is simply not the case. There is a surprising amount of protein in, for instance, fresh leafy greens and certain fruits and there are a number of plant proteins that are complete and balanced (or can be combined to be so).

The protein content of wheatgrass, for example, (which includes all of the essential amino acids) includes:

  • aspartic acid
  • glutamin acid
  • serine
  • glycine
  • histidine
  • arginine
  • tyrosine
  • alanine
  • proline
  • valine
  • methionine
  • cystine
  • isoleucine
  • leucine
  • threonine
  • phenylalanine
  • lysine
  • and tryptophan.

In addition, wheatgrass contains the following essential enzymes which are not made by the human digestive system:

  • oxidase
  • lipase
  • protease
  • amylase
  • catalase
  • peroxidase
  • tranhydrodinase
  • and superoxydismutase.

But wheatgrass is just one of many examples of top quality plant protein. There is also pea, hemp, quinoa, (non-GM) soya and many others.

This combination of protein, vitamins, minerals and exogenous enzymes is what makes all dark green, leafy vegetables such a fantastic nutritive food source, not to mention the nutritious pigment chlorophyll.

When they are juiced, or combined together in a superfood blend, the nutrients are available to the body more readily. Several large platefuls of greens would have to be eaten to obtain the same quantities of protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients.

Contaminants in traditional protein sources

In this modern age of toxic overload, many people are keen to lower their intake of, and exposure to, contaminants, chemicals and toxins to the lowest practicable level. One aspect of this is being careful about what they put into their bodies. For example, choosing organic foods wherever possible and avoiding foods containing additives and preservatives.

Unfortunately, because of modern farming methods and related commercial processes, meat and other animal products often contain a number of contaminants. These can include medications used on the animals (such as antibiotics), hormones, parasites and bacteria, which can be passed on to humans through the food chain.

For example, to keep the animals at high levels of productivity, dairy farmers will often keep them constantly pregnant through the use of artificial insemination. They will also use an array of drugs, including bovine growth hormone (BGH); prostaglandin, which is used to bring a cow into heat whenever the farmer wants to have her inseminated; antibiotics; and even tranquillizers, in order to influence the productivity and behaviour of the cows.

Ethical reasons to avoid animal protein

Even if a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is not for you, you might still want to opt for plant protein as often as possible for ethical reasons.

Many cows kept for milk, for example, live on factory farms in conditions that cause tremendous suffering to the animals. They do not spend hours grazing in fields, but live crowded into concrete-floored milking pens or barns, where they are milked two or three times a day by machines. Milking machines often cause cuts and injuries that would not occur were a person to do the milking. These injuries encourage the development of mastitis, a painful bacterial infection (which then leads to the administration of the medications and antibiotics mentioned above).

More than 20 different types of bacteria cause the infection, which is easily spread from one cow to another and which, if left unchecked, can cause death. In some cases, milking machines even give cows electric shocks due to stray voltage, causing them considerable discomfort, fear and impaired immunity and sometimes leading to death. A single farm can lose several hundred cows to shocks from stray voltage. Cows on today’s farms tend to live for only 4 to 5 years, as opposed to the life expectancy of 20-25 years enjoyed by cows in years gone by.

Environmental considerations

Similarly, large dairy farms can also have a detrimental effect on the surrounding environment. For instance, the manure produced can lead to the contamination of underground water, rivers and streams in the surrounding areas.

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