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In total there are three macronutrients we get from food: protein, carbohydrate and fat. These are like the building blocks that make up food. In addition to macronutrients, the food you eat is also rich in micronutrients i.e. vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Today’s focus is on macronutrients, specifically protein. The benefits of protein is long but the biggest highlight of how important protein is comes in the simple fact that without it, we would die. It’s true, out of the three macronutrients, while we can survive and still nourish our body without fat or carbs, protein is the only macro we cannot live without. We simply must consume it daily. But how much do we need? And what sources are best? What about vegans? Read this post to learn more.
The Benefits of Protein
A large part of your body is made up of protein: organs, tissues, muscles and hormones to name a few. Therefore, the protein you eat has a big role to play literally everywhere. Every day, proteins are used to maintain pretty much every part of our body, from skin and hair to digestion and immunity. Some benefits include:
- Muscle mass: It’s why the fitness industry loves protein! Eating enough in your diet allows for hypertrophy and muscle maintenance while also supporting ligaments, tendons and other tissues. If your diet lacks protein, you can become subject to ‘muscle atrophy’ whereby muscle breaks down to support the body’s energy needs.
- Hormone production: Some hormones are synthesised from fat and others from protein.
- Weight loss/maintenance: When losing weight, the goal is to lose predominantly fat and not sacrifice any muscle. In general, a high protein diet supports muscle retention but also satiety which can help you to stick to the diet despite being in a caloric deficit (study)
- Promote brain function: certain amino acids are used to support neurotransmitter function. This includes synthesising hormones like serotonin and dopamine that both have a positive calming effect on our minds and bodies. Other amino acids support the cognitive neurotransmitters that help with focus, learning and development.
- Bone health: Many epidemiological studies have found a significant positive relationship between protein intake and bone mass or density (study). Certain amino acids in protein help to support bone health by helping increase bone metabolism and calcium absorption.
- Slow down ageing: protein helps to synthesise glutathione which is a master antioxidant that helps to fight free radicals and detoxify the body. In fact, certain amino acids are required for every single stage of detoxification in the body. Protein also helps prevent muscle loss due to ageing.
What is protein?
Proteins are considered to be long chains of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in total, 9 of which are essential meaning we cannot make them ourselves and must get them from our diet. The other 11 we can synthesise in our body when needed by combining different molecules. However, even if we can make it ourselves, it’s always better to obtain an amino acid from food to lessen the burden on the body. The 20 amino acids are all unique and have specific functions.
Amino acids can be found in a wide variety of foods in varying quantities. The highest sources of protein are still the animal foods but that doesn’t mean the quality is better or that you can’t get it elsewhere.
While protein is a macro we cannot live without, the amount we need daily is quite low. Based on standard guidelines we need only get 10% of our daily calories from protein to be sufficient. This is incredibly low and a very broad guideline because people have different needs. For example, the older population needs more to support muscle and bone and prevent wastage. On the other end, bodybuilders consume huge amounts of protein which too can sometimes be over the top. Current per meal recommendations for protein intake are between 0.25-0.4 grams of protein per kg of body mass per meal (Stokes et al. 2018).
Animal Vs Plant Based
There is a higher risk of protein deficiency or simply just missing out on key aminos for vegans and vegetarians and those following a low calorie diet. Therefore, for those on these diets getting some protein every day (every meal if possible) should be top of mind. You might have heard animal protein as being referred to as ‘complete’ and plant protein as ‘incomplete’. This simply means that animal protein contains the full spectrum of amino acids whereas plant based sources tend to be lacking. However, as mentioned above, you can still synthesise amino acids in the body but you do need to consume the 9 essential ones in the diet (also very possible for a vegan/veggie).
The other point comes back to quality. While animal proteins contain all the amino acids, the quality of the meat is a big point of contention. Modern farming uses so many shortcuts that you can almost claim that the inflammatory potential of the end product far outweighs the benefit of a full amino acid profile. Of course it applies also to plants that the idea scenario is to always buy organic only produce.
Key point to note: On a plant based approach, you need constant variety to ensure you are getting all the amino acids. For example, while beans are a good source of lysine, they are not a good source of tryptophan but that can be found in grains.
Highest Sources of Plant Based Protein
Below is a list of protein idea for vegans and vegetarians to consider.
- black beans
- Pinto Beans
- nuts & nut butter
- Hemp Seeds
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Brussels sprouts
- Hemp protein powder
- Vegan protein powder mix (usually rice or pea)
So there you have it! The benefits of protein and some amazing plant based sources to include more of in your diet.