I’m a meat-eater. I love burgers, chicken, pork, and most fish and seafood (I just can’t bring myself to try eel). I like to include a meat-based protein-source at every meal.
It makes me feel more satisfied and fuller longer. However, not everyone shares the same eating habits and beliefs. Whether you’re a meat-eater, vegetarian, vegan, or anything in-between, protein is important for your health.
Why is protein important?
Well let me tell you… Protein is found in every cell of the human body. This substance is involved in multiple vital functions that aid in our growth, development, movement, and reproduction. The protein molecule is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of our body. They are responsible for building, maintaining, and repairing body tissues. Protein is also a great energy source, providing 4 calories per gram. If more protein is consumed than what is needed for maintenance and repair, it is broken down and used for energy. I mentioned in my previous blog that due to protein’s chemical makeup, which includes nitrogen, the body actually uses more thermogenic energy to break protein down. So it takes calories to digest protein.
Some hormones are also made up of protein. They’re responsible for sending chemical messages between nerves and regulating metabolism. For example, insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas that controls the breakdown and storage of glucose or sugar. Protein also acts as an enzyme or catalyst that increases chemical reactions throughout the body, including the breakdown of food during digestion. Lastly, protein forms antibodies that fight against infection, illness, and disease.
What kinds of proteins are there?
Protein is made up of 20 different amino acids, which can be broken down into three categories:
- Essential – these 8 or 9 amino acids (depending on who you ask) cannot be produced by the body and therefore must be obtained from food
- Non-essential – the body can make these amino acids from essential amino acids or in the normal breakdown of proteins
- Conditional – these amino acids become essential during illness and stress
Protein can be found in a variety of food sources: meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes, as well as many other plant sources. However, not all protein sources are created equal. Some sources are known as complete proteins, which offer all 8/9 essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. Complete proteins come from animal sources. Incomplete proteins are found in plants. For vegetarians, vegans, and anyone who avoids meat products, making sure you’re consuming an adequate variety of plant-based protein sources is especially important. If you don’t vary your diet, it’s likely that you won’t consume all essential amino acids throughout the day. Note: it is not necessary to consume all the essential amino acids in every bite of food, just a sufficient amount every day.
How much protein do you need?
A quick rule of thumb for figuring out protein requirements is to consume 0.8 grams of protein/kg body weight or 0.36 grams protein/lb. body weight. To put this in perspective, a 150-lb women needs approximately 54 grams of protein per day.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 is a good reference for protein needs in grams and percentage of calories based on age as well as caloric intake. See below:
What plant-based foods are good sources of protein?
Although I am a meat-eater, I wanted to focus on plant-based protein sources. Because who doesn’t enjoy an occasional Meatless Monday? I have to admit I am not huge on tofu but I will include edamame in my list because anything salted is good. Here are the top 15 plant-based protein sources that can help you get all the essential amino acids throughout you day:
I found the perfect recipe from Kayla Itsines’ blog that incorporates several top plant-based protein sources. I’ve relied on this recipe to get me through grad school since it’s inexpensive, filling, and makes leftovers! Unfortunately, when I made it I was out of a black beans and substituted chickpeas. However, I recommend sticking with black beans because chickpeas add a little bit of a chalky taste. I also added as much kale as possible because I love it and it adds great texture. Enjoy!
- 2 TBSP olive oil
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Poblano pepper, seeded & chopped (optional)
- 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 2 cups low sodium chicken broth (or water)
- 1 can chickpeas, drained & rinsed
- ½ green pepper, chopped
- ½ cup corn
- 1 TSP chili powder
- 1 TSP cumin
- 1 TSP smoked paprika
- As much kale as you want, chopped
- Salt & pepper to taste
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- Splash of lime juice
- Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat, add quinoa and onion, cooking until onion is translucent. Add garlic and jalapeno to the mixture, cooking until the garlic is fragrant.
- Add canned tomatoes, chicken broth, chickpeas, green pepper corn, chili powder, cumin and smoked paprika into the quinoa mixture.
- Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed into the quinoa. This will take about 15-20 minutes.
- Take off heat. Season with salt and pepper and stir in cilantro and lime juice.