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Protein 101

Protein is a HOT topic and for a good reason – it is vital for our body’s health and wellbeing. Today we are diving into all things protein concerning the roles of protein in your body, signs and symptoms your body is not getting enough protein, high-quality sources of protein, and why vegetarians and vegan should pay extra attention to the protein on their plate. 

Importance of Protein 

Protein is quite literally our body’s building blocks. Protein is used in nearly every reaction in our body in its simplest form known as amino acids. To give you a sense of just how important protein is, it is involved in building muscle, connective tissue, hair, skin and participates in chemical reactions involving your blood, neurotransmitters, digestion and so much more in the form of enzymes. 

Amino acids are the simplest forms of protein and consist of twenty-building blocks. Why should you care? There are two groups of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids are one’s that your body can synthesize, but essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by your body and must come from food (we’ll touch on this later on). 

Therefore, EVERYONE needs protein in some shape or form. The question we get often is how much? The answer is, it depends. We are all so individualized which means we all have different needs. Some of us need lots of protein, while others do just fine with less. The good news is our bodies are smart and tell us if we need more protein, it is just up to us to recognize these cues. 

Signs and symptoms your body needs more protein 

Not only do our protein needs vary from person to person, but so do our symptoms. You would be surprised to learn how signs of protein deficiency can manifest differently among people and how widespread these symptoms can be (which makes considering how diverse protein’s roles are). 

Signs and symptoms your body is protein deficient: 

  • Hair loss or hair thinning 
  • Brittle or thin nails
  • Injury-prone or muscle/joint pain
  • Muscle loss or trouble building muscle
  • Trouble losing weight
  • Feeling weak and lethargic 
  • Poor sleep
  • Weak immune system 
  • Never-ending food cravings 
  • You constantly feel hungry after meals

Our bodies change over time due to our lifestyle, and the overall aging process. That is why it is important to tune into our body and watch out for these signs/symptoms. Aside from these factors, there are certain populations of people that are at a higher risk for protein deficiency. 

Those at risk for protein deficiency: 

  • Individuals who are very active/exercise a lot 
  • Individuals who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet
  • Individuals who suffer from GI issues (this impacts absorption of protein) 
  • Individuals who are suffering from acute illnesses (while in the hospital setting)
  • Elderly individuals 

High-quality sources of protein

We suggest incorporating high-quality sources of protein on a regular basis. We consider high-quality sources of protein to be ones that are minimally processed, antibiotic and hormones free, organic (when possible), and provide you with adequate levels of protein and all the amino acids.

Animal sources of high-quality protein: 

  • Wild-caught fish
  • Pasture-raised eggs 
  • Free-range chicken 
  • Organic turkey
  • Grass-fed beef

Vegetarian/Vegan sources of high-quality protein (complete protein*): 

  • Organic Tofu and tempeh*
  • Quinoa* 
  • Buckwheat*?
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Edamame*
  • Nuts and seeds (almond, flax, chia* and hemp*)

In addition to these whole-food sources of proteins, protein powders can be a great way to help get your protein in! 

When looking for protein powders I tend to be on the lookout for: 

  • Minimal ingredients (particularly if you have sensitive digestion)
  • Organic (when possible)
  • Minimal/no added sugars
  • No added gums (guar gum, xanthan gum) 
  • No added sugar alcohols (mannitol, erythritol, xylitol) 
  • Minimal/no added fibers (think: inulin, pectin – particularly if you have sensitive digestion)

We recognize that this way of eating is not always possible due to price, accessibility, and convenience. In times when these high-quality sources are not available to you, remember that protein(even if conventionally raised) is better than no protein.

Importance of eating complete proteins (attention all vegetarians and vegans) 

Remember that complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids (the ones we need to get from food). All animal proteins are complete proteins, while most plant-based sources of protein are not; with the exception of some factories like tofu, tempeh, and quinoa. This means that vegetarians and vegans have to pay extra attention to the proteins they are eating and what other foods they are pairing their proteins with to ensure they are getting all the essential amino acids for optimal health. 

Examples of vegetarian/vegan complete protein combos:  

  • Rice and Beans
  • Hummus on a whole-wheat pita
  • Spinach salad with sunflower seeds
  • Whole wheat toast and nut butter
  • Lentil soup with whole-grain roll
  • Grilled tofu with sauteed vegetables

While not every meal has to consist of protein combining, it is important to make note of the different proteins you are consuming throughout the day to ensure you are getting all of the essential amino acids. 

Bottom Line

Protein is critical for your body and all of its metabolic processes. Our bodies have varying protein needs, but if you need more protein your body will be sure to tell you. Incorporating high-quality and complete sources of protein into your diet helps ensure you are meeting your body’s protein needs. 

Suffering from signs and symptoms of protein deficiency? Are you vegetarian and vegan and struggling to incorporate complete sources of protein into your diet? Click here to work with us! 

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