Health Habits:Sources of Protein are Not Equal

Protein sources are either “complete” or “incomplete” depending on whether it contains all nine essential amino acids.

Protein is a macronutrient the body needs to maintain bone, muscle, hair, skin, and tissues. It also aids chemical reactions and hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. The interesting thing about protein is that it’s comprised of smaller components called amino acids. Our bodies need protein because it cannot store amino acids. Out of the twenty-one amino acids in the body nine are essential, meaning we need to get it from food.  Generally, when the word “protein” is thrown about, animal sources come to mind.  Plant foods contain protein as well, but all food sources of protein come in different packages.  These packages contain certain amino acids with various other nutritional components such as saturated fats, essential fatty acids, fiber, sodium, etc.

Protein sources are either “complete” or “incomplete” depending on whether it contains all nine essential amino acids. A complete protein would contain histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Incomplete proteins would only contain some of the essential amino acids. Keep in mind that these complete or incomplete proteins are in packages.  Each package has a different impact on your health.

Animal proteins are more complete than plant proteins.  Fish, beef, eggs, poultry, and dairy are some sources of complete proteins. For example, a four-ounce sirloin steak is a high protein source that also comes with saturated fats.  There’s nothing wrong with steaks, but consider the frequency of it in your diet. When consumed more than once or twice a week, the saturated fat can wreak havoc in your body causing clogged arteries, higher blood lipid levels, and heart disease.  Now consider a four-ounce grilled salmon with comparable protein amount.  While the sirloin contains roughly five grams of saturated fat, the salmon contains approximately one gram of saturated fat and omega-3 fats that are heart-friendly. The two packages of protein are different in that one has a fat content that can be harmful to heart health if consumed in excess.  This is only considering fat content and not other beneficial vitamins such as iron which is higher in beef. Be sure to look at the entire “package” to determine what your nutritional needs are. 

Plant proteins are not complete, but they are beneficial in that they are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.  Take a cup of lentils, they provide about eighteen grams of protein and fifteen grams of fiber.  While lower in protein content, they are higher in fiber that aids the digestive system.  The amino acids in lentils make it incomplete, requiring supplementation by another plant food to make up for the amino acids it lacks. They contain calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, folate, niacin and vitamin E.  In other words, the good stuff the body needs to properly support daily functions. As you hopefully see that a well-rounded diet with variety is extremely important.  Choosing a variety of protein packages to incorporate in your meals is choosing your health outcomes.  


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