Understanding protein and amino acids

Protein is an essential nutrient in your daily diet. Protein is an important component of every cell in the body. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.

Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein and protein quality is determined by its amino acid composition.

There are 9 different amino acids. Our bodies cannot make them, so we have to get them from dietary sources.

Animal sources of protein (eggs, meat, dairy) contain all the 9 amino acids in. These are called Complete proteins.

Plant proteins (such as vegetables, grains and nuts) are considered Incomplete proteins as one source does not contain all the amino acids that you need. But you can combine them to create complimentary proteins that do provide enough essential amino acids.

It is a myth that plants cannot provide the same benefits as animal protein because they are incomplete. It is a fact that most plant proteins cannot make new protein for basic body functions because they are incomplete. However, you will not necessarily be in a protein or amino acid deficit if you eat primarily plant-based protein.

Even so, eating grains and plant protein together is not necessary at every meal or snack-time. The body creates protein over a 24-hour period, NOT every time you have a meal. In other words, as long as the complementary proteins are eaten within the same day, the body accepts them as complete proteins.

 For instance, you might decide to grab whole grain toast and jam at breakfast, but then have a handful of peanuts as a mid-morning snack. Even though you did not eat the grains and legumes together, your body can synthesise new proteins over the course of the day.

But if you ate your toast with peanut butter, it would be a complete protein, meaning all essential amino acids are delivered within one meal. Other examples are corn tortillas with black beans, bean soup and crackers, rice and lentils, and wheat noodles with peanuts and/or peanut sauce.


Good sources of protein from plants:

  1. Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame

Tofu, tempeh and edamame all originate from soybeans, a complete source of protein. They also contain good amounts of several other nutrients and can be used in a variety of recipes.

Soybeans are considered a whole source of protein. This means that they provide the body with all the essential amino acids it needs.

Tofu doesn't have much taste, but easily absorbs the flavor of the ingredients it's prepared with. Comparatively, tempeh has a characteristic nutty flavor.

Both tofu and tempeh can be used in a variety of recipes, ranging from burgers to soups and chilis.

All three contain iron, calcium and 10-19 grams of protein per 100 grams.

  1. Lentils

Lentils are nutritional powerhouses. They are rich in protein and contain good amounts of other nutrients.

At 18 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml), lentils are a great source of protein.

They can be used in a variety of dishes, ranging from fresh salads to hearty soups and spice-infused dahls.

Lentils also contain good amounts of slowly digested carbs, and a single cup (240 ml) provides approximately 50% of your recommended daily fiber intake.

  1. Chickpeas and most varieties of beans

Kidney, black, pinto and most other varieties of beans contain high amounts of protein per serving.

 Chickpeas are another legume with a high protein content.

Both beans and chickpeas contain about 15 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml). They are also excellent sources of complex carbs, fiber, iron, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese and several beneficial plant compounds.

  1. Green Peas

The little green peas often served as a side dish contain 9 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml), which is slightly more than a cup of milk.

What's more, a serving of green peas covers more than 25% of your daily fiber, vitamin A, C, K, thiamine, folate and manganese requirements.

  1. Quinoa

Quinoa is known as an ancient-grain, but does not grow on grass like other grains.

Quinoa provide 8–9 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml) and are complete sources of protein, which is really high for any type of grain! 

Quinoa is a good source of complex carbs, fiber, iron, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium.

  1. Soy Milk

Milk that's made from soybeans and fortified with vitamins and minerals is a great alternative to cow's milk.

Not only does it contain 7 grams of protein per cup (240 ml), but it's also an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12

However, keep in mind that soy milk and soybeans do not naturally contain vitamin B12, so picking a fortified variety is recommended.

It is a good idea to opt for unsweetened varieties to keep the amount of added sugars to a minimum.

  1. Nuts, nut butters and other seeds

Nuts, seeds and their derived products are great sources of protein.

A 28 gram serving contains between 5–7 grams of protein, depending on the nut and seed variety.

Nuts and seeds are also great sources of fiber and healthy fats, in addition to iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, vitamin E and certain B vitamins. They also contain antioxidants, among other beneficial plant compounds. 

When choosing which nuts and seeds to buy, keep in mind that blanching and roasting may damage the nutrients in nuts. So reach for raw, unblanched versions whenever possible.

Also, try opting for natural nut butters to avoid the oil, sugar and excess salt often added to many household brand varieties.

 Protein deficiencies among vegetarians and vegans are far from being the norm. When following a plant-based diet, it is very important to ensure that you include a VARIETY of protein sources in your daily diet to make sure that you consume all 9 amino acids so that your body can synthesize new protein throughout the day.



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