On my path of learning and living natural nutrition and natural healing I came to the realization that, as with myself, one of the main concerns people have about a vegetarian diet is getting enough protein. I came to understand after a time that although so many have a sense that protein is essential to their diet many do not seem to really know what protein is or what it does. Speaking for myself I always understood that protein is necessary for muscle growth which is why athletes who are trying to build muscle put an emphasis on getting a lot of protein in their diet. I ascertained from this that protein must be necessary as well for organ tissue, nerve and brain cells. I always remembered from school that protein is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. I assumed that whatever protein people ingest has to be broken down into its essential components and reconstructed as human protein. Unfortunately when I would mention this in a discussion with people I would just get blank looks. What I would keep hearing from people is that they felt that protein was necessary to “have energy”. I of course realized that the body mainly gets energy from carbohydrates including breaking down fats for calories to use for energy. I, also, knew that the body has to convert starch, sugars and fat to glucose which is the only kind of sugar the cells of the body can use for energy from calories. As well I knew that the body has to produce insulin to deliver the glucose in order for it to be usable to the cells. I did know that the body can use protein for energy from calories but this is not the main function of protein in our diet.
When I started on a path of reducing meat in my diet and learning to cook organic, vegetarian meals from scratch I chose a book called, Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, which had vegetarian recipes, each of which had complementary proteins listed. I felt that I could trust these recipes to have well balanced meals with the protein I needed in my diet. I certainly was not disappointed and have reaped the rewards of good health.
After a time however my continual frustration with the fact that most people did not seem to understand what protein is or what it does even though they emphasized so much importance on having lots of it in their diet brought me to the conclusion that I had to do the research to back up what I essentially knew. When I even tried to tell people that too much protein is bad for them I would either get blank looks or a canned response of “Well, too much of anything is bad for you”. I realized that I, myself, owed it to myself to really understand protein and amino acids more thoroughly. I especially needed to be able to explain protein and complementary proteins from plant sources to people to take away their fear of vegetarianism. I could plainly see that this lack of knowledge about health and nutrition was responsible for people simply taking the easy way out and continuing to consume lots of meat. I was tired of seeing people literally making themselves sick and killing themselves by degrees because of a lack of knowledge about something so fundamental to understanding good health.
When I started my research on protein I was immediately confronted by some amazing facts! The first was that after water people are mainly made of protein, more than calcium or anything else. The second fact was something I had been taught in school but had forgotten about which was that our very genetics, our genes and chromosomes, are made of protein. Well, this obviously explains why after water we are mainly made of protein. Even our bones and teeth have protein in them. All cells of our bodies have to have some protein because of the genetic information they contain. Obviously muscle tissue has more protein than other tissue.
Of course protein whether from animal or plant sources has to be broken down by the body into its essential components to be useable to the body and reconstructed into human proteins (plural). What are the essential components of protein? They are amino acids but more importantly the human body needs the “essential” amino acids. The term, essential amino acids, is a little difficult to understand because in fact the human body, mainly the liver, produces eighty per cent of the amino acids that we need. However the essential amino acids are the amino acids that our own bodies do not produce so we have to get these nutrients from food. These essential amino acids then are the building blocks from which our own bodies are able to produce all of the other amino acids to produce all of the different types of proteins our bodies need. The liver takes the essential amino acids and puts them together in different combinations of varying amounts and even aligns the molecular structure of the amino acids to produce all of the proteins our body needs. In fact enzymes and hormones are specialized types of proteins. Cholesterol is a specialized type of protein.
What are the essential amino acids? As with most things when doing research we may get different answers especially since science is perpetually trying to keep up with learning about nature. Many sources say that there are eight essential amino acids but a good recourse I use, Prescription For Nutritional Healing by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, doesn’t say how many essential amino acids there are but names them. I have counted them over and over again and I count nine and they are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylananine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
So what about complementary proteins? People apparently assume that if they eat meat they get what they call, “a complete protein”, therefore they assume that if they eat meat they don’t have to worry about getting the protein that they need in their diets. This actually is incorrect. In fact an egg is the closest thing to a completely useable protein by the body. However one egg has all the cholesterol we need in a day so it is not a good choice to eat eggs all the time. Even with meat a person needs protein from plant sources. All of the essential amino acids have to present in the body within a four hour period in their proper amounts for the body to be able to produce the amino acids and proteins that we need. Excess protein causes the liver to try to turn it into glucose for energy but there are only four calories in one gram of protein and the process of converting it to glucose creates ammonia which is harmful to the body. The liver turns the ammonia into urea which is less toxic and then eliminates the urea through the bloodstream and kidneys. Excess protein, too often, will wear out the liver and kidneys. Not having all the essential amino acids in balance can cause a negative nitrogen imbalance which is unhealthy. The body will urinate out nitrogen.
Clearly getting less meat in the diet and getting more protein from plant sources will keep people from getting too much protein and protect people from some of the other harms of excess meat consumption. This gets back to the question of how do we know we are getting the right balance of complementary proteins. In the book, Diet For A Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé has charts of complementary proteins for easy understanding. After studying these diagrams I have noticed that a good rule of thumb is to eat foods from different food groups in each meal. These food groups for complementary proteins may be a little different than what people are used to however because seeds and nuts are in a different group than grains. Fruits are not really mentioned because they are so low in protein. This is a little confusing because people think of seeds as being grains however sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are in the group with seeds and nuts for complementary protein purposes. In general then we would be looking at whole grains with beans or legumes such as peas and lentils would be complementary proteins. Corn and beans, wheat and beans and, good news, wheat and dairy made with whole or skim milk are complementary proteins. Even a single serving of pasta has seven grams of protein so you do not have to give up your bagel with cream cheese or pasta with parmesan cheese! If you have sesame seeds on your bagel you even get an extra complementary protein. Peanuts are very deficient in some essential amino acids but with grains and especially with sunflower seeds added it is well balanced with essential proteins.
It is important to note that even if a person gets the proper amounts of the essential amino acids in the diet the body may not be able to use this available protein without the proper balance of vitamins and minerals. As a general rule as Frances Moore Lappé so aptly puts it even in a completely plant based diet the more different kinds of food one eats the less one has to worry about getting the proper balance of essential amino acids and healthy protein.
But what about the people who say that we get energy from protein? As it turns out some of the essential amino acids do help to supply energy to muscles. Isoleucine helps to regulate blood sugar and energy levels. The best way to think of protein however is that it is necessary for cell growth. This definitely includes making babies. Women who are expecting a child or nursing need more protein. People’s protein needs change at times. Small children have very different nutritional needs including a lot of fat before the age of two for the brain to develop properly for one thing and since children are growing they need a higher percentage of protein per the total caloric intake in their day.