There are so many things to think about each time a hunger pang clangs our stomach walls. How many calories/points/snacks do I have left? Should I have protein, fat, fruits or veggies? Does this contain too much sugar? Too little? Is this a macronutrient or micronutrient?
It’s confusing and decisions with this dialogue running through our head take so long that it’s sometimes easier to open a bag of pretzels and walk away.
One thing most diets can agree upon (although these agreements are few and far between) is that protein is not our nemesis. A building block of not only cellular structures and muscle, but of organ tissue, nails and hair as well, protein is an essential part of our diet. We know the main protein sources — meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, tofu and seafood, among others — but what about the protein we often hear touted in beans and grains? What is protein, why is it important and why does it have to be “complete?”
PROTEIN PROBS: GETTING ENOUGH?
Having steered clear of red meat and sometimes chicken since I was a teen, I’ve focused on mainstream protein sources like fish, eggs, dairy and tofu. It’s fairly easy to get enough protein from these sources unless you’re a professional athlete, at which point your needs differ from us common folk. Pregnancy, of course, also alters protein and macronutrient needs, often resulting in cravings.
Health gurus, doctors and consumers alike are always trying to identify the right way to eat. Years ago, a popular fad diet was promoted to eat according to your blood type. This is an interesting area of nutrition, because it seems like it would make sense. Our blood and genetics provide a blueprint for who we are, so wouldn’t our blood type help dictate what foods most effectively nourish us? Since my blood type denotes that I would necessitate a high-protein diet, yet I had shrugged off meat years before, this, too, I shrugged off. Except every time I gave up poultry — if family or friends ordered chicken at a restaurant and had the misfortune of sitting next to me, I would involuntarily filch piece after piece off their plate until they had very little left for themselves. Maybe there was something to it.
Every mother knows the woes of feeding her youngsters. Each stage is different, whether it’s crossing our fingers hoping that some of the first bites of sweet potato make their way down a tiny throat or hoping that at least some of the peas and corn on the plate will be eaten. I was lucky with my daughter. She ate everything I offered her, loathed mac and cheese and pizza and by the time she turned 4, kale was her favorite food. Then, just before the pandemic hit, she declared that she would no longer be eating meat because she was “doing something good for the world by not passing away animals.” The altruism in her statement made me swell with pride. The fact that she had sworn off her father’s Philly cheese steak and was following in my nearly non-meat-eating footsteps filled my heart with joy (one point for me), but then reality set in, as did the COVID lockdowns.
Nightly menus became a nightmare. I dreaded walking the tightrope of limited choices and decisions for my newly pescatarian daughter. Seafood every night wasn’t an option and she quickly tired of eggs. Tofu was great, but my husband began looking beleaguered as I tossed the cubed chunks onto his plate biweekly.
I had to do something and I had to do it fast. I knew that protein was essential for any family, especially a pregnant lady, a growing girl and a carnivorous husband. Where was I to dig up more protein that wasn’t dull?
Protein is complicated. It’s not one thing. It’s 20 to 22 different things strung together, nine of which are essential to our existence. Amino acids are the building blocks to protein as proteins are the building blocks for our muscle. The nine “essential” amino acids are those that we can’t make or convert internally on our own, so we must find them in our diet. All proteins contain some of these nine essential compounds, but only those considered “complete proteins” contain an adequate amount of them. Our “necessary nine” are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Though these tongue twisters sound like chemical preservatives, the only thing they’re preserving is our existence.
Figuring out how much protein to eat can feel confounding. According to the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Academy of Medicine, we need to eat just over seven grams per 20 pounds of body weight. That can add up. If you weigh 140 pounds, that means you need about 50 grams of protein each day, whereas if you weigh 200 pounds, you need about 70 grams. Even the National Academy of Medicine offers some ambiguity in this recommendation, citing that anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of our daily calories should be from protein.
Protein intake is not just about weight loss and body building. A protein deficiency can sponsor a host of adversities from growth failure and loss of muscle mass to decreased immunity and weakened heart and lungs. With so many protein powders, shakes, bars and drinks, is all protein created equal?
It turns out that not all protein is created equal. Though I’m sure some protein powders are good quality and bring some benefit, acquiring protein through one’s daily food intake is preferable. Protein shakes and bars are generally filled with fillers and manmade vitamins, not to mention artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
IRF (in real food) we are met with the usual list (meat, eggs, dairy, seafood, tofu and soy) which contain all nine essential amino acids (can we call them EAAs?) making them a complete protein. Very often, other foods like nuts, legumes, some grains and veggies make this list. While these contain some of the EAAs, they are not complete sources because they are missing one or more of the nine essentials.
Recently, nutrition experts came to the conclusion that we needn’t eat all nine EAAs at once, as long as we complement them throughout the day with those that we were missing from our prior sources. Nutrition changes faster than the sun sets on a winter’s day, so for me, the jury is still out on that one. Better to eat them together so we can check them off the list and move on.
What, pray tell, are some complete proteins that aren’t in the aforementioned group of animal foods and tofu? Read on for some ideas!
Nut butter or avocado toast
Most legumes and grains combine to be a complete protein. A 100 percent piece of whole wheat bread (we need the EAAs in the whole wheat or multigrain bread) combines with nuts and, in the case of the avocado, some fruits to be a complete protein. That means that almond, cashew or peanut butter and even our beloved avocado on toast will serve us well. Add an egg to the avocado toast to boost its protein content.
Beans and rice
Beans and rice are an age-old combo in many cultures. Even white rice contains the EAAs that combine with beans to be complete. Brown rice is healthier in many different ways, but white is a great option when we’re out at a restaurant or for picky eaters. Due to high arsenic levels (for another column another day) the best choice is brown basmati rice grown in California, which is now proudly and loudly labeled as such.
Hummus and pita — white or wheat — combine to make a complete protein as well. Many other beans contain the lysine that is lacking in the bread and the rice for that matter, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Corn also completes the EAA protein chain with beans. That means a corn tortilla (organic/non-GMO would be my choice) with beans is a great option.
Another option to combine with beans or to leave it on its own is a surprising complete protein in quinoa. One of the few complete plant proteins other than soy and buckwheat, quinoa contains 8 grams per one cup — not a ton, but better than none.
Oats contain protein, but the EAAs aren’t complete without adding a bit of milk or nut butter to round out the lysine content.
Complete protein veggie chili
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped into small pieces
2 ribs celery, chopped
½ teaspoon salt, divided
4 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 large can (28 ounces) of diced tomatoes, with their juices
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 ounces) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups vegetable broth or water
2 bay leaves
¾ cup frozen yellow corn (organic)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnishing
Also for garnish: lime wedges, tortilla chips, chopped cilantro, sliced avocado, whole yogurt, grated cheddar cheese for serving
In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add chopped onion, bell pepper, carrot, celery and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir to combine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the onion is translucent, about 7 to 10 minutes.
Add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, paprika and oregano. Cook until fragrant while stirring constantly, about 1 minute.
Add diced tomatoes and their juices, black beans, pinto beans and kidney beans, vegetable broth, cilantro and bay leaves. Stir to combine and let the mixture come to a simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally and reducing heat as necessary to maintain a gentle simmer, for 30 minutes. Add frozen corn for the last five minutes or so.
Remove chili from heat and discard the bay leaves.
Add salt to taste, too. Serve with a little grated cheddar, a dollop of yogurt, tortilla chips, lime wedge and a sprinkling of cilantro.