Power Foods: A Protein Primer

Power Foods: A Protein Primer

Does the word “protein” conjure up images of a juicy piece of steak? A glistening slab of fish? The truth is, protein comes in all shapes and sizes, but not all protein is created equally. Before you simply gravitate toward the most inexpensive choice, it’s important to know the differences so that you can make a well-informed (and delicious) decision.

Here’s how to effectively work protein into your diet:

The Power Of Protein.

Protein is responsible for keeping our bodies going. It is accountable for the growth, repair, and maintenance of many of our organs, our blood, and our metabolism—pretty much, all of the biological processes in our body. People’s advice varies on how much we should consume daily, but it ranges from 0.3 grams to 1 gram of protein for each pound we weigh. That big disparity is a result of varying beliefs, as well as an individual’s activity level. In America, we generally have access to enough protein to meet our health needs, but if we don’t consume them in a balanced way, we could be cheating ourselves. I’ll walk you through how to get the most out of your protein, whether you’re a vegetarian or not.

Note: Theories on combining proteins, which I’m about to share, have been disputed. Scientists aren’t 100% certain that the following theory is true across the board, but my view is that “combining proteins” can’t hurt. Whether or not the exact science of protein combinations is universally accepted, the key is to think about eating whole grains and enjoying a diverse, balanced diet.

The Many Faces Of Protein.

Proteins referred to as complete proteins are found in animals—meat, dairy, eggs, poultry. Although quinoa is an example of a non-animal food that can be consumed solo and still offers the full nutritional benefit, virtually all other plant proteins should be combined to create the effect of a full protein. According to this theory, they don’t contain all of the necessary amino acids to satisfy the body’s needs if consumed individually. For example, beans are low in the amino acid lysine, while rice is rich in it. Incomplete proteins like grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes should be combined with complementary proteins to yield the full benefit to the body.

Optimal Combinations.

The traditional combination of rice and beans succinctly illustrates combining complimentary proteins. Other ideas: peanut butter on whole wheat bread, hummus made with tahini, pasta fagioli, black beans with sweet potatoes, kale with brown rice. You don’t have to wolf down these complementary proteins simultaneously (though you could), but it is important to make sure that your food intake is well-rounded and that you’re getting a variety of plant foods like whole grains, nuts, corn, and brown rice within the same day as more overt proteins like beans. To test out your own combinations, check out this amazing Self website tool. You can plug in ingredients and the program analyzes the nutritional value of your combinations. If you eat a wide variety of whole foods, your protein needs may be covered.

Timing Matters.

A protein-heavy breakfast will keep you fueled and feeling full through the beginning of your day, whereas carbohydrate-focused feasts will result in hunger pangs after a few hours. Loading up on protein is also beneficial after a workout. Consuming nuts, a hardboiled egg, or even chocolate milk within 20 minutes of your morning run will give muscle repair a boost.


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