Get protein in your foods


The word ‘protein’ has its source in Greek “preteos”, meaning the thing of most importance .Protein is obviously a vital component of our body and works from multiple facets to keep use alive.
Protein in Diet:
I am a vegetarian from the age of 12 years and it was right from that time when I have been facing the question about my source of  proteins in food. This question may appear to be simple, but there is a lot hidden behind the simplicity. Why is it so that nobody asks about my source of  beta­- carotene or fiber? I was  always surprised with the fact that protein is the nutrient that generated serious concern about my diet and health and that too from strangers. It was not just  the  question  of  protein  in diet but  my  own  concern  of  being  the  question  repeatedly that increased  my interest  in  nutrition.  The result  was  that I  got  myself  enrolled  at  the Bastyr University and achieved a graduate degree in nutrition. It has been 15 years since I am left eating  animal  protein  and it is  now time  that I feel  is the right time for me to  answer the question  from  the right perspective and with necessary citations.

This particular question about the source of protein went to a new level when I went for a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The event was like walking 20 to 30 miles every day and I came to know that thru ­hikers are of the notion (the majority of the hikers actually do follow this way of nutrition) that foods rich in protein are important to build up the muscles as well as recover them. Not only that, the food option  for hikers is pretty limited as we have to eat that we can carry. So, there is no way to enjoy soy burgers or marinated tofu steaks with tasty cashew cheese.

It was only after going through The China Study that I came to know the reason for so much concern about protein in our diet.    The presence of protein as a nutrient was discovered in the year 1839  and since then it has been under the limelight  and  also  considered to be the most sacred among other nutrients .  The 19 th ­century world considered protein and meat synonymous  and  this  cultural  association  are still  with  us.  Serving  meat  during main meals has become the symbol of wealth as  well as health. Right from the discovery of the presence of proteins, it was believed that one must consume twice the required amount of protein  in order to sustain a healthy life. That was probably because of the cultural bias that more is always better .

 The paragraph above sets the stage or the historical scenario on which many people and even the nutritionists build their perspective on health and nutrition these days. We will just have to step back  a bit to find out the scenario that is totally  different. Look  at the healthy people  from Asia,  South  America  and  Africa  who  consume  fewer  amounts  of  animal  protein  as compared to the population in the
western world and they have fewer complications related to overall  health .  Animals  like  the  giraffe,  hippopotamus  and  elephants  do  not consume  animal protein and yet they weigh hundreds of pounds! Every plant food consists of the entire spectrum of amino acids . What does a human  baby feed? Nothing but breast milk! The diet of breast milk consists of just 5% protein and that is the amount of protein required for an adult human being is that same 5% (as recommended by World Health Organization) . If we  look  from  this  particular  perspective,   the   complete vegetarian  diet  (with  fruits  and vegetables) that can meet our calorie needs actually contain 10% protein .

The Recommended Daily Allowance of protein for an adult in the United States is 0.8 grams per kilogram of the body weight and this means a person weighing 60 kilograms (132 lbs) will need 48 grams of protein in his or her diet. Let us consider a 2000 calorie diet, in which 4 calories will  come from  a  gram  of  protein  and  this will sum  up  to  11%  calories from  the protein group (this will be about 9% for a  2500  calorie diet). This particular recommendation of  10%  of  the  calories from  protein (i.e.  0.8  grams  per  kilogram)  is  actually reviewed   14 times  by expert scientists . A single (average sized) potato contains 8% protein and when you  just  add  half  cup  of  beans (with  27%  protein  in  it)   with it,  you  can  get  the required amount  of  protein  without  having  to  go  for  any  animal  product.  The  inclusion  of  animal protein  in  the diet  results  in  the  increase  of  protein  intake  to  the  17%  of  the  calories (according to the Standard American Diet) we are actually exposing ourselves to the risks of facing  the  adverse  effects  of  animal  proteins.  Not  only  that,  we  are  also  rejecting  the goodness of plant food which are far more nutritious as compared to animal protein .

If you need to know about the implication of the above­ mentioned facts., you will have to continue reading the rest  of this report. It is the fact that hikers need more calories and thus we are inclined towards eating more foods (including carbohydrates, fats,  proteins)  no matter  in what form they  come to  us. Present findings  on  nutrition facts reveal that we hikers are not at the risk to fall victim  of protein deficiency while on or off the trail. The hard truth is that it is a pretty hard task for the body to break down the consumed protein  and that is almost same as hiking 25 miles a day. We cannot store protein (like we can do with fats and carbohydrate) and this particular nutrient is not an efficient fuel. The liver and kidneys require breaking down, neutralizing and filtering the excess amounts of amino acids (produced while breaking down the animal protein) and thus are forced to work harder . Along with  this  tiring  job  of the  organs,  our  body  also  loses some water  due to the process of protein metabolism . So, it is pretty clear that the entire process puts extra strain on our body instead of just feeding the working muscles.

I came to know about a wonderful metaphor that fits perfectly with this perspective. It is very much  like  maintaining  house  after  it  is  built.  Maintenance  of  the  house  does  not  mean building more walls, ceilings, and floors. It means paying for other utilities as well as keeping  the  building  clean  and  in  good  condition.  Proteins  are  similar  to  the  walls  while carbohydrates are similar as keeping the power supply on.

I  can recollect  an  incident  while  I  was  on  the  hike  through  the  North Cascades.  I  took  a protein shake for  lunch  and my  body reacted  violently  as my metabolic  activity made  the body busy in breaking down the protein and thus, I had no more energy left to walk even a few steps. My digestive tract used up all the available oxygen in my body and thus, hardly any oxygen was left for the brain and muscles. The result was that I started feeling drowsy. I took the lesson from this incident and I never carry protein powder while I hike. I prefer other energy boosters like dehydrated hummus, ProBars, refried beans, Clif Bars, walnuts or chia seeds and I consume throughout the  day  in   small quantities.

The big meal at night helps me to recover from the strain of the day while I rest. This big meal too is not protein rich either as  I choose  to  take  the  combination  of  the  necessary  macro  and  micro  nutrients  along  with bioactive compounds and antioxidants. This is what you can call a whole food of whole meal.

I do not deny the fact that protein’s role is important in maintaining the necessary functions of the body and it also works in muscle recovery. But I have learned and thus, believe that protein is not the prime factor. Whatever we eat contains protein and the source is thus not limited. see, you can find protein in every food you eat; you just have to know the amount of protein your food contains and then you will never worry about having a shortage of protein for your body.
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