After watching a webinar last week discussing protein, I was inspired to put together this handy dandy little reference which summarizes protein content in protein-rich foods. I did my best to include both lean protein sources as well as vegetarian sources:
So what is protein and why is it so important? Proteins are molecules made up of several amino acids. It has several functions in the body; building muscle, transporting nutrients in the body like hemoglobin, facilitating biochemical reactions as enzymes, and coordinating bodily functions as hormonal proteins are just a few of those functions.
As mentioned, protein is made up of amino acids. There are two groups; essential and non essential. Not all foods are equal when it comes to the types of amino acids they contain. Animal sources like meat, eggs, and dairy as well as these few plant based proteins (quinoa, chia seeds, soy, spinach, buckwheat, and hempseed) are considered complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids. Plant based sources, for the most part, are incomplete proteins because they do not contain all of the essential amino acids. Why is this important? The body can make the non essential amino acids but it cannot make the essential amino acids on its own. That’s where our food comes into play.
Eating a variety of complementary proteins is a way to get complete proteins into your diet. This means that you need to eat foods that complement each other in their amino acid content in order to provide a complete protein. Legumes like peanuts, peas, dry beans and lentils contain a lot of lysine (an amino acid) but they aren’t good sources of tryptophan (another amino acid). But when you eat them together, they form a complete protein. Recent research has shown that you don’t even need to eat complementary proteins together. As long as you eat a variety throughout the day, you’ll receive ample amounts of each amino acid. However, recent research suggests that vegans aim for 0.8-1.0 g of protein per kg of body weight in order to make up for the lower digestibility of plant based proteins.
Some examples of complementary proteins include:
black beans + rice
pasta + peas
whole wheat bread + peanut butter
beans + soup
lentils + almonds
spirulina + grains, nuts, oats, seeds
Spirulina is often assumed to be a complete protein when, in fact, it is lacking in two amino acids, methionine and cysteine. As you can see, this can easily be remedied by eating it with grains ,nuts, oats or seeds.