Let’s say you cut back on red meat, pork, dairy, or whatever this month’s Vanity Fair, fad diet recommends you stay away from in order to slim down and center your chakras. You’ve decided to turn over a new leaf, literally. You become one with the salad greens, the baby spinach, the arugula and the dark green kale that melts in your mouth and not in your stock pot. Yet something is missing, “Well it can’t be protein.” You tell yourself. “I read the labels. The lentils had 6 grams. The almond butter had 8 grams and I just let all my facebook peeps know that it’s complicated with me and chickpeas.”
You’d be right to feel betrayed because while these nutritious foods bring plenty of protein to the table they do not provide, wait for it….a “complete” source of protein. Huh?!! What you talkin bout F.P.? (Forgotten Physiology)
Wait a minute, slow down…put down the Salisbury steak. I’m not saying that these incomplete sources of protein can’t be brought together in nutritional matrimony to compliment each other. We just need to be a bit more crafty about how we bring them together. It’s not the amount of protein in foods that I’m harping about. It’s a matter of how those proteins are constructed. That’s right, amino acids, those nifty chains of nucleic acids constructed by the ribosomes from mRNA instructions stored in our DNA. Oh yes my friends, high school biology just got practical.
This is the situation…
There are 20 amino acids necessary to sustain human life. Our bodies make 11 of those which leave 9 crafty “essential” amino acids that we have to seek out in our diets. It can be a real nutritional scavenger hunt if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Sure there are a handful of oats, grains, and beans…”oh my” that come close. The reason meat contains all of your essential AA’s is because when that poor critter was alive it was stocking up on protein for itself. Dairy comes fully equipped because mammals like cows are delivering all the nutrients from their foraging to their offspring through the milk they produce. Most plants (soybeans are an exception) only contain a portion of those because that was their particular growth requirement…a little isoleucine here…a little phenylalanine there.
When you chomp down on a cheese steak it doesn’t get separated into perfect microscopic IKEA parts labeled “for the kidneys” or “for the triceps.” Those proteins are digested and the amino acids recycled in order to supply our body’s amino acid pool, that hard working transfer RNAs pull from when it comes time to make our own proteins (remember that’s called RNA translation). That kind of thing is going on right now inside our cells. What proteins we are able to make is dependent on what amino acids we have available. It’s the kind of “little thing” that only matters when you start to feel rundown because there’s not enough tryptophan around to make the proteins that keep your thyroid happy.
Now right about now you’re probably thinking. “I don’t have time to look up the amino acid content of everything I eat.” To that I say tough tabouli brah! That’s the cost of eating healthier. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging, but ask anyone who has made a successful transition to vegetarianism and they will probably give you an earful about the websites and books they checked out. Besides, it’s fascinating stuff and chicks dig guys who know their quinoa 🙂
Here are just a few ideas to get you started and I’m leaving you some nutrition links at the end. I hope they’re helpful.
Non-meat protein sources aren’t nearly as dispersed as jigsaw puzzles. I think of them in terms of what they did for the plant they came from. Roots like carrots and parsnips stored energy for that plant. So it would make sense that these would be sweet, starchy, fibrous, and packed with minerals and carbohydrates, but relatively low on the protein scale. Now tubers like potatoes or yams, and legumes like lima beans or lentils are packed with carbohydrates and protein because their respective plants sprouted from them. They provided the fuel and the molecular raw materials for the growth of those plants. It is the same story for seeds. So for the times when I would go vegetarian (mainly to lose weight) it always made sense to me to essentially rebuild those plants in my diet…seeds and beans, roots, stems, and leaves. Now that’s not including dairy which I’ll get to…I NEEDS MY DAIRY!
What’s with this soy business?
Oh yeah, this bean get’s its own section. It truly is a wonder food, containing all of the essential amino acids. What’s really nice about the versatility of soy is that it can take many product forms (tofu, soy milk, soluble protein powder) which allow you to reasonably incorporate the stuff into even your most hectic daily routine. It is important to remember that while soy has all of the AA’s it is lower in some than others like methionine for example.
Dairy is your friend…
If you’re cutting out dairy for certain principles or to trim the fat I totally respect that. Just don’t be surprised if you find it harder to smile…that’s a Ben & Jerry’s deficiency.
In the course of your interweb browsing and research it will inevitably become apparent to you just how many of the AA’s are covered by dairy products. Low fat sources like yogurt, feta, cottage cheeses are CRAZY loaded with good stuff. Remember, cheeses were an ancient energy food. I will say that for my lactose intolerant friends out there (which make up a large percentage of the population) you probably want to stick to traditionally made yogurts and harder cheeses which have had most of their lactose sugars converted by active lactose fermenting bacterial cultures or separated out from the milk solids. Hey, don’t feel bad that stuff is good too and usually of higher quality. It’s going to have a little more fat but give yourself a break…you’re living off tree bark and rabbit food for crying out loud (that was mean..didn’t mean that)
Stay curious. Stay classy and never stop learning 🙂