Clearing Up the Confusion Around Protein: What Types Are Best and How Much You Need

HJ: The problem with much of the information being put out today in regards to health is that it is highly polarized and heavily influenced by the dietary beliefs and philosophies of those arguing their point.  Ask a fruitarian and a paleo-enthusiast about protein and you’ll get two equally convincing answers justifying their views — both, however, are equally skewed because their positions have extreme biases in opposite directions.  Even mainstream doctors ignore the relationship between the body, mind and spirit so their perspective is also equally skewed, but from a reductionist point of view.

When it comes to assessing what is objectively the best for the body, mind and spirit, Chinese medicine has, by far, the most complete and comprehensive perspective on the matter.  Furthermore, this incredible wealth of information has only been enhanced and confirmed by modern nutritional research, which, when integrated with the traditional knowledge, provides a complete system for assessing the full mental, spiritual and physical effects of a given food or class of foods, in this case, protein.

Protein is a controversial subject, but once you are armed with some basic knowledge, which is outlined in the article below, you can easily determine for yourself in any situation and with any foods how to get enough and the proper kinds.

As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.”

– Truth

Our First Food, Protein: Kinds of Protein, How Our Bodies Use It, and How Much We Need

By Sarah Holland | Planet Herbs

Throughout life our needs change, that is part of the continuous cycle and continual striving for balance. Balance is the key in life and this includes the food we eat. Making changes in our lives, whether this is following a more spiritual path or regaining balance from disease will in event necessitate a change in our diet and food. The food we intake is also a source of prana outside of the air we breathe, so therefore our food choices should be an important consideration in our everyday life. Using food therapy as an integral part of our work in health and healing requires us to maintain flexibility and openness when dealing with such issues.

There has been much media press about diet and food over the years, creating immense confusion. Different diets purport different things and today we see such diets as the Hay system, F plan etc. We also have diets for a way of life, such as macrobiotics or a yogic more sattvic diet. I remember as a child my mother going on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet and being perpetually hungry! Certainly there are highly processed, refined foods on the market with no life force that are not necessary in our diet.

Protein has come under much controversy: eating too much, too little, attribution to disease and what is best for us. It always concerned me greatly when teaching Vegetarian cookery how many people decide to give up meat and fish, consume too much dairy and eggs and have no understanding of vegetable proteins, their importance in the diet or how to combine them; this is how the following article came about! Part 1 examines how protein is made, its function in the body, terms used and a brief overview of the digestive process. Part 2 will discuss protein from the viewpoint of Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western nutrition, patterns in excess and deficiency and making change, considering foods from both a chemical constituent viewpoint and a holistic, energetic approach.

The word protein is derived from Greek and means ‘˜holding the first place’. Proteins hold the first place in the building and maintaining of all living things and without them no life can exist. It has two main functions in the body, it is used as a building and repair material for tissues and organs, eg. skin, hair, muscles, liver and in the formation of hormones, enzymes and antibodies.

There are many types of protein including, animal protein, plant protein, human protein amongst a few. They can all be made from the same 20 amino acids in long multiple chains. These can be arranged in any order and there maybe several hundred amino acids in a single protein molecule.

The body can produce many of the 20 amino acids but there are eight essential amino acids that the body relies on from foods for its source, namely, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Children also require two further amino acids, histidine and arginine. Each of these amino acids have their own specific function, as do the other less essential amino acids for example GABA and tyrosine, which are also essential to health.

There are several terms used to describe protein which are as follows:

First Class protein or Complete protein, these are of animal sources, meat, fish, dairy, eggs. They have a good balance of the essential amino acids and are in similar proportions to those found in human tissues, muscles and organs.

Net Protein Utilisation (NPU) or biological value is the term used to describe the percentage of protein which is actually available to the body. Eggs and human breast milk have the highest NPU ratings of all foods and are therefore classified as complete protein.

Second Class protein or Incomplete protein are vegetable proteins, which are grains, nuts, pulses and seeds. They are classified as incomplete protein because these foods by themselves are low in one or more of the essential amino acids. These amino acids are called limited amino acids because they reduce the NPU of that protein. To obtain the essential amino acids from vegetable proteins in good proportion they need to be combined together, for example grains contain alot of tryptophan and not much lysine whereas pulses contain a lot of lysine but not much tryptophan so by combining grains and pulses together gives a good balance. The best combinations of vegetable proteins are grains and pulses, pulses and nuts.

Soya bean and soya bean products, for example tofu, are also a complete protein of vegetable source. However, strictly speaking the soya bean is slightly low in the amino acid methionine and therefore to combine with other vegetable protein for example a grain will enhance the quality of protein.

Concentrated Protein is a term we often hear within Alternative Medicine and it is referring to complete protein, meat, fish, dairy, eggs.

Protein metabolism is complex therefore I am going to give a brief overview. Proteins are converted by the enzymes of the gastric, pancreatic and intestinal juices into amino acids. They are absorbed by the villi of the small intestine and carried by the portal vein to the liver. The waste products of protein metabolism are urea and to a lesser extent uric acid and creatinine.

Some plant protein is not suitable for building and repairing and therefore is converted to glucose in the liver or urea. The glucose is either stored in the liver or used as fuel. This is not a substitute for carbohydrate energy giving foods such as grains. Animal sources of protein are more fully utilised than plant protein.

For the full utilisation of protein, a good balance of the essential amino acids is required from our food so that the function of protein is carried out. Secondly, carbohydrate is necessary. If protein is ingested by itself or with inadequate carbohydrate, it will be used for energy giving, which is the main function of carbohydrate. This highlights the necessity for a good carbohydrate/protein balance in the diet. Persistant low carbohydrate intake where protein is being used for energy is seen in cases of starvation, anorexia, overall weakness in the body, poor skin, loss of hair and poor absorption and digestion.

Protein Part 2

I ask myself, why do I leave things to the last minute? Its either a mad rush or for a reason. In this case writing Part 2 of the article on Protein has been for a reason, it has given me time for reflection and a time to look closer at new sources of nutritional information.

The aim of the NACNE report in 1983 was to present guidelines for the British diet that would result in better health and thereby reduce the incidence of such disease as angina, strokes, heart attacks, gallstones, diverticulitis, cancer of the colon, constipation, obesity and dental carries. There were recommended dietary changes with specific emphasis on less fat (especially saturated), less salt and sugar, more unrefined whole carbohydrate, less alcohol, which meant looking much closer at our food choices. This was left wide open for interpretation and resulted in overly high carbohydrate diets with little protein complement, low fat and an increased consumption of raw cold food. It was also a time when many people decided to become vegetarian which continues to grow.

But what about the long term effects? Today we are seeing people with fatigue, feelings of ungroundness, mood swings, sweet cravings, weight gain, increasing candidiasis, PMS, gluten problems and so forth. Our diets are out of balance! The balance between the macro-nutrients, carbohydrate, protein and fat needs to be re-evaluated, which in real terms means eating less carbohydrate foods, more protein and more fat! It is not being suggested that we increase our consumption of saturated fats, but look closer at the intricate relationship between fats and the essential fatty acids. This article focus’ on the carbohydrate, protein balance and why the ratios between these need to be changed. The Fats, Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) and the energetic perspective will be looked at in the next Newsletter.

Carbohydrate foods give us energy, they are more yang and balancing in nature whereas protein foods repair, rebuild and are more yin and nurturing in nature.

We need to be concerned with which carbohydrate foods to eat. There are simple and complex carbohydrates, which we know as empty and full sweet in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. The simple carbohydrates are sugars, table sugar, natural sweeteners such as honey; fructose found in fruits, fruit juice; lactose found in milk, ice cream. Complex carbohydrates are found in starches, grains, starchy vegetables such as potato; legumes, beans and peas; vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, carrots. Simple carbohydrates give more instant energy, but this burst of energy can be relatively short then we crash and need more. Complex carbohydrates sustain us for longer.

Lets look closer at the complex carbohydrate foods which we have been encouraged to eat more of. What has occurred is an over consumption of foods such as pasta, cereals such as muesli and bread products, frequently served with tomato sauce and salad, to the neglect of whole protein complement.

These foods are made from the whole grain and many today are highly processed. Because of the nutritional guidelines on fats, these are being removed from many products and frequently replaced with simple sugars. In a round about way we could be continuing to ingest rather high levels of simple sugars in our diets, so what is this doing?

Nutritional thoughts to the digestion and metabolism of carbohydrates are looking at highly processed carbohydrates, discussed in the previous paragraph in the same light as simple sugars.

All carbohydrates are converted to glucose, which is used for energy and goes to the muscles or fat cells. If it is not used right away it is stored in the liver as glycogen. The more active you are the more glycogen you will use. There are also paired sets of endocrine hormones in the body, the two released from the pancreas are insulin and glucagon.

Insulin drives blood sugar levels down, whilst glucagon has the opposite effect. So we can see that the more carbohydrate we eat the more insulin that is released, the blood sugar level drops fatigue sets in and we need more. A condition known as insulin resistance, where both insulin levels and blood sugar levels remain high because the target cells no longer respond to the insulin results in the accumulation of excess body fat.

These two hormones, insulin and glucagon play an important role in both weight loss and gain. It is now recognised that a large proportion of overweight people may have a carbohydrate intolerance and such links are being looked at more closely in those who have chronic yeast problems. It can also give onset to diabetes.

Protein also plays a vital part in regulating the hormone glucagon and the Essential Fatty Acids in the metabolism of insulin. Dr Jenkins and Dr Wolever analyzed many different carbohydrate foods to see what the effect on blood sugar was, the relation between the test food and the glucose effects in the body is called the Glycemic Index.

Some people will have no problem with carbohydrate foods and insulin, however awareness of the wider perspective on carbohydrate foods is very helpful to us when we are considering food choices. Rebalancing our macro-nutrients is the key. Carbohydrate, protein, fat balances have become extreme, which when looking at a daily food intake would show the foods consumed centred around carbohydrate meals, with a small amount of protein and minimal fat intake. It is important to re-emphasise for the body to make and utilise protein the foods eaten need to have good proportions of the eight essential amino acids as was discussed in Part 1.

How much protein do we need? To suggest 50-100g per day is not as simple as it sounds. We need to consider the composition of the protein, meat contains the eight essential amino acids, has no fibre, is high in saturated fat and will be more available to the body in terms of protein than a limited vegetable protein which is high in fibre and low in fat, (beneficial to us in otherways). This hi lights how necessary it is with vegetable proteins to eat good protein complement at each meal. Considering foods in terms of calories is of little help to us, the only thing we can say is that if we intake more calories per day than our energy output the excess will be stored as body fat. Neither of these take in to account optimal health, how we actually would like to feel, constitutional types, imbalances, lifestyle and so forth.

Carbohydrates to encourage in the diet are fresh vegetables both roots and leafy, fruit, legumes (beans and peas), and whole grains (such as rice and barley). The fibre in these foods is more soluble and easier for the digestive tract to manage than fibre from wheat/rye products which can be more irritating. More people today are showing sensitivities to gluten found in some whole grains and whilst these foods are excellent for us, consume in moderation. Some diets over the past years have purported 4-6 helpings per day. This is excessive and can exacerbate the body with over elimination. This also applies to fruit.

Protein needs are greater in children, the elderly, pregnancy, lactating women, surgery/post operative, high energy output activity, such as athletes

Protein foods are better eaten individually than in a cocktail. Milk particularly is better taken by itself (warmed, not cold) as its such a concentrated source of protein. Protein foods do not mix well with fruit, the fruit undermines the digestion of the protein. Some people tolerate milk protein with grains, generally meat and fish with grains is harder to digest.

So what protein sources are best for us to eat? Since the NACNE report the following food choices have been encouraged but there are some new nutritional thoughts which I shall just touch on. White meat (eg chicken, without the skin), fish both white and oily (eg haddock and sardines), low fat dairy products! such as skimmed milk, tofu, grains (eg rice, millet), beans (eg mung, aduki), nuts and seeds (eg sunflower, almonds). In addition to this there are products not so widely used, tempeh, seitan and processed products such as quorn and other soya products on the market. Meat, such as lamb and beef, full fat dairy and eggs have tended to be given bad press and many people have either cut these out of their diets or greatly reduced them.

The Western view on food does not consider excess/deficiency patterns, hot/cold, taste, flavour or how individual foods can be used for specific imbalances. There is the wider perspective, the emotions (physical,emotional,spiritual balance), methods of cooking, seasons and so on.

Current nutritional thinking and the foods we eat are drawing us back to the ‘hunting and gathering man’ and how we evolved.We can look at protein foods eaten then such as wild game, fish, insects, to the far greater range of foods now available since the advent of modern day agriculture. The other relationship is to do with fats. Meat hunted by our ancestors contained structural fat, whereas meat from farming today contain storage fat. We have also seen a decline in the consumption of fish which has attributed to the EFA imbalance, both of these aspects we will looker closer at in the next Newsletter.

Sarah Holland is Director of the East West Herb Course in the U.K.

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  1. Thank you!!

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