What Is “Healthy” Protein?
Nutrition can be a controversial issue. There’s no doubt about it!
The topic of protein is especially prickly, as it tends to go hand-in-hand with ethical issues about animal husbandry and environmental sustainability.
So before I discuss healthy protein options, I’d like to respectfully share how my philosophy around protein has evolved over the years and why my current personal diet works well for me.
Dialling back a decade to when James and I first started studying nutrition, the information we found was mostly in favor of a plant-centric diet. At this time in the health and wellness industry, much of the research indicated that vegans lived the longest, experienced the least disease and had the highest levels of health worldwide.
Furthermore, we were desperately searching for answers to help James’ father recover from five years of debilitating, chronic illness. This angle of inquiry led us to discover rigorous detox programs specifically aimed at cleansing the body from disease. Again, this research strongly pointed toward plant-based detox programs.
When James’ father was ready to do these programs, we went all in! This wasn’t a half-hearted intervention, and we literally moved in with James’ parents so that we could help him every step of the way. The cupboard was overhauled, the kitchen got a makeover and we oversaw everything that James’ father ate.
During this period, James and I also did a lot of detoxing ourselves and eventually transitioned to a fully vegan diet. And I must say, we felt incredible! At that particular time in our lives, when our bodies were adjusting from a more stressful, on-the-run lifestyle, it suited us to eat simple, clean, plant food.
However, this all changed four years ago, when I realized that I wanted to become a mom.
Discovering everything that a baby needs to grow and thrive completely turned my concepts of nutrition around. James and I interviewed many, many experts to understand what my body would need to healthfully conceive and carry a child through pregnancy.
Everything we came across and were told pointed in one direction:
The missing piece in my diet was protein.
I’ve always had a slight frame and never really questioned there being any health issue with this. But as I entered Motherhood, I was underweight. In order for my baby to grow at a healthy rate, get proper nutrition and thrive, I needed to gain extra weight. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t gain weight at the rate I needed - and keep it on - with a vegan diet.
There’s a saying to ‘put extra meat on your bones’ and it turned out that was literally what I needed! Animal foods were the only way my body could get the high quality protein and extra calories it needed to reach a healthy weight and nourish my baby during pregnancy.
This wasn’t easy. I am firmly, wholeheartedly, passionately against factory farming. I love animals and I deeply care about the environmental future of our planet. And I don’t think that Western levels of meat consumption are sustainable.
However, I also believe that my body, personally, could not have supported a healthy pregnancy on a vegan diet.
Today, four years later, James and I (and Hugo!) still have a diet that is very rich in plant-based foods. We juice daily, include fresh, organic vegetables with our meals, regularly eat legumes, and eat smaller amounts of fruit and activated nuts. We also eat a little (soaked and activated) grains such as brown rice and quinoa on a regular basis.
But here’s the difference: We still eat moderate amounts of organic, pasture-raised animal products.
Our regular diet contains free-range, organic eggs from the local markets and ethically sourced fish (James even catches it himself sometimes!). While meat isn’t on the table every night, we do eat some red meat and chicken that is organic, pasture-fed and as local as possible on a regular basis.
We have also continued to eat some cultured or organic dairy products, mostly organic milk kefir, yogurt, cream and butter. Non-organic, processed dairy food is not on the menu!
Importantly, as a family we say a prayer of gratitude before we eat. It’s important to me that Hugo knows how much goes into making the food that nourishes our bodies.
With this way of eating, we honestly feel healthier than ever! It fills me with wonder every day to see my beautiful boy grow up strong, healthy and happy.
The ‘Me’ of ten years ago would never have thought that we would be eating this way today. But the field of nutrition is ever-evolving and so much new research is constantly coming to light. At the same time, our bodies are changing and I truly believe it’s important to tune into its constant messages - when we listen, it always has a way of telling us what we need.
Now, Back To Some Science! What Is Protein And Why Is It Such A Big Deal?
Protein is essentially the building blocks of our body. It’s the stuff that forms the structure of our cells, organs, tissues and enzymes. We couldn’t live without protein.
At a molecular level, protein is made up of amino acids which link together to form a chain-like structure. There are 9 essential amino acids that humans must get from their diets in order to survive - hence the name, ‘essential’. There are other amino acids that are classified as being ‘conditionally essential’, meaning that they are only essential under certain conditions, such as disease or food deprivation.
So What Is Good Quality Protein?
You may have heard of the term ‘complete protein’. This refers to high-protein foods that contain all of the essential amino acids. These are generally considered to be the best quality forms of protein.
The idea behind this is that complete proteins have an amino acid makeup that is very similar to the human body. This makes complete proteins more bioavailable; or in other words, the body tends to absorb complete proteins well as they are more ‘compatible’ with our system.
Nutritionists typically measure the quality of protein using a ‘biological value’. Essentially, foods are scaled in this system according to how similar the amino acid profile of a food is compared to what the body needs.
Eggs and foods from animal products do tend to have a good biological value. However, there are still several vegan options that rate well. Soy, certain nuts and quinoa have a particularly good biological value - I would just always suggest eating soy from non-GMO, organic sources (fermented tempeh is also a good option!) and soaking/activating nuts and quinoa before eating.
So to summarize, healthy protein can come from a variety of foods, including both plant and animal sources, such as:
- Free-range, organic eggs
- Non-GMO, organic tofu and tempeh
- Organic, pasture-raised (local, if possible) red meat products
- Legumes (presoaked and well cooked)
- Fish and seafood (preferably wild-caught, or sustainably-caught)
- Free-range, organic chicken
- Organic, cultured dairy products, such as kefir and yogurt
- High-quality vegan protein powders, such as pea and hemp protein
A Big Disclaimer
I fully respect everybody’s own values around food, and I truly believe that you are the best authority to decide what’s right for you. Today, I have respectfully tried to share my story and provide insight into what I, personally, find works for me. I understand that what works well for you may be different.
There is no ‘one diet’ to suit everyone. We all have different genes, different bodies and different dietary needs to suit us a different times of our lives. I encourage you to listen to your body’s cues and act accordingly.
For me, at this particular time in my life, that means eating some animal-based forms of protein. If you feel the same, I invite you to consider free-range, pasture-raised, local sources wherever possible. Choosing to eat meat does not mean that we have to support factory farms - but that’s another story for another day! It does mean that we have an opportunity to tune into our bodies and source our food as ethically as possible.
What Are Your Personal Experiences With Protein? What Works Best For You?
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