Humans are omnivores, that is we can eat both meat and plants. Whether this is the healthiest way to eat, is an argument I’m not going to enter into this post. Rather I’m going to talk about the importance of eating quality sources of protein, from a variety of sources to support optimal health.
First, basic biology. Your body uses proteins from your diet to build new cells, maintain tissues, and synthesise new proteins that make it possible for you to perform basic bodily functions. It is necessary to make feel good and reproductive hormones, digestive enzymes, immune cells and connective tissue, such as the skin, hair, and nails.
Quite simply our entire body is largely composed of protein. We cannot store protein, so it’s safe to say, that in order to replace, rebuild and repair, we need to consume protein very regularly.
How much and how often?
There are recommendations for how much protein is required depending upon your age, weight, level of activity and gender. Because I like to simplify nutrition as much as possible, I am going to recommend that you aim to eat some form of quality protein with every meal and snack. Especially for children, who need regular amounts of quality protein because they are growing so rapidly. In fact, studies suggest that children who don’t have enough breakfast protein, are prone to sleep, behavioural and learning disorders.
The palm method is also a good guideline. Meat eaters should consume the equivalent of about the size and thickness of the palm of their hand, twice a day (and more for non-meat forms of protein).
Refined foods and protein deficiency
The one thing that a swing towards processed foods has done, is dramatically reduced the amount of protein people are eating. You see most processed convenience foods are generally a combination of fat and carbohydrate. Especially snack foods. In our society, it is rare to see clinical signs of protein deficiency. However, in my experience, subclinical signs are increasingly common. These include poor immune responses (getting sick frequently), muscular weakness, poor growth and development, delayed healing, accelerated ageing and poor appetite.
Sources of protein
The obvious source of protein is of animal derivative – meat, fish, dairy ,eggs. These are ‘complete’ sources, which means they contain all of the amino acids needed for the above mentioned functions. Meat is definitely not created equal and the nutrients (and toxins) derived from it varies significantly. You will find more information on selecting the best sources of meat here.
Plant proteins are also worthy sources. They include nuts, seeds, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans etc;) and whole grains (when a grain is processed, the protein is removed). They are however incomplete, that is they have some but not all of the amino acids required by the body to make protein. To make a complete protein, they need to be eaten in combination. Quinoa, which is actually a seed, has a complete amino acid profile and is worth consuming if animal derived protein is out of the question. It is possible to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan, it just takes a conscious effort to combine foods to form a complete protein in EVERY meal and snack.
Protein and children
Some children are just averse to meat. If this is the case, a concerted effort to combine vegetarian sources of protein is critical. I can’t tell you how many children I’ve seen, who are either failing to thrive or have more sick than well days; this is often because they just aren’t eating enough protein. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, as many protein deficient children have poor appetites and often just want to snack throughout the day. I’ve found the snacks they consume are notorious ‘protein deficient’ and they just get sicker and sicker. If you are concerned about your child then you need to make sure every snack is protein rich (as my snack recipes are). If you are really concerned, then please talk to your health care practitioner.
The good news, is that as a child’ protein and nutrient levels improve, so will their appetite and desire for food. Until that happens here are a few extra ideas for including protein :
- Make sure breakfast includes protein (and not of the processed cereal kind). For more on breakfast see here.
- A nut butter, tahini or hummus on whole grain toast.
- Nut and seed mix.
- Make a smoothie with natural yogurt, ground nuts and seeds and rolled oats (plus fruit and ice). Or invest in a whole-food based, good quality protein powder. I love the brand 180 Nutrition (which has no weird ingredients or sugar).
- Ideas for eating the amazing quinoa (is next week).
- Add meat to soup and then puree it to ‘hide’ it.
- Eat eggs, any way you can (in meals and snacks).
- Most of my recipes including snack and treats are protein rich. For inspiration check them out.
- Some kids whilst they don’t like meat based meals like jerky or biltong. So it may be worth a try.
- Bone broth is a great source of protein – I have ideas for using it beyond soups or just drinking it here.
Keep trying to encourage even small amounts of protein and never give up!