Eating healthy is an essential part of our daily routines. Without a healthy body, we cannot function and all other aspects of our lives suffer as a result. While many strive to eat a healthy, balanced diet on a daily basis, nutrition can be very confusing at times. Many people struggle with deciding which foods to include in their diet and which to exclude. As if that wasn’t enough to worry about there’s also the question of when your meals should be consumed, how many calories you should consume a day, and even how many macro nutrients your meals should include. For anyone who has not heard the term macro nutrient, they are the three major categories of fuel for the body: Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates. Unfortunately, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are not the same so even choosing the correct macros to eat can be daunting. As complicated as nutrition is, it is best to tackle each question one at a time in order to meet your individual needs. A good place to start, is understanding protein’s role in your diet and its different sources.
The ancient Greeks believed that protein was essential for life and coined the term from Latin, meaning “of the first quality.” Protein is made up of amino acids and helps make up your muscles, ligaments, eyes, hair, nails, collagen, GI tract, muscles of the heart, and more. They also form hemoglobin that transport oxygen in the blood and myoglobin that transports oxygen to your muscles. Your hormones and enzymes are formed of protein as well. Proteins are also used to regulate bodily fluid balance and the pH level of your fluids, as well as to build antibodies that fight off disease. Given the diverse need for protein throughout the body, the ancient Greeks were absolutely correct in believing protein to be so important for life. That is why it is important to understand the different types of protein, so that you can make sure that your food choices are of the first quality for your health.
Not all proteins are equal. As mentioned earlier, proteins are made up of amino acids, of which there are twenty. Your body breaks down proteins into these amino acids and can also rebuild some into different ones as needed. However, out of the twenty different amino acids, nine cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through diet. These nine amino acids are called the essential amino acids. Not all forms of protein provide all nine essential amino acids, meaning that if you do not eat the correct types of protein, you will be nutrient deficient.
Vegetarians and vegans in particular, run into this problem often. That is because most forms of plant protein are not complete; meaning they only contain some of the essential amino acids needed but not all nine needed. For vegans especially, it is important to understand what each protein source is providing so that you consume all your essential amino acids. For example rice and beans separately are incomplete proteins, but when eaten together make a complete protein. There are a few plants that are complete proteins such as soy, buckwheat, chia, quinoa, and hempseed.
As for meat eaters, they do not have this shared problem as all meats are complete proteins. Though meat is a great source of protein, you may have trouble deciding on a specific source especially since plant based diets are being favored in recent times. While all meat provide complete protein sources, they also provide other nutrients that may or may not be suited for your diet. This has many people wondering if and when red meat, poultry, and fish work into their diet.
Red meat is traditionally, any meat that comes from a four legged animal such as cows, pigs, and lambs. It is a good source of B-vitamins, iron, creatine, zinc, phosphorus, and lipoic acid. However, red meat is also high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Consuming large quantities of red meat has been associated with increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. The American Heart Association recommends limiting red meat, about twice a week and no more.
Poultry are domesticated birds kept for eggs and meat such as chicken, turkey, and duck. Unlike red meat, poultry is much lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, but provides roughly the same amount of protein per gram as red meat. However, poultry does not provide as much iron or minerals as red meat does. Also, poultry must be prepared with care and thoroughly cooked as salmonella contamination is quite common.
Fish are a little more self-explanatory than the other types of meat. However, many people think that fish does not contain as much high quality protein as the other two main sources of meat. This is actually false, as 6oz. of fish only contains 2g less than the same serving size of red meat. While fish is also not a great source of b-vitamins or iron, it is one of the best sources of unsaturated fats or more commonly referred as Omega fatty acids. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines pack a ton of omega fatty acids, which help combat heart disease and are good for your skin and brain. Fish are also low in saturated fat such is poultry.
When deciding on which types of meat to eat throughout the week, keep in mind your weight goals, saturated fat intakes, and your vitamin/mineral needs. People who are trying to lose weight or stay lean might want to stick with poultry and fish, whereas red meat is good for people looking to gain weight or people who suffer from anemia. As always, make sure your meat is natural and hormone free. For red meats try to stick with grass fed only, as it tends to have more healthy unsaturated fat levels. As for fish, wild caught is much better than farmed fish who are feed corn meal and given hormones. That’s why eateries such as the North Shore Tacos, that only sell fresh local wild fish, are important to keep an eye out for.