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Proteins are the building blocks of the body. They form the structures of the cell wall, the organelles within the cells, and most of the functions within the cell are carried out by proteins. Proteins are the structural components of muscles, hair, tendons and ligaments, while the blood and lymph transport them. They are the messenger molecules for the brain and central nervous system. They regulate the function of immunity with antibodies, and manufacture and break down tissues with all the body’s enzymes. (1)
Proteins are made up of the combination of thousands of smaller units called amino acids, which are attached to one another in long chains. There are now 22 different types of amino acids that have been discovered that can be combined in innumerable combinations to make functional proteins. (1,2)
Thirteen of the amino acids that combine to make proteins can be made by the body, and are considered non-essential amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids that must be included in the diet, as the body cannot make them itself. Foods that have all 9 essential amino acids are called “Complete Proteins.”
Most of the complete proteins are from animal sources, which include:
Plant-based proteins are considered “incomplete,” because they typically lack one or more of the essential amino acids. There are many plant-based foods that do have all 9 essential amino acids, but perhaps not in the quantities to deliver the needed amounts of complete proteins. This is currently being debated in the scientific community. The plant-based foods that have at least some of all 9 essential amino acids are: (3)
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Soy beans
- Black eyed peas
Incomplete proteins are foods that do not contain all 9 essential amino acids, or don’t have sufficient quantities of them to meet the body’s needs. Incomplete proteins must be eaten in combination with other plant foods to become complete. For example, rice and beans is a classic plant-based meal that combines two incomplete proteins to make a complete protein. The incomplete proteins are:
- Whole grains
Note: Rice, pea and hemp protein powders are incomplete and typically have added amino acids to make them complete.
When combining vegetable protein sources, the rules are simple. Combine your grains or your vegetable protein sources with either nuts, seeds or beans. These combinations can be taken throughout the course of the day and do not need to be eaten at the same time.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Proteins provide constant and steady mood, energy and nervous system support for the body. While it is rare to see protein deficiencies in the US, it is common to see symptoms of such, as a result of a dietary imbalance of proteins, starches, veggies and fats.
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The Paleo Diet trend tends to encourage people to eat way more protein than they need, while vegan and vegetarian diets tend to undershoot the protein requirement runway. The RDA for protein intake is .36 grams of protein for each pound of body weight. This is roughly about 1/3 of the diet. This amount is hotly debated with experts, suggesting protein intakes that range from 10-30% of the diet and higher. Our protein needs seems to vary based on many individual factors, such as genetics, strength of digestion, the diet you grew up eating and the season that you are in.
When we look at the centenarian cultures around the world (who live on average to be over 100 years old), they only eat about 10% of their diet as animal protein. They eat beans and other sources of plant-based proteins at every meal, which brings their protein intake closer to 30% of their diet.
While it is difficult to be precise here and the science is inconclusive, hunter-gatherers were likely much better gatherers than hunters, and their protein intake is thought to be between 19 and 50% of their diet, with a plant-based diet as high as 65%. (4) There is evidence to suggest that early humans ate more plant-based diets, and as hunting skills developed along with the European migration, animal protein consumption increased. (5,6)
In nature, we know that soil microbes that are able to digest more dense foods like proteins and bark increase in the winter, as do certain enzymes that help boost winter digestive strength. In the summer, the microbes shift to be able to digest fresh fruits and veggies, rather than the harder to break down proteins.
Nature harvests protein-rich grains, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy and meats in the fall for winter eating. With a scarcity of plant-based foods available in the winter, hunting became a requirement to survive winter. In the fall, when the spring-born calves were hardy, extra dairy was cultured or preserved into cheese to help survive the winter months.
As a result, the diet that we are genetically matched to eat would change from season to season. According to Ayurveda and my book, The 3-Season Diet, the percentages of proteins, starches and veggies we consume should change from season to season. I do suggest to aim for limited animal protein consumption to 10%, like the centenarian cultures. The rule of thumb is:
Note: Vegetables include all green vegetables. Starch includes grains, potatoes, root veggies, tubers and fruits. Protein includes all animal & vegetarian protein sources. Add healthy fats to these meals, like ghee, butter, coconut oil and olive oil.