How to make healthy protein choices
PROTEIN is a controversial topic not only because of the growing popularity of high-protein diets, of which the Atkins Diet is the most extreme, but also because of the increasing number of people who are switching to a vegetarian diet for either health or spiritual reasons.
So, on one hand, you have Atkins and his followers who say that eating large quantities of animal flesh and the accompanying saturated fat is healthy for you. On the other hand, you have vegetarians who make opposite health claims and who also feel it is morally and spiritually wrong to kill animals for food.
Both sides can be quite passionate about what they believe. I know because I’ve been caught in the cross-fire more than a few times. If I mention anything negative about high-protein diets, I get e-mail from irate highprotein believers. If I write anything positive about eating animal flesh, I get e-mail from angry vegetarian activists. I never realized that food could rile up such fiery emotions. I thought only sex, politics and religion could do that.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid is not the perfect representation of a healthy diet and may even create its own misconceptions (placing vegetable oil at the bottom may give people the impression that they can “swim” in oil and not gain any weight). However, Willett’s pyramid is an improvement on the old Food Guide Pyramid because it separates the major food groups by quality.
In the Healthy Eating Pyramid, protein from nuts and legumes (eat two to three times a day) and seafood, fish, eggs, and poultry (eat zero to two times a day) are placed in the third and fourth levels respectively while protein from red meat (eat sparingly) is placed at the tip. The old pyramid lumped all sources of protein in one category, giving many people the notion that they are of the same nutritional quality.
Without protein, you wouldn’t have any muscles, hair, skin, nails, blood or internal organs. In other words, protein is the main stuff your body is made of. Enzymes and hormones are also made of protein. Protein is made of smaller units called amino acids. Your body can make most of the amino acids you need but it has to get eight of them from the food you eat. Animal sources like meat, eggs, fish, poultry and milk contain all amino acids so they are called complete proteins, while plant sources contain only some of the amino acids needed, thus they are called incomplete proteins. However, by eating a variety of plant-based food like grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and vegetables, you can easily get all the amino acids your body needs.
Nuts can be used as a substitute for meat because, ounce for ounce, they contain the same amount of protein (approximately 7 g) but they contain more calories and fat. However, the fat in nuts is mostly hearthealthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Nuts also contain soluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol levels.
All nuts contain copper, which helps maintain good cholesterol levels and lowers blood pressure. Almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts contain Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. Peanuts and hazelnuts have folate, which protects against heart disease. Peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds contain arginine, an amino acid that helps widen arteries and lowers blood pressure. Almonds, brazil nuts and pistachios contain good amounts of calcium. Lastly, nuts are full of potential cancer-fighting substances like phytosterols and other phytochemicals.
Despite being high in fat, nuts can help you lose weight if you keep the portions small and use them to replace refined carbohydrate snacks. A Purdue University study found that peanuts kept participants’ hunger at bay for over two hours while a lowfat snack like rice cakes kept them satisfied for only half an hour. Nuts can control your hunger because of their high fiber, protein and fat content.
The Harvard studies found that the women who ate a serving of nuts fives times a week were 20 percent less likely to develop type-2 diabetes than those who rarely ate nuts.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one serving of nuts equals one ounce which is about: 28 peanuts, 22 almonds, 20 pecan halves, 18 cashews, 14 walnut halves, 7 brazil nuts, 20 hazelnuts, 12 macadamia nuts or 47 pistachios. One ounce of nuts has approximately 7 g of protein, 14 g of fat and 160 calories.
A legume is a bean inside a pod. Technically, peanuts are legumes but the average person equates them with nuts. Examples of legumes are soybeans, peas, mongo, white and red kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, garbanzos, pinto beans, etc.
Legumes are good sources of protein. In many ethnic cultures, legumes are eaten with grains. This has a scientific basis because the amino acids that are lacking in legumes can be found in grains and vice-versa.
Legumes contain many important nutrients like folic acid, Vitamin B6, iron, zinc, selenium and calcium. They do not cause sharp increases in blood sugar levels despite their carbohydrate content because of their high fiber content (both soluble and insoluble).
The main problem with eating beans is that it can cause intestinal gas and bloating for susceptible people. Some cooking methods that can help are soaking the beans overnight in water (throw the water away before cooking) and adding ½ tbsp of cumin and/or ginger powder while cooking. There are also anti-gas products like Beano that are available.
Eggs contain 6 g of protein. Many people skip eating the yolk because they have been told it is high in cholesterol. This is true but one of the Harvard studies concluded that for healthy people, eating one egg a day does not increase cholesterol levels or increase the risk of heart disease or stroke. These findings are also confirmed by other studies. This is because dietary cholesterol or the cholesterol found in food is not the culprit in making your liver produce more cholesterol. For that, you can blame saturated fat found in animal sources.
Remember that the “one egg a day is okay” advice is for healthy individuals with normal cholesterol levels. If you already have high cholesterol or have a family history of high cholesterol, check with your doctor before making eggs part of your daily menu.