The Importance of Whole Food Protein Sources
Last week, I discussed the various types of protein powders available to use as quick meal replacements or snacks. While convenient and better than a bag of chips or a quick trip to the vending machine, I recommend getting a majority of your protein (and intake in general) from whole food sources.
Why is protein so important?
Proteins really are the building blocks of life, as every cell in the human body is comprised of protein. It helps your body repair cells and make new ones. Protein is also essential for growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. Additionally, it is necessary for recovery and wound healing.
Protein foods are broken down into amino acids during digestion.
The human body requires amino acids in large enough amounts to maintain good health. Amino acids are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish, and eggs. They are also found in plant sources such as soy, beans, legumes, nut butters, and some grains (such as wheat germ and quinoa). You do not need to eat animal products to get all the protein you need in your diet.
Amino acids are classified into three groups:
Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and must be supplied by food. They do not need to be eaten at one meal. The balance over the whole day is more important.
Nonessential amino acids are made by the body from essential amino acids or in the normal breakdown of proteins.
Conditional amino acids are needed in times of illness and stress.
Let’s talk about the easy ways to incorporate protein into your diet:
Most people immediately think of beef when the word protein is mentioned. Animal protein is an excellent source of complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. The human body is pretty amazing. It has the ability to make many of the amino acids that it needs but there are nine amino acids that cannot be made by the body. They are classified as essential because they must be supplied from the foods we eat. Complete protein sources include beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, bison, fish (wild-caught salmon, shrimp, tuna, cod, halibut, etc), eggs, and dairy (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc).
Plant protein sources (beans, legumes, grains, etc) contain insufficient amounts of essential amino acids, particularly leucine. Therefore, they are considered “incomplete” protein sources. However, eating a variety of plant and protein-rich foods such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, quinoa, and whole grains can help meet protein needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Do make sure to limit processed and packaged foods, such as salty and sweet snacks, and refined cereals and crackers, and instead fill your plate with whole foods, including, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
For a healthy, balanced, diet I recommend eating a variety of protein sources. The reason I encourage getting your protein from whole food sources is that, in addition to protein, whole foods contain important vitamins and minerals that are essential for optimal health.
Here are some easy protein-rich dinner ideas to try. Next week, I’ll discuss quick, protein-rich snacks!
Meatless Monday Lentil Orzo Soup from The Garden Grazer
Vegan, gluten-free (with gluten-free orzo or substitute quinoa/rice)
1 1/2 cups brown lentils, rinsed
1/2 cup orzo
1 onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 carrots, diced
15 oz. can diced tomatoes (feel free to double)
2-3 cups roughly chopped baby spinach or kale
4 cups organic low sodium vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. garlic salt
1 tsp. salt*, 1/2 tsp. pepper
*reduce salt if not using low sodium broth
Place stockpot over medium-high heat. Sauté onion, garlic, carrots, and cumin for about 8 minutes.
Add broth/water and lentils. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer.
Simmer with lid tilted about 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender.
Add orzo and tomatoes with juice. Simmer 10 minutes or until orzo is cooked.
Add spinach, salt/pepper, and garlic salt. Let heat through for a couple minutes.
Season to taste with additional salt/pepper if needed.
Greek Bison Burgers from Eatingwell.com
1 pound ground bison
1/2 cup cooked spinach, squeezed dry
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, preferably sheep’s-milk
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup nonfat or low-fat Greek-style plain yogurt, (see Note)
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint
Pinch of kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Bun & Toppings
- 4 French rolls, or 4-inch pieces of baguette, preferably whole-wheat, split and toasted or Gluten Free Bun
- 16 thin slices English cucumber
- 8 slices vine-ripened tomato
- 4 thin round slices red
- Preheat grill to medium-high.
- Place bison, spinach, feta, 2 teaspoons dill, oregano, cumin, garlic, 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a large mixing bowl. Gently combine without overmixing. Form into 4 oval-shaped patties roughly the size of the rolls.
- Oil the grill rack (see Tip, below). Grill the burgers until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 155°F, 5 to 6 minutes per side.
- To prepare yogurt sauce: Combine yogurt, lemon zest and juice, 1 teaspoon dill and mint in a small bowl. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Assemble the burgers on rolls with the yogurt sauce, cucumber, tomato and onion.
Zesty Shrimp and Black Bean Salad from Eatingwell.com
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced chipotle chile in adobo (see Tips), or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound peeled and deveined cooked shrimp (see Tips), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed
1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
1 large poblano pepper or bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Whisk vinegar, oil, chipotle, cumin and salt in a large bowl. Add shrimp, beans, tomatoes, poblano (or bell pepper), scallions and cilantro; toss to coat. Serve room temperature or cold.
For shrimp that have been raised or caught with sound environmental practices, look for fresh or frozen shrimp certified by an independent agency, such as the Marine Stewardship Council. If you can’t find certified shrimp, choose wild-caught shrimp from North America—it’s more likely to be sustainably caught. To peel, grasp the legs and hold onto the tail while you twist off the shell. To devein, use a paring knife to make a slit along the length of the shrimp. Remove the dark digestive tract (or “vein”) with the knife tip.