Nutrition and Health

Basic nutrition principles (2) – Proteins

Proteins are the main structural substance in muscles, and the second in abundance ingredient in our body, after water. We use, or even abuse our muscles every day, as we go about our daily tasks. It is therefore very important to give our body the chance to replenish and repair our muscles, or even to build new ones of necessary. This can only be done through our food.

Let’s see how we can help.

Proteins are complex organic compounds, made up of 8 basic amino acids. For their complete composition, all 8 amino acids are necessary. Some of these amino acids are already present in our body, for others however we rely completely on our food for their intake. Everybody needs sufficient protein intake, regardless of their age. Children need them to sustain their muscular growth, adults to repair their muscles, and even older people as their muscle tissue has undergone long term wear and tear. The higher the physical activity level, the bigger the need and the importance of proteins in our diet.

The main protein sources are all animal products. Meat, fish poultry, eggs, dairy products, are all excellent protein sources. In addition, pulses are very rich in amino acids (the main ingredient of proteins). Unfortunately, most of them do not contain all amino acids necessary for protein constitution. For this reason, it is advisable to accompany pulses with some kind of animal product such as cheese, or fish (in a salad for example). This way we give our body the possibility to constitute proteins.

A lot of care is needed when consuming protein rich foods, as these foods are usually also rich in fats. Fat contact can vary a lot, in terms of the quantity as well as in the quality of the fats. This is a long and complicated discussion, best left for the next article, let’s however argue the pros and cons of various protein rich foods versus their fat content.

basics-proteins2-w250Meat: Beef, pork, poultry, all meat products contain very good quality and concentrated proteins. Pay special attention to the cut, as the fat content may vary a lot between different cuts of the same kind of animal. Beef for example can have from a 5% fat content (filet) up to 30 or even 35% in shoulder cuts. Similarly, chicken breast contains only 5 to 7% fat, whereas chicken leg at least double.
Best choices: Chicken / Turkey breast, beef filet, pork filet.

Fish: Excellent protein source without the fear for fats. Even if you chose one of the so called fatty fish like salmon or sardines, their fat content is Ω-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acids, which are very beneficial for the heart and blood. According to scientific evidence, they contribute greatly to the reduction of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and the increase of “good” cholesterol (HDL). If on the other hand you are worried about the calories, pay a little more attention to the quantity and the frequency of fatty fish consumption.

Dairy products: Wholesome food, with excellent quality proteins. Due to their content of all nutrition groups, dairy products can lay a very important role in nutrition generally. Special care is needed when consuming cheeses, as their fat content is usually very high. Choosing low fat dairy products is a good solution in order to reduce fat intake.
Best choices: Milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese.

Pulses: The king of nutrition, pulses, apart from excellent quality carbohydrates, is very rich in amino acids, while their fat content is practically zero. It is easy to understand that if we had to classify foods based on their nutritional value related to their calories, pulses would surely be in the top position. You just need to remember every time you eat pulses, to accompany it with a salad containing some cheese (like cottage cheese), or other kind of animal protein (eggs, etc). Another way, to complete the amino acid profile of pulses, is to create dishes combining more than one of them. Chick peas, lentils and beans together in cold salad, apart from very tasty, would also be a nutritional dynamite!

basics-proteins3-w250In terms of their caloric value, proteins are equal to carbohydrates, at 4 kcal per gram. However, protein consumption should never exceed 25% of the total calorie intake, as during their metabolism other substances, often toxic are formed. Our body tries hard to get rid of the, it makes our liver and kidneys work extra. Over-consumption of proteins has been connected with high urea and calcium level in urine, as well as with the formation of kidney stones. Indeed, only individuals involved in strenuous sporting activities have a higher need for proteins, and even they need no reach 25% of their daily calorie intake.

In the next article we will discuss the role of fats in nutrition, completing the discussion about the 3 basic nutritional groups. We will be able thus to plan and formulate good nutritional habits, helping us to find the right balance between healthy, wholesome nutrition and pleasure. Let’s not forget that after all there’s a lot of pleasure in food!