Name: Amanda Hamilton
Regular contributor to BWS, Amanda Hamilton nutritionist, journalist and mother provides diet and nutrition information and advice. Amanda looks at protein which is essential for the maintenance of a healthy body.
Protein is the food group that is most closely associated with growth and performance. The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ is never more true than in the case of protein which is essential for a wide range of bodily processes, most notably the synthesis and maintenance of muscles (the growing bit), enzymes, hormones, bones, cartilage, hair and skin.
Fuller for longer isn’t just a catchy marketing phrase either, protein triggers an increase in what’s known as the ‘full-up’ hormone so it is an excellent way to sustain energy in general. As the only food source of amino acids, protein can also help regulate mood swings.
So far, so positive for protein. However, before you default to the enduring idea, at least in some circles, that increasing protein intake requires giant steaks, chicken and bucket loads of egg whites, let me fly the flag for plant-based protein.
Firstly, the misunderstanding about what’s quality protein and what’s not generally comes from the fact that protein from animal sources such as eggs, meat and dairy is described as ‘complete protein.’ This simply refers to the fact that protein sourced from animal products contains all of the nine essential amino acids compared to plant foods that do not contain the full requisite amino acid profile. Like the essential fats, amino acids cannot be made by the body so need to be consumed. However, combine a plant-based protein with a grain, think lentil dhal with rice, and voila, job done!
Secondly, even if you absorb 100% of amino acids from the protein you ingest it doesn’t mean they will all reach the skeletal muscle and build muscle mass. The truth is that the cells of the small intestine and liver extract significant amounts of amino acids for energy before they reach the bloodstream, and after that other organ tissues will use amino acids too.
Plant-based diets have qualities over and above ticking the protein checklist. They can reduce your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes and keep weight in check, not to mention being better for the environment. Studies show the unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol found in diets heavy in red and processed meats are associated with heart disease and cancer.
I’ll be honest though, plant based living seems much easier on Malibu beach where raw food reigns (or increasingly Nottinghill) than in most other places. These days I prefer a forgiving approach, aiming for a largely plant-based diet with quality over quantity as the rule of thumb on getting protein sourced from animal products.
When it comes to children the jury is also out about matching the growth demands of young bodies unless you are truly well prepared. I maintained a largely veggie diet for my firstborn but after the birth of my second child, who, for all intents and purposes was a toddler suited to caveman times (chicken drumsticks NOT carrot sticks) things began to change. I’ve also noticed that my now ten-year-old daughter needs more protein as she goes through growth spurts, body wisdom indeed.
Whether you are looking to help boost recovery, growth or support family nutrition, here are some ideas on ingredients that make the growing grade when it comes to plant protein.
Tofu is made from soymilk curds that have been pressed into a block. The result is a smooth, soft texture that handily adopts the flavours of whatever sauces and spices it’s paired with. For only 88 calories per half cup, tofu offers 10 grams of protein and a modest five grams of fat. It’s often hailed as a longevity wonder food as it is rich in heart-protective compounds called isoflavones. These compounds produce enzymes that create nitric oxide, a substance that keeps blood vessels healthy and may even boost blood flow and improve muscle function. Isoflavones are also antioxidants that can speed recovery by reducing free-radical damage.
Top tip: Tofu comes in a variety of textures. If you are making a dish like lasagne use silken tofu in place of ricotta cheese or slice firm or extra-firm tofu – adding flavour with rubs of tamari – and grill or add to stir-fries.
This nutty-flavored meat substitute gets its chewy texture from whole cooked soybeans, in other words, it’s less processed that it’s tofu cousin. You’ll find 19 grams of protein in a half cup and tempeh also delivers nearly 10 percent of your daily need for calcium. One study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that the body absorbs calcium found in tempeh just as well as that in cow’s milk, making it a good option for those who follow a dairy-free diet too.
Top tip: Like tofu, tempeh will soak up whatever flavours it’s prepared with. But unlike tofu, which you can eat uncooked, it’s best to heat tempeh before eating it.
Beans and lentils pack similar amounts of protein to tofu and tempeh but for many, they are more familiar ingredients. Lentils in particular are also rich in iron. Branch out from soups and bean-based chillies to bean purees. Like hummus, add garlic, salt and oil and blend to make a fantastic spread.
Squeeze over fresh lemon or lime juice when serving lentils in a salad; the vitamin C improves your body’s absorption of the iron.