Protein—More Than Meats (The Eye)
When we think of foods that are sources of protein in our diets, non-vegetarians think meat, chicken, and fish. Vegetarians resort to legumes, i.e. lentils (including moong daal, urad daal) and dry beans (including chickpeas [garbanzo], split peas, kidney beans, navy beans, and pinto beans). What both may also add to their diets for protein are eggs, oats, nuts (almonds and peanuts), seeds (like chia seeds and quinoa), soy (tofu, tempeh, or edamame beans), dairy (Greek yogurt), edible seaweed and certain vegetables (like broccoli and spinach). While nascent, insects like crickets are also being served up as protein bars!
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue.” There are “at least 10,000 different proteins” and proteins comprise amino acids, twelve of which are made by the human body. Another nine, the essential amino acids, can’t be made by the body and are derived from food. A complete protein is a food that contains “all twenty-plus types of amino acids needed to make new protein in the body.”
There are animal and plant based protein sources. The main advantage of animal proteins versus plant proteins is that animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy are “complete sources”, providing all the essential amino acids. Some plant based complete sources of protein include soy, buckwheat (for example, soba noodles), and quinoa.
Protein deficiencies are typically found in populations with food insecurity. “In this country, there isn’t much protein deficiency unless you are a strict vegan. Insufficient protein is related to hair loss, brittle nails, anemia, fatigue, loss of muscle mass, and weakened immune systems,” says nutritionist Shahana Khan, of Naperville, Illinois. “You also need it to heal and maintain skin elasticity. Anorexia, too, can put you at risk of protein deficiency.” Consuming a meal or snack containing protein is recommended within an hour of a workout to repair any muscle tears and replenish the body’s glycogen reserves. If you suspect you may have protein deficiencies, a blood test for it can determine any problems.
“How much protein we need depends on age, weight, and health. The Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for protein is 0.6-0.8g/kg of body weight. Fifty grams of protein suffices for a 140-pound person. This amount is a per day recommendation. It is entirely possible to meet the requirements of protein from alternative sources such as tofu, tempeh, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds,” says Dr Jyothsna Rama Rao, a nutritionist with a practice in Melbourne, Australia. Her areas of expertise include over-nutrition and its effect on cellular function.
Foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, peas, corn, beans, and lentils are known as incomplete proteins. A combination of incomplete proteins, whether in one or more meals, will also provide your recommended dietary intake. Reducing animal proteins is good choice, says Shahana Khan.
Consumed in many parts of the word, lentils are a gluten-free, low-fat, protein-rich alternative to meat and fish, and comprise as much as 25 percent protein. A staple in South Asian diets, they are the go-to protein for Shazia Siddiqui, a Naperville, Illinois, resident. Even better, unlike meat, lentils have no cholesterol.
“I find that proteins, combined with fats or fiber, fills you up. I feel satiated through the day and can fall asleep at night without having cravings,” says Shazia Siddiqui, who follows Pick up Limes and nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar on YouTube for nutrition advice. “I am a yogurt fanatic. Labneh is also very high in protein and my kids use it in sandwiches. Ghee has lots of protein. I make Boca patties with kidney beans, adding veggies to make them high fiber. The best thing we can do for our family is make things from scratch.”
“My favorite way to eat lentils is Sicilian style, as made by my grandmother in a soup dish called ‘lenticchie’: brown lentils with ditalini noodles and some sort of leafy green like spinach or Swiss chard, with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top. Delicious with fresh Italian bread to scoop it up,” says Yvonne Maffei, Founder, My Halal Kitchen.
Nadia Khan, of Oakbrook, Illinois chooses “Moong dal” which has the highest protein among all lentils. Besides cooking them according to traditional South Asian recipes which she finds are both easy and quick, she serves her family sprouted lentils, adding them to salads and sandwiches. She also has two or three eggs a day.
Protein Content, grams
|Peanuts||½ cup, shelled||19|
|Lentils||1 cup, cooked||18|
|Greek yogurt||6 ounces||18|
|Pumpkin seeds||½ cup, hulled||17|
|Quinoa||½ cup, uncooked||14|
From being bad for your cholesterol, eggs have rebounded to being considered one of the most complete foods. “I usually have a very big breakfast and I want it to be big on proteins as it’s better for my energy,” says Nadia Khan. “I have two or three eggs and turkey sausage. I have meat once a day. Lots of sources of protein are also sources of iron.” She recommends the documentary ‘The Magic Pill’ as an informative source on protein.
Nuts are another great source of protein. Half a cup of peanuts, for instance, provides nineteen grams of protein. Eating them in moderation, or in lieu of another food, is key given that “half a cup of nuts contains about 400 calories.”
Nut butters, almond milk, and cashew milk often find their way into Siddiqui’s diet as sources of protein. Nadia Khan is a chia-seed buff. She loves making chia-seed puddings—a refrigerated combination of chia seeds soaked in almond or coconut milk with a splash of vanilla. Two tablespoons of chia-seeds provide four grams of protein.
Quinoa, a seed and complete protein, provides all nine amino acids. Half a cup of uncooked quinoa provides fourteen grams of protein.
Plain Greek yogurt beats yogurt. Six to seven ounces of fat-free Greek yogurt delivers seventeen to twenty grams of protein. “A cup mixed with chia seeds keeps my energy levels up. I was surprised,” says Nadia Khan.
She also snacks on edamame beans (boiled soybeans) which have the highest amount of protein among beans. On a 2,000 calorie diet, half a cup of edamame beans provides 32 percent of the daily value (DV). While half a cup of firm tofu provides 44 percent of the DV, it isn’t a food she relishes.
|4 oz. broiled sirloin steak
||4 oz. grilled sockeye salmon
||1 cup cooked lentils
|Great source of protein, but fatty||Naturally low in sodium; Salmon and other fatty fish are also excellent sources of omega-3 fats, a type of fat that’s especially good for the heart.||Virtually no saturated fat or sodium|
Source: Harvard School of Public Health
Protein additives have long been added as an ingredient in our foods, according to processedfoods.com. They are, “valued by food formulators for properties such as their ability to gel, foam, emulsify, and form films and dough structure. Protein ingredients range from gelatin to plant-derived proteins—such as from wheat, soy, rice, and pea — and even more recently to protein from cultivated algae. Whey protein concentrates and isolates, for example, are added to foods and beverages for both nutritional and functional purposes.” Reading labels to ensure halal certification symbols is part and parcel of the halal consumer’s grocery shopping experience in the West.
On the shelf, whey protein is often consumed for weight management, by athletes, lactating moms, and those healing from surgeries. Its biological value of proteins is 104, higher than eggs (100), soy protein (74), and beef (80). Whey protein isolate ranks highest for being easily digested and retained by the body. The more there is of an ingredient, the closer it is to being listed at the beginning of the nutrition label. For whey protein beverages, either whey protein isolate or whey protein concentrate should appear first on the labels.
Protein helps to stabilize blood glucose levels by slowing the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. This in turn reduces hunger by lowering insulin levels and making it easier for the body to burn fat, according to the Whey Protein Institute.
There is no one best animal protein source nor one best plant protein source. “Combine a variety of foods so you aren’t missing out,” says Shahana Khan.
Excess protein consumed is excreted. When you consume any food you have to look at it as a combination of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates—a package deal. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “a 4-ounce broiled sirloin steak is a great source of protein—about thirty-three grams worth. But it also delivers about five grams of saturated fat.” Animal fat impacts cholesterol. A cup of cooked lentils provides eighteen grams of protein but it also has 230 calories. Balance your intake so you are cognizant of the daily values that are recommended in different categories whether sugar, fat, carbs, or protein—all of which are found in a single food, similar to cooked brown rice. As in Islam, so too with food: taking the middle path is key.
Naazish YarKhan is a college essay and writing consultant (www.writersstudio.us) and contributor to over 50 media outlets including Chicago Tribune, NPR, PRI and more. Her writing has been translated into French, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, Bahasa, and Tagalog.