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Why some proteins are better than others
What comes to mind when you hear the word “protein?” If you were to say meat, you’re not alone. Most of us have been conditioned to equate protein with animal-based food.
But did you know that at least 14% of the total calories of every plant are protein? Or how about that a cup of cooked oatmeal offers as much protein as an egg, and per calorie, spinach is about equal to chicken and fish?
Vegetables are just as veritable a source of protein as animals, but there seems to be a lingering concern about the perceived quality of plant-based proteins. And this has led many to believe that plant proteins rank much lower on the nutritional ladder than proteins derived from foods like poultry, eggs and steak. But this is hardly the case.
To better understand the common misperceptions of plant-based proteins, let’s start with the basics.
Proteins, along with carbohydrates and fats are macronutrients — the main components of our diet and that our bodies require in relatively large amounts for normal function and good health. Vitamins and minerals are also important parts of the puzzle, but these are needed in much smaller quantities, which is why we refer to them as micronutrients.
Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, strung together in chains. There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential because our bodies cannot produce them naturally. These essential amino acids must be obtained through diet.
Each source of protein has a different arrangement of hundreds or even thousands of amino acids. During digestion, our bodies break down the protein molecules then put them back together to create new and different proteins based on what our systems need.
When we consume proteins that have a similar amino arrangement to those in our own body, we synthesize that protein very efficiently. Animal-based proteins, not surprisingly, are much more similar to our protein structure than plant-based proteins, so our body is able to break them down more readily and rapidly. This is where the concept of protein “quality” comes into play — the more efficient a protein can be broken down, the higher “quality” we assume the protein is.
Quality equates to the efficiency with which food proteins are used to promote growth. And this would be all well and good if the most efficient proteins also equaled the greatest health. But this is just not the case. In fact, there have been a number of epidemiological studies and clinical research that have shown exactly the opposite to be true, most notably, the China Study.
A massive collaboration between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, the China Study is the most comprehensive study of diet, lifestyle and disease that has ever been conducted in the history of biomedical research. Over the course of the intensive study, researchers surveyed a wide range of diseases and diet and lifestyle factors across rural China and Taiwan, and eventually produced more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between various dietary factors and disease.
The study also showed that even relatively small intakes of animal-based foods were associated with adverse effects. And what’s more, the study revealed that the source of animal protein didn’t matter. Whether it came from a lean pork chop, egg whites, or a glass of whole milk, the results were all the same.
Yet what made the China Study particularly remarkable was what it revealed about plant-based proteins. The scientists found that by removing animal protein from the equation and replacing it with plant-based protein, they created the opposite effect of the aforementioned points. In fact, not only did the plant proteins prevent degenerative disease, they also, in many cases, reversed it, even in instances where there was a genetic predisposition factor involved.
What it really comes down to is that eating animals is a significantly different nutritional experience from eating plants. On top of the aforementioned, plant-based foods have substantially more antioxidants, fiber and minerals than animal-based foods and significantly less cholesterol and saturated fat. Plant-based foods also tend to be alkaline forming, which can help your body combat inflammation, reduce stress and protect bone health.
While eating tons of animal-based proteins is not the sole reason people develop chronic health issues, it is a major factor, especially right here in the United States. At 200 pounds of meat per person per year, the average consumption of meat in America is higher than anywhere else in the world. And it’s hurting our national health. We spend more on our health care than any other country, yet Americans have twice the obesity rate, twice the diabetes rate, and nearly three times the cancer rate as the rest of the world.
This is why the need for change is as urgent as ever. Granted, many will be reluctant to go against popular opinion, which values animal-based proteins as the purest and highest-quality proteins, but the science and statistics should be reason enough to doubt the status quo. Nutrition undoubtedly has a very strong effect on our health and arguably, our likelihood of developing chronic disease. And the China Study, as comprehensive in its design as it was in its findings, delivered a very clear message — that we can maximize our health and well-being simply by choosing to eat the right foods.
So start small. Take steps in the right direction. Because the choices you make when it comes to what’s on your plate may be the choices that save your health.
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