Protein is a necessary part of a well-balanced diet. While protein is touted for its muscle-building capabilities, it has a wide range of functions in the body. Getting enough protein daily is important, but perhaps more important is the source from which protein is derived. Read on to learn about 6 atypical sources of protein other than meat, dairy, and nuts, and their surprising added nutritional benefits.
Not only is protein needed for muscle fiber synthesis (aka growth), it is also responsible for many metabolic and cellular functions of the body. Enzymes, hormones and antibodies are formed by proteins, which all contribute to crucial processes within the body. Enzymes help catalyze reactions inside and outside of cells, regulating metabolic and digestive activity. Hormones serve as messengers between cells and tissues, and antibodies are important for immune system health. There are 20 amino acids that build thousands of different types of protein in the body, and 9 of these are considered “essential.” The body cannot make these 9 amino acids on its own, so it is up to us to include them in our diet. Typically, animal-derived protein is relied on to receive adequate amounts of protein, however there are several whole food plant-based proteins that pack a substantial amount of protein per serving.
Lentils are small legumes that come in a variety of colors (red, green, black). They boast 18g of protein per cup and have a significant amount of fiber, folate, iron and magnesium. Fiber is perhaps the most important element of a healthy diet, as it keeps the gut functioning at peak health, which affects almost all functions of the body, from hormone development to the immune system.
Nutritional yeast is sold as a yellow, flaky condiment that adds a cheesy flavor to any dish. It has 8g of protein per serving and is a good source of magnesium, copper, full-spectrum B vitamins and zinc.
The “ancient grain,” spelt, contains 10g of protein per cup and can be an easy substitute for rice. It is naturally gluten-free and is also a good source of zinc and B vitamins.
Spirulina is marine plant (blue-green algae) sold in a powder or liquid form that can be added to smoothies or soups. It has a wide range of nutritional benefits, including 8g of protein per 2tbsp, magnesium, potassium, copper, and iron.
Yes, vegetables contain protein! (How do you think gorillas grow so large eating only plants?!) While not the same large amounts found in meat or legumes, vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, and spinach typically have around 4-5g protein per serving, with the obvious benefits of vitamins and fiber needed for a healthy diet.
Never thought of mold as a source of protein? Mycoprotein is a fungus-derived source of protein with 16g of protein per serving. They are often used as ingredients in plant-based meat substitute products.
Protein is widely emphasized in the health and fitness community as a way to grow strong, fast. However, the quality and quantity of protein must be considered as equally important. A source of protein that is also high in saturated fat or sodium, like a cheeseburger or highly processed meat substitute can be a detriment to overall health when consumed frequently over time. Not all plant-based proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, but some do: spirulina, spelt, quinoa, soy, lentils and buckwheat. Most animal-based proteins contain all essential amino acids, but you must take careful consideration for saturated fat content or added hormones during processing that can be harmful to health.
Also, when it comes to protein (like most things in life), more isn’t necessarily better. The body can only process so much protein at one time. It is recommended to stay within 15-30g per meal, however 25-35g of protein can maximize skeletal muscle synthesis. Eating over 40g per meal has no added benefits of muscle synthesis, and an excess of protein can harm the kidneys. What is most important is the amount of protein consumed per day, so breaking portions up by meals (20-30g per meal) can be most beneficial to maintaining muscle synthesis.
It is important to understand how much protein your body needs to function healthily and obtain your body composition goals, and to source your protein in a way that benefits overall health.
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