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Protein Series Part 3 – Protein Quality

Many believe that all dietary proteins are the same, but in reality - not all proteins are created equal. The type of protein you select can have many varying benefits. Additionally, the type can also influence how it is used in the body. Remember, protein works beyond just muscle and has the potential to perform many different functions within the body after ingested. Therefore, it is important to provide your body with optimal types and amounts of high-quality protein each day. I’m going to walk you through the details of how protein quality is defined and how to make smart protein choices.

When assessing protein quality we look at two key elements – its amino acid profile and digestibility. First - proteins are extremely complex molecules made up of amino acids. The level, combination and sequence in which the amino acids are arranged can help determine how the protein will function in the body. A protein that contains all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities is called a complete protein. A protein that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids is called an incomplete protein. It’s imperative that we consume adequate amounts of essential amino acids on a daily basis as these cannot be made in the body. Secondly, protein quality also depends on the ease and rate of digestion. Some proteins are more readily digested than others. For example, our bodies are generally able to pull all of the amino acids from animal sources, complete proteins like milk, eggs, and meat.  Alternatively, amino acids in chia seeds, an incomplete protein, are not as readily digested and absorbed.  Generally speaking, animal sources of protein are more readily digested, compared to plant sources.

So, what does this all mean from a dietary perspective? Well, complete proteins sources are generally derived from animal-based dietary sources such chicken, turkey, beef, fish, pork, dairy, and eggs. There are also a few select complete plant-based proteins, which include soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk), quinoa and pistachios. On the other hand, incomplete proteins generally tend to be most plant-based sources such as foods like beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Beyond complete and incomplete, both animal and plant-based proteins have benefits, but supply varying amounts and ratios of amino acids. If you consume a variety of proteins, then you can increase the spectrum of amino acids in your diet. If you are on a strict plant-based diet, then it may take a bit more thought and effort to help ensure you are providing your body with what it needs. Fortunately, you can still obtain all the essential amino acids. By combining incomplete proteins throughout the day you can help create a complete protein and build up the essential amino acids in the body.

In sum, protein should be consumed throughout the day as part of a healthy diet. Find what’s best for your body and goals. Here are three simple tips to help ensure you’re consuming high-quality protein sources each day:

  1. Start the day with a protein-rich breakfast (eggs, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese)
  2. Aim to include seafood about two times per week (salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout, herring, cod)
  3. Include variety of proteins both animal and plant (poultry, dairy, quinoa, tofu)