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Proteins are made of varying combinations of amino acids. Amino acids make up every tissue and substance in our bodies, from hair and heart to hormones. Depending on your goals, in order to build a leaner or more muscular body, we need the right combination of amino acids interacting with fundamentally healthy cells in order to repair and build tissues for lean muscle.
Carbohydrates and fats are important, but nothing compares to the ability of amino acids to grow, repair and maintain a healthy tissue.
There are eight essential amino acids for adults (valine, isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, and lysine) and nine for children (add histidine to the list). The body can make all the other amino
acids from the essential ones, but we must get the essential ones from the foods or supplements we consume.
This is why it’s so important to supplement with leuicine, isoleuicine and valine (Branch Chain Amino Acids) when trying to build lean muscle, as your body can’t produce them by itself.
Animal and fish protein contains all the essential amino acids in proper proportions to one another a characteristic of all flesh foods and thus is known as a complete protein. You can also get essential amino acids in the plant kingdom.
They are just not in their complete protein proportions, and therefore, you have to mix and match them to make them complete proteins. Because most plants provide inadequate amounts of certain amino acids in relation to others, plant protein is normally referred to as ‘incomplete’ protein.
Why do we need protein?
Growth: especially when looking to build lean muscle tissue.
Tissue repair: to repair muscle tissue after intensive workouts.
Immune function: to avoid getting sick.
To get energy when carbohydrate is not available: This is by gluconeogenesis, whereby your body converts protein to glucose for energy.
To preserve lean muscle mass: to retain the muscle you already have.
How do I get my proteins if I don’t eat meat?
It’s true that meat and eggs are complete proteins, in contrast to beans and nuts. However, we don’t need every essential amino acid from every meal we eat we only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid each day. During
the digestive process, our bodies free the amino acids present in our food and create other substances from them.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, if something we eat doesn’t contain all the essential
amino acids required by the body, we have a small window (about a day) to ingest the complementary ones to complete the amino-acid equation.
The body doesn’t house or store amino acids (i.e. you need to eat them every day), but as long as you eat the correct food combinations during the day, you will be fine. As mentioned above, you don’t necessarily have to combine
them in one meal.
You just need to make sure that you combine the right foods to get all the essential amino acids in the right amounts by the end of the day. There are numerous ways to use food combinations to get all your essential amino acids. I’ll list a few examples below.
Combining nuts and seeds with legumes or grains
Combining legumes with sunflower seeds, sesame seeds or nuts such as walnuts, almonds or cashew provides complete proteins. One of my personal favourites is a trail mix of nuts, cashews, sunflower seeds with hummus or
guacamole dip and raw vegetables.
To cement the idea that you do not need to consume protein-rich food together in a single meal to reap the benefits of combining proteins, The University of Michigan’s reports show that, ‘Eating a variety of foods with incomplete proteins throughout the day allows your body to get the amino acids you need from diet.’
The one thing to remember is that your body doesn’t store complete proteins for a rainy day. According to the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation for Dietary Reference Intakes, ‘There is no evidence for a protein reserve that serves only as a store to meet future needs’, which means you need to stay on top of your nutrition and combine your foods every single day to reap all the benefit of essential amino acids.
However, once you use the correct nutritional strategy that includes all the essential amino acids, you can get all the benefits of a complete protein eater, so long as you are resourceful with your combinations.
The benefits of animal products
The truth is, it’s significantly easier to get all your essential amino acids from meat, fish and eggs, which are already loaded with them all. While steak contains protein, it also contains fat, vitamins A, B, iron and zinc. However, not all meat and fish are created equally.
Different animal proteins have different nutritional densities. The differences between a grass-fed cow or a free-range chicken and an antibiotic-pumped cow and factory chicken are tremendous.
Avoid factory-farmed meat and fish
The most nutrient-rich proteins are from properly raised meat. Personally, I’m a massive fan of poultry, but the hormone-loaded chickens that are found in some commercial supermarkets are best avoided. If you can get your hands on organic and/or free-range chicken (just ask your local butcher), you are going to get a much higher nutritional return.
In case of fish, try to avoid farmed fish that has been pumped full of colourings, and opt for wild fish whenever possible. Again, your supermarket or local fishmonger should be able to tell you which fish is wild and which
has been farmed.
There’s a frustrating paradox for those who eat farmed fish for their health, as the nutritional benefits of farmed fish are greatly decreased.
Take omega 3 fatty acids. Wild fish get their omega 3 from aquatic plants. Farmed fish, however, are often fed corn, soy or other feed stuff that have little or no omega 3s. The unnatural, high-corn diet also means that some farmed fish accumulate unhealthy levels of the wrong fatty acids.
The most concerning issue is that farmed fish are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can then enter your body and cause all kinds of harm, not to mention slowing down any physical progress, such as losing fat, building muscle, etc.
Remember the famous quote, ‘You are what you eat’? You can probably extend this to, ‘You are also what your food eats.’
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