“And what protein package would you like with that?”
Tom Robinson of Watlington Climate Action Group examines how understanding the protein in our food can improve the health of our diets
I recently came back from the US where something strange was afoot in the food industry. Maybe I had simply not noticed it before, but a lot of restaurants were talking about protein. When ordering a burrito I was asked “what protein do you want with that – beef, chicken, or fish?” Slightly confused, I replied, “I’m OK with the bean protein, thank you”.
This little anecdote highlights one of the prevailing issues with our understanding of food and the hold that certain industries have on a society’s perception of what is good for you. Protein has become synonymous with meat, and the western world is obsessed with protein.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Of the 20 amino acids, nine are considered essential because our body cannot produce them itself, so they need to be consumed in the diet. Complete proteins are those that contain all nine essential amino acids. Many meat sources are considered complete proteins whereas plant sources contain varying levels of amino acids.
Only a few such as soy, quinoa, chia, and buckwheat are considered complete, however, it is very easy to get all the essential amino acids you need by eating a variety of plants, which is what we should all be doing anyway. In fact, recent studies have shown that it is beneficial to obtain amino via plant sources acids since overconsumption of some is damaging to health.
Contemporary research suggests that the ‘package’ in which the protein comes is far more important. While plant sources tend to include fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals with little saturated fat and no cholesterol, animal sources are likely to have higher levels of B12 and heme iron (found only in meat, poultry, seafood, and fish and both a good and bad thing) but significantly increased saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. In short, animal sources of protein may be considered complete, but they come at a cost to health (and the environment).
It has been consistently demonstrated that obtaining protein from plant rather than animal sources is associated with better health outcomes and can reduce the risk of multiple chronic diseases while promoting healthy ageing. (For a summary of the science take a look at this short synopsis: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/animal-protein-vs-plant-based-protein/).
 Eating Plant Based, Dr Shireen Kassam, 2022, p.28
As the Harvard School of Public Health states on its website: get your protein from plants when possible. Eating legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other plant-based sources of protein is a win for your health and the health of the planet.