In all the debates this year about sugar (carbohydrates) and hydrogenated oil (fat), we forget that protein warrants consideration as well. The wrong proteins in the diet will quickly sabotage optimal health.
Many myths surround protein. For the record, vegetarians will not die of protein deprivation. I hope no one believes that anymore. It helps to understand that protein is a macronutrient. What we call “protein” is, in fact, a family of amino acid molecules. When grouped together in various combinations we get proteins. There’s no protein molecule hanging out in that hamburger; rather, the animal tissue is made of many different amino acid building blocks. Protein is just a catch-all term we use. This is why vegetarians won’t keel over as people once feared. (However, I still recommend meat consumption, and for a number of reasons: caloric efficiency, blood sugar management, and human biology. It takes more calories to get adequate amounts of protein on a vegetarian diet. Living on beans and tofu increases the amount of carbohydrates in one’s diet significantly. And the human body most certainly handles – and benefits from – a bit of flesh. But I digress.)
Here are my ten ideal sources of protein, and their popular but inferior counterparts.
10. Winner: Grass-Fed Beef
Loser: Grain-Fed Beef
The average cow is raised on cheap grain that will kill it after about six months (they’re conveniently slaughtered before this happens – but not always). Hardly something I want to put in my body. Grass-fed, organic beef won’t make the vegetarians happy, but this beef is rich in beneficial fatty acids that are missing from the factory-raised cattle. It’s cleaner, healthier, more flavorful, and richer in nutrients. And grass-fed beef is typically raised in humane conditions. If you eat beef, grass-fed is a must. It’s getting quite easy to find these days, but you can order online from many outlets as well.
9. Winner: Organic Chicken
Loser: regular frozen chicken
No comparison. Did you know chicken has flavor? Yeah, bizarre, I know. Chicken raised properly (not shoved by the cluckload into dirty factories) is rich in EFAs and is one of the most efficient, lean sources of protein available.
8. Winner: Wild Salmon
Loser: farmed salmon
Fish is healthy, right? Don’t even bother patting yourself on the back for eating salmon if it’s from a farm. Farmed salmon is produced in a way that’s the seaside equivalent of a chicken factory. As a result, the fish are often sick and infected. They’re fed cheap feed that does not yield the desirable Omega-3-rich flesh. They’re miserable.
Stick with wild only. Most restaurants use farmed salmon, so you have to get a little aggressive about this.
Notice a trend here with my emphasis on good fats in protein foods? Source makes a huge difference in the quality of protein you get. Meat is – or was – a very valuable food because it’s so dense in nutritious fat and protein. What an efficient, rich source of energy! Helpfully, our modern factories have eliminated the nutritional value and left us with weak, flabby, carcinogenic, diseased patties and drumsticks. Hey, thanks, guys. (Although we consumers don’t get off easy: maybe if we ate less…)
7. Winner: Tuna fish
Loser: fish sticks and popcorn shrimp
I don’t think I need to go into this one.
6. Winner: Organic DHA-Enhanced Eggs
Loser: egg substitute and/or regular eggs
If eggs were meant to be eaten as mechanically-separated, low-fat, chemically-altered whites in a carton, the chickens would have done it by now. But an egg is a chick in the making. It’s rich in antioxidants, good fats, vitamins, and – for the calories – a lot of protein. Things like Egg Beaters are the result of food manufacturers exploiting fears based on grossly inaccurate health information. There’s nothing healthy about such unnatural products.
5. Winner: Organic, Plain, European (Greek) Yogurt
Loser: regular yogurt
No comparison. The European stuff is richer, fattier, more nutritious and lower in sugar. Again, when choosing an animal protein source, choose one that also provides valuable fats to maximize nutrition. Don’t go for the conventional animal products that are high in chemicals, hormones, bad fats, and sugars. Yogurt isn’t a staple of my diet, but if I eat it it’s certainly not a plastic cup of sugar-infused strawberry dessert.
4. Winner: Tempeh
Loser: tofu and “mock meats”
Fermented foods ought to be part of everyone’s diet, vegetarian or not. Tempeh is one that is chewy and delicious, even to die-hard burger fans. It’s healthy and a much better bet than heavily processed tofu or “mock meats” that are brimming with poor-quality modified proteins, sodium, chemicals and starchy fillers. In my opinion it doesn’t compare nutritionally or in taste to a juicy steak but as vegetarian options go it ain’t half bad.
3. Winner(s): Quinoa
Loser(s): green beans & any large, starchy bean: kidney, great northern, lima
Don’t get me wrong, green beans are decent veggies. But these “beans” contain very little protein. Kidney, northern, navy, lima and other starchy beans are also rather limited in their protein amounts and contain a high amount of carbohydrates. Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a so-called “complete protein” grain – the only one of which I’m aware. Though I stay away from grains entirely, for a vegetarian protein option you could do much worse.
2. Winner: Almonds and Almond Butter
Loser: peanuts and peanut butter
Peanuts are one of the least nutritious nuts (and they’re not technically a true nut anyway). When adding a handful of nuts to your salad for protein, go with almonds. Almond butter is less toxic and allergenic than peanut butter, although the protein amounts are similar by comparison (between 6 and 8 grams, usually). Still, this is about quality protein, not necessarily the amount. When it comes to protein, people often think that “more is more”. A giant steak will certainly give you “more” protein, but if it’s conventionally raised and is an unreasonable portion size, it’ll give you a whole lot more trouble, too.
1. What’s your favorite protein source?
Give me a shout, Apples. What protein do you favor? What have I left out? (To comment, simply click on Comments below to log in to the blog forum, or proceed directly to the forum.)
Note: “Cows’ milk is for baby cows,” the saying goes. You’ll notice I left cheese and milk out of this list. I think dairy is less than ideal for human consumption, though I do like yogurt because it’s a fermented food. Raw dairy is healthy and enjoyable for many people, but generally, I think quality meat is better for you than quality milk. Less processed cheeses such as ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, goat cheese and mascarpone are superior to more heavily processed cheddar, colby and jack. Cream and butter are fine in cooking, because I don’t fear saturated fat, but I am concerned about folks who substitute lean, nutritious meat with highly-processed cheese.
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