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Are All High Protein Foods the Same?

High protein foods are at the centre of every well-balanced meal and healthy diet, or at least they should be.

Whether you are a parent of a growing child, an active teenager or keeping strong as you age, getting enough protein is always an important topic. And for good reason.

Understanding why we need high protein foods and the difference between the proteins found in animal, plant and soy-based foods as well as supplements such as protein powders is key to getting the nutrients you need in a well-balanced diet.

Why Do We Need Protein?

Protein is vital to all body functions; muscle, bone, skin, hair and virtually every other body part and tissue uses protein. Protein is important to build lean body mass and is essential for repairing cells damaged through daily active living. It transports other nutrients throughout the circulatory system and serves as an energy source when carbohydrate intake is low. Knowing how much protein you need on a daily basis is key— find out here.

Are All Protein Sources the Same?

For the body to use the protein you eat, it must be broken down into individual amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks and are classified as essential and non-essential amino acids. While both types of amino acids are needed, there are nine essential amino acids that must come from the food you eat, as your body cannot make them. Non-essential amino acids can be made as needed by your body.

Understanding Different Proteins

Animal Proteins

When all of these essential amino acids are present in a food, it is referred to as a complete protein. Animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products are considered a complete protein as they contain all of the essential amino acids in one protein source that can be easily used by the body.

Plant Proteins

If you do not eat animal products then you must get your protein from plant sources. Most plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, grains, fruits and vegetables are NOT complete proteins as they lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Quinoa and chia are considered complete but their total protein amount or amino acid profile is low. This means that you must consume a lot and a variety of plant proteins throughout the day to get all of the amino acids to make new protein.

Soy Proteins

Soy, a popular plant-based protein, is an exception. Soy is a complete protein containing all of the essential amino acids. Popular foods contain soy protein include edamame beans, tofu, miso, soymilk, soy nuts and tempeh.

Protein Powders

They are many on the market, but if you are not a pro bodybuilder, can protein powders benefit you? Look for protein powders with key amino acids such as leucine and a combination of both whey and casein protein for the most benefit as you age. Whey is a fast-acting milk protein so your body absorbs the amino acids quickly and can utilize the nutrients right away. Casein, the slower digesting protein, has a slow release of its amino acids for your body to use to make and preserve lean muscle tissue.

As always, including a variety of foods in your diet ensures you are getting all the mineral and nutrients you need and protein is no different. You will benefit from protein at every meal and from a variety of protein sources. Protein smoothie at breakfast, hardboiled egg and nuts for a snack, edamame with quinoa for lunch and greens with chicken at dinner. Swap out beef for tempeh one night during the week or add black beans to your next casserole and experiment with the different types of high protein food sources for maximum health benefits.