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Proteins Decoded: What You Need to Know

They are featured in the media, and in advertisements day by day, we eat and drink them, we would perform poorly without them, but too much can also be harmful. We often hear that we need more of them. But do we really know them well enough?


What are proteins and why are they important?

Proteins are energy-providing macronutrients. They are referred to as the building blocks of our cells and tissues, although they also perform numerous other functions in our body. For example, they are essential for muscle function, hormone production, the synthesis of various enzymes, the functioning of the immune system, and the formation of hemoglobin in the blood that transports oxygen, in short, they are necessary for almost all our vital functions.


According to their role, they can be enzymes, transport proteins (they perform transport tasks between organs in the blood), protective proteins (participate in protecting the body against infections or injuries), structural proteins, hormones, and reserve proteins. According to their structure, they can be fibrillar proteins (thread-like, with a stiffening function, such as hair), globular proteins (spherical, can be enzymes, hormones, immunoglobulins).


fruits and vegetables, oily seeds, avocado, mushrooms, peas, almond, broccoli, walnut, celery

What are proteins made of?

Proteins are made up of amino acids. The 20 known amino acids form various chains to create proteins that perform different tasks. Some of them are not produced by the body and are called essential amino acids, which can only be introduced into the body through nutrition to prevent deficiency states.


The body produces non-essential amino acids from the food we eat. In addition, there are semi-essential amino acids (the term semi here means partly), which the adult body can produce, but under certain circumstances or ages (e.g., childhood or old age), their dietary supplementation becomes essential. Deficiency may develop in certain conditions.


Groups of proteins

Proteins are classified into two main groups according to their nutritional value, based on their composition. Incomplete proteins do not contain all essential amino acids in the right quantity and proportion. In contrast, complete proteins contain all essential amino acids in the right quantity and proportion.


What are protein sources?

Although when we hear the word protein, many people think of meat, eggs, and fish, not only animal but also plant-based foods containing proteins. Animal-based ingredients and foods are considered complete protein sources, so proteins found in meat, meat products, cold cuts, offal, fish, seafood, milk, dairy products (cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, cream, yogurt, etc.), and eggs do not need to be supplemented.


eight eggs in a holder, one of them is racked open, can see the egg yolk

Plant-based raw materials foods are considered incomplete (or low biological value) proteins. By combining them appropriately, we can also obtain complete (proteins), this is called complementation. Continue reading for more detailed information!


In the case of plant proteins, not only soy, lentils, yellow peas, and chickpeas are useful protein sources, but also grains, cereals (e.g., flour, granola, bread, pasta), nuts, seeds, and to a lesser extent, vegetables or fruits can be included here. Often, protein is not the most characteristic macronutrient in these, but remember, many small things add up.


During the aforementioned completion process, we supplement plant-based raw materials ingredients with animal protein sources, or we combine different plant-based raw materials ingredients so that their incomplete amino acid sets complement each other.


on a white plate between a fork and a knifem there are raw red meat slices on the left side and raw vegetables on the right: pepper, mushrooms, carrot, brussel sprout, radish

What is complementation?

How can complementation be achieved without having to run around with a nutrient table during shopping or cooking? Here are a few simple combinations: legumes contain a lot of lysine but little tryptophan and methionine (these are amino acids), while oily seeds contain little lysine but a lot of tryptophan and methionine, so by consuming them in one meal or within a day, we can already obtain complete proteins.


We achieve the same result when we combine grains (e.g., pasta) or rice with legumes (e.g., beans) on a plate. Therefore, vegetarians and vegans will not be protein deficient if they appropriately pair or mix various plant-based raw materials ingredients with different amino acid compositions.


The future of proteins

As more and more people live on Earth and we (think we) need more food, animal husbandry and agriculture also have to meet increasingly large demands. The former has quite a large ecological footprint, especially for the much-talked-about cows. This raised the question of how to develop a diet that is sufficiently nutritious with less or even without meat. This endeavor gave rise to (simplified) alternative protein sources. These include mushrooms and algae, but also well-known oily seeds, legumes, and grains can find their place on the list, alongside not-so-popular (at least in our country) insects or laboratory-grown meats and patties, milk, egg, cheese substitutes from animal-based cell cultures.


Most of them still have a somewhat sci-fi character, although a lot of development and testing is going on behind the scenes. You've probably already noticed that you can find more and more products on supermarket shelves. Eventually, these may not only be good for  as"space food," but obviously, it will take time for them to become widespread and liked. Because It's not just about what amino acids are in them, but appearance, taste, smell, and texture are also important. So if you are yet to crave a cricket burger it can be excellently replaced with a lentil pattie, and 1-2 meat-free days a week can be easily introduced.


six types of raw lentils in the same type of pots

In a nutshell

We can get enough protein not only by eating meat with meat but also with vegetarian, vegan dishes, grains, seeds, legumes, and there are also alternative protein sources as possible solutions.

One thing is essential: diversity. None of the protein sources should be overemphasized, and careful consideration should be given when resorting to external protein supplementation, whether animal or plant-based protein powders, slices.


In the case of certain diseases (e.g., kidney failure), reducing protein intake is precisely the goal, but this requires individual dietary consultation.


In the continuation, we will talk about how much protein we need, where the limit is, how far we can go, and if I mentioned it, we will also discuss when protein supplementation makes sense.

Until then, feel free to spoon from the Brewer’s Granolas made from spent grain! But now with the knowledge that grains, and cereals are not just carbohydrates.

 

Judit Schmidt dietitian, health educator, workplace well-being program manager. Engaged in prevention, education, and background work related to health, well-being, and nutrition. Provides assistance in conveying knowledge on nutrition, health, and well-being through article writing, blogging, editing, proofreading, and creating professional texts on these topics. Also conducts informative presentations for companies and schools. Her main focus is on disease prevention and creating a balanced and sustainable diet. Her motto: the sunny side of food. Dietitian Judit Schmidt presents her profession and works in a personal, occasionally humorous style on various social media platforms under the name Youteefool.

 

You can find Judit on her website:

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