Healthy diet includes a variety of plant proteins

Daily intake of meat or plant-based protein is ideal for optimum health. A diet focused mainly on meat-based protein may be lower in dietary fibre and the many nutrients found only in vegetables and grains and higher in fat.

A plant-based protein regime will have more variety in nutrients, will have a good source of dietary fibre and may be lower in fat.

Proteins are a macronutrient made up of amino acids that are essential to the well-being of a healthy body and necessary for almost all cellular activity.

Some act as enzymes and are vital to metabolism. Others have structural or mechanical functions, such as the proteins that maintain cell shape. Proteins are important in immune responses and controlling inflammation.

The body can make some of the 22 amino acids occurring in foods but there are eight it cannot make, and children cannot make 10 of them. They are called the essential amino acids and must come from the foods we eat.

Meat is called a complete protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids, but eating a wide variety of plant products can also supply the essential amino acids. No one plant contains all of the essential amino acids so we need to eat a wide variety.


Good sources of plant protein include chickpeas, lentils, nuts and beans. | Getty photo

The old school of thought recommended eating complementary plant products such as beans with rice, so that all essential amino acids were present at each meal. This is no longer the case.

Scientists now know that through digestion the body will break down proteins and store amino acids from one meal to the next over the day but not longer.

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It is a myth that animal protein is superior to plant protein but the structure of amino acids in both is identical.

Poor quality is confused with lower quantity. Plant products are lower in protein, but the quality is equal.

Meat is a highly concentrated protein foods but has fewer of the other nutrients the body needs. We may be lacking in other nutrients by consuming only meat for our protein needs.

I expect the new Canada Food Guide will place a greater emphasis on proteins from plant sources.

Balanced, healthy diets are more easily achieved when there is only a moderate emphasis on meat-based protein with good fats, unrefined carbohydrates, adequate dietary fibre and a variety of nutrients.

Good sources of plant protein include lentils, chickpeas, black beans, peanuts, almonds and cashews.

Even one medium sized potato has four grams of protein. One cup of cooked wild rice has 6.5 grams ,and 1/4 cup of dry steel cut oatmeal has five grams.

Health Canada recommends 0.8 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This equates to 10 to 15 percent of our total caloric intake to be from protein. Needs are based on age, gender and activity level.

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There is no recommendation in the Canada Health Dietary Reference Intake for adults older than 50 but recent research has found that a higher protein intake is beneficial to aging adults.

Age-associated conditions such as sarcopenia (the gradual loss of muscle mass with aging), osteoporosis and immune system impairments are hampered by a lack of protein. New studies are showing that older adults need more dietary protein than younger adults to support good health and recovery from illness, changes in metabolism and offset inflammation.

One reason is that the protein is not as readily available to the body due to changes in digestion.

New research recommends that older adults have one to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight every day. Older adults with acute or chronic diseases need even more protein.

Only those with severe kidney disease would be an exception to this recommendation, according to the Prot-Age Study Group founded by the European Union Geriatric Medicine Society.

Protein is also important in the prevention or treatment of obesity. Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates and therefore keeps hunger pangs away longer. This is an important part of a weight control regime.

One gram of protein has the same calories as one gram of carbohydrates and half the calories of a gram of fat.

Although solid food is generally more satisfying, even high protein drinks have shown a positive effect in keeping away hunger. Studies have shown that more protein in the diet has helped with greater weight loss, fat mass loss and lowered lean mass loss.

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Lowered blood sugar levels, blood pressure and waist circumference has resulted from a higher protein diet, reports the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.