You may have heard the phrase “everything in moderation.” That doesn’t just apply to the probably less-than-healthy things you love (wine, triple cream brie, milk chocolate, more wine), but to those that are good for you too! Like protein. Animal protein, specifically.
How much and how often should we be consuming it? Here are the facts: approximately 20% of your body is made up of protein. But, because the human body can’t produce or store 9 of the 20 necessary amino acids found in protein, we must consume it from food sources, i.e., plants and animals. Once these proteins are broken down by the body into amino acids, they power nearly every metabolic process you can think of. Pretty important, right? But, are all proteins created equal? The short answer is “no.”
Technically, the proteins we get from meat, eggs and dairy contain a good balance of all the amino acids our bodies need – called “complete proteins” – while many plant proteins, on the other hand, tend to be low in certain amino acids. But wait! Don’t start eating a steak a day. There’s a lot more to it.
While it’s vital to ingest good sources of the nutrients that are most often found in fish, poultry, meat and dairy, that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to pass on the animal products in favor of some beans and lentils. This is where that whole idea of “balance” comes into play. First off, a lot of meats and dairy can be high in fats and cholesterol. These nutrients are essential to a balanced diet, but we all know what happens when we eat only red meat and cheese. Weight gain and cholesterol spikes! Furthermore, too much animal protein can put a strain on other parts of our bodies, particularly the liver, which processes the uric acid byproduct found in animal products. A diet too high in uric acid and too low in other nutrients leads to a condition known as gout, a complex (but reversible) form of arthritis. No, thanks!
Second, although animal protein is a great source of things like Vitamin B12 (found in most meats, dairy), Vitamin D (oily fish, eggs), Docosahexaenoic Acid (a fancy name for the omega-3 in fatty fish), and Heme-Iron (a type of iron found in meat that is easier to absorb than plant iron), there are plenty of nutrients in plants that we can’t get anywhere else. Like what?
- Vitamin C: you’ve heard of this one. While it’s easy to find this in supplement form, there’s really no substitution for the real deal, the richest sources of which are in raw bell peppers, kale, kiwi, citrus fruits and various berries.
- Flavonoids: you may have heard these called by their other name, “antioxidants.” Diets high in flavonoids – which are found in nearly every plant food – are connected with reduced risk of heart disease, improved brain health, and better colon health (looking at you, celiacs).
- Dietary Fiber: you’re probably familiar with this one too. But did you know that there are FOUR distinct kinds, each linked to a different health benefit?
- Beta-Glucan, an effective prebiotic that ferments in the colon where it stimulates the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria to improve colon health. The best source? Oats!
- Pectin, found in fruits, is also linked to improved colon health, but can also help ease chronic diarrhea and moderate blood sugar levels.
- Inulin, found in various fruits and vegetables – including bananas, artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks and chicory – is known to stimulate the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria that may relieve constipation.
- Lignans, a distinct form of dietary fiber, are the only ones that are “polyphenols” rather than carbohydrates, which means they are fermented by intestinal bacteria and become phytoestrogens. Once absorbed into the bloodstream, these phytoestrogens can reduce the risk of heart disease and breast cancer. Where to find ‘em? Seeds… specifically flax!
So… what’s the takeaway? If you’re a meat-eater, it’s okay to have lean sources of animal protein in your weekly diet, but watch out for a diet that can easily become too dairy/carb/meat heavy. Pair your meaty mains with a side salad, quinoa or lightly roasted vegetables. On days you don’t have time to make a balanced meal for yourself, keep a few grab-and-go items on hand, like our Lilly B’s Organic Chicken Poblano Burritos, made with organic chicken and balanced with black beans, fresh red bell pepper, corn and poblano chiles – an incredible source of potassium, Vitamin A and Vitamin B-6! And for the *gluten-free* omnivore? An Organic Mesquite Wrap with organic chicken, black beans, potatoes, quinoa, apples, and spinach.
It’s also a good idea to skip the animal proteins from time-to-time (or altogether). After all, plants are still a great – if incomplete – source of protein. But how to ensure your daily menu is still well-rounded? It’s all about variety! Pair your favorite roasted vegetables, pastas or Artisan Flatbreads with one or more of these protein- and amino acid-packed vegetarian foods. For instance, make a gluten-free Mediterranean pizza with hummus, artichoke hearts, olives, fresh tomato and a little feta. Or top a bed of fresh spinach with a little cooked pasta, some cashews (high in vitamins E, K, and B6), mandarin orange slices, and a simple dressing of tamari, rice wine vinegar, garlic powder, salt and a little sugar to taste. Hungry for more? Check out these 113 Vegetarian Meals for the gluten-free and grain-eating alike. #NailedIt
Too busy to make something special? Don’t worry, busy gluten-free friends, our full line of Organic Inspired Wraps also pack in the superfoods with not one but THREE vegetarian options featuring black beans, quinoa, garlic, butternut squash, spinach, lentils, ginger, sweet potato, almonds… the list goes on. And even if you’re craving something more familiar, our classic vegan and vegetarian Gluten-Free Burritos go way beyond plain ol’ beans and rice with the addition of tofu, tomatoes, red bell peppers, and real garlic. Not worried about the gluten? Then we’ve got a 100% organic alternative for you from Lilly B’s!
At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not to include animal proteins as part of your regular diet. If you’re eating mindfully, it’s highly unlikely you’ll become protein deficient, even if you choose a vegan lifestyle. Either way, one thing is certain: diversity is key! And no fish, poultry, dairy or meat can take the place of a colorful diet rich in fruits, nuts, seeds and veggies. So start discovering better food options at a grocer near you!