The Truth About Protein

Good Protein Bad Protein

Every function of living cells depends upon protein. Proteins are the primary building blocks of muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, and glands. Every living cell and all body fluids (except bile and urine) contain protein. A certain amount of protein from the diet is mandatory for growth and development in children and adolescents, and for optimal wellness in all humans.
Protein is formed by synthesizing amino acids. The human body needs about 22 amino acids to synthesize proteins. The amino acids that make up proteins are divided into two groups: essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids cannot be manufactured by the body, and therefore need to be obtained from healthy nutrition. Non-essential amino acids are manufactured by the body.1 Proteins can be broken down into two categories:

  • Complete proteins contain all essential amino acids. They come from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
  • Incomplete proteins do not contain all the essential amino acids. They come from plant sources such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
Loading up on protein is not the answer. Protein, like fat and carbs, has become a modern-day topic of debate. The high-protein, low-carb dieting fad that’s promoted for weight loss lacks a healthy balance of good carbs. This actually puts a heavy strain on your kidneys, and puts you at risk for future health problems and digestive disorders such as chronic constipation.

A healthy balance is best. Each person’s protein, fat and, carbohydrate requirements are unique based on his or her individual biochemistry. In general, the Zone Diet provides healthy recommendations by adhering to the 40-30-30 rule:
  • 40% of calories should come from carbohydrates. (Read more about good carbs and bad carbs.)
  • 30% of calories should come from protein.
  • 30% of calories should come from fats.2 (Read more about good fats and bad fats.)
  • Acceptable ranges for children are similar to those for adults, except that infants and younger children need a slightly higher proportion of fat (30% to 40%).3 During childhood, the brain is the fastest-growing organ and it’s made up of 60% fat. A severe, low-fat diet may have long-term negative health implications.
A word of caution to vegetarians: Many vegetarians unknowingly suffer from severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies due to the lack of complete proteins in their diet. Without proper medical guidance, many vegetarians put themselves at risk for osteoporosis (calcium deficiency), anemia (iron deficiency), hair loss (zinc deficiency), fatigue, and poor wound healing.4 Also, vegetarians can suffer from vitamin B-12 deficiency, because plant sources don’t provide bio-available B-12. Vegetarians should consider taking a high-quality vitamin B-complex supplement.5

Good Protein

As with all foods, there are healthy proteins, and not-so-healthy proteins. Some of the healthiest sources of protein come from:
  • Organic, cage-free chickens and eggs
  • Antibiotic-free and hormone-free meat from grass-fed, free-range livestock
  • Unpasteurized, raw dairy products
  • Wild, mercury-free fish
  • Sprouted nuts and seeds
  • Plant sources such as organic beans and whole grains.

Bad Protein

The “bad” proteins are mainly the result of agricultural industrialization, which turns healthy proteins into unhealthy ones.

Meat. Livestock that is over-crowded, injected with hormones and antibiotics, and provided unhealthy, unnatural feed leads to poor-quality protein.

Poultry. Caged chickens that are not allowed to eat a natural diet or roam freely suffer from poor health, resulting in poor-quality poultry.

Fish. Farm-raised fish that are fed unnatural land-based diets contain little or no omega-3 essential fatty acids, and are often contaminated with PCBs and mercury.

Note: Be careful on the grill. Overcooking proteins can be harmful to your health. High heat reacts with proteins in red meat, poultry, and fish to form cancer-causing agents.6

Dietary Recommendations

  • Increase your omega-3 essential fatty acids by selecting organic flax meal, wild Alaskan salmon, minimal-mercury albacore tuna, fish oil, avocados, and sprouted walnuts.
  • Choose animal and fish products that are cage-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free-range, wild, and/or grass-fed.
  • Eat healthy combinations of foods that turn incomplete proteins into complete proteins when eaten together, such as rice with beans.
  • Add nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods such as sprouted nuts and seeds to your diet.
  • Lightly grill animal proteins, flipping the meat frequently, and avoid charring or high-heat cooking. Preferably, eat raw animal protein such as sushi, or cook meats rare or medium-rare.
  • If you are a vegetarian, consider vitamin and mineral supplementation to avoid nutrient deficiencies that may be present in your diet due to the lack of complete proteins (meat and dairy).
Foods to AVOID:
  • Avoid all heavily processed animal products and foods.
  • Avoid meats that have been injected with hormones and antibiotics.
  • Avoid meats that contain sodium nitrite such as bacon, lunch meat, and canned meat.
  • Avoid farm-raised fish. Choose wild-caught fish instead.

Additional Reading

Cited Sources:

1) “Proteins,” Medline Plus 
        Accessed July 2005

2) Sears, Barry. Enter the Zone. 1st Edition (copyright 1995)

3) “Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids,” Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 
        Accessed July 2005

4) “The Health Risks of New-Wave Vegetarianism,” by Laura Brydges Szabo, MA, RD 
        Accessed July 2005

5) “Vitamin B12,” Vegetarian Society 
        Accessed July 2005

6) “Cancer-proof Your Barbeque,” National Prostate Cancer Coalition 
        Accessed July 2005