A Grave Misconception: Protein is Meat and Meat is Protein
An incredible researcher by the name of Ancel Keys (Which is considered the father of the Mediterranean diet) discovered something fascinating; the poor, lower class people of southern Italy were much healthier overall when compared to the upper-class, wealthy Italians.
You see, my family hails from a town of ancient farmers in the beautiful rural parts of Sicily, Italy. I can remember back to both my mother, who is currently 69 years young and my grandmother that lived to the ripe old age of 99 (which is pretty common in my family) telling me about the differences between the rich and the poor. “If you were rich you ate meat, and if you were poor you ate common staple vegetables.” This philosophy that I’d heard from them is exactly what researches thought to be the explanation of the health differences between the rich and the poor.
What Protein is
It is very interesting that today’s culture views animal protein as better than plant protein. Many people have the misconception that because animal proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, that alone is enough to make them better than plant proteins. It’s very important to understand exactly what protein is before we go any further.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids. Once proteins have been digested, our bodies will break them down in new building blocks of amino acids (like children’s building blocks) in order to recreate new proteins to replace those that wore out.
There are about 9 amino acids that we must get from the food that we eat. These are called “essential” amino acids, because our bodies do not make them on their own. We must find foods that provide us with the right balance of amino acids.
High Quality vs. Low Quality Proteins
Proteins that come from other animals are very similar to ours, because they have the perfect balance of the essential amino acids that our body needs. These proteins are considered high-quality. Milk and egg proteins fall into this category and are considered some of the best sources of essential amino acids.
Plant proteins, on the other hand, are considered lower-quality. They may not have each and every amino acid that we need, but when all vegetables are considered, all essential amino acids are present.
It’s important to realize that efficiency and quality of protein is not the same thing as being a healthy choice. There is consistent and compelling evidence that shows so-called “low quality” plant protein is actually the healthiest source of protein. They allow for slow, yet steady synthesis of new proteins. Because vegetables can lack certain essential amino acids, it is necessary to combine different plant proteins together in a diet that work together for the others’ deficiencies.
The Perfect Mix
It’s easy, it’s fast and it’s fun. A simple guideline to follow is that mixing whole grains and legumes together in a meal is a fantastic source of the essential amino acids. I finally understand why my mom and granny always ate whole wheat pasta and beans. Even though they haven’t gained the scientific knowledge that I have, their coincidental habits from a poor upbringing were a blessing in disguise. These traditions made it possible for their town, and most of the countries along the Mediterranean for that matter, to experience healthy life for generations to come. It wasn’t because they tried or did research; it was just their way of life.