It is remarkable how much people know about vitamins, minerals and various herbs without knowing a lot about basic nutrition and understanding what their bodies need at every meal to maintain wellness. In this series, we are going to discuss protein, carbohydrates, fat and water – all essential components of a healthy lifestyle and equally important in their own right. With the plethora of fad diets and misinformation about nutrition on the market, it is time to get back to the basics. This month we will be discussing part one of the metabolic powerhouse: protein. Next month, we’ll discuss protein again, focusing primarily on supplementation and which one may be best for you.
What is protein?
Proteins are macromolecules made up of amino acids and linked together by peptide bonds. Amino acids are largely comprised of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen in various combinations. Amino acids are the reason we consume proteins as they are absolutely critical to sustaining life and control many functions related to metabolism (our body’s capacity for energy).
Twenty amino acids are required for the human diet and are remarkably encoded by the universal genetic code. As amino acids are highly versatile and can be combined to infinitum, many of these 20 can actually be created from compounds in the human body. These are the non-essential­ amino acids and are comprised of arginine, alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamine, glutamic acid, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. Historically speaking, asparagine was the first amino acid discovered in 1806 from an isolated compound in asparagus (hence the name!).
Essential amino acids are those that cannot be created from other compounds in the human body and so must be obtained from the food supply. Complete proteins are those that contain all of the essential amino acids, which include leucine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, phenylalanine and histidine.
Why do we need it?
As mentioned, protein is critical for sustaining life. After water, protein is the most abundant molecule in the body as it is found in all cells and is essential for the structure of the body, including the muscles, hair, skin, nails and body organs. They are even found at the level of the membrane in the form of glycoproteins (amino acid chains that contain saccharide polymers- ie. Sugars).  We also use proteins to form blood cells, hormones and enzymes making them critical to the circulatory, endocrine and digestive systems. Without proteins, we could not stand up, move, breathe, think, or produce energy. In short, we could not live.
How is protein processed in the body?
When protein is ingested from the mouth, it immediately begins to be broken down by the act of chewing. When protein is combined with fats and starches, the salivary enzymes of amylase and lipase begin to break down components of your meal right away. From there, proteins travel down the esophagus and into the stomach where true digestion begins due to the presence of pepsinogen (released by stomach cells) which is then converted by hydrochloric acid to the enzyme pepsin. Pepsin is responsible for degrading proteins from food into peptides (shorter protein chains) and is technically a protease enzyme. In fact, all enzymes directly related to protein digestion are from the protease family as this means they conduct proteolysis (the action of protein catabolism by hydrolyzing those peptide bonds that link amino acid chains together).
Two other proteolytic enzymes are trypsin and chymotrypsin which are found in the intestine and complete the digestion of proteins. Trypsin is secreted into the duodenum section of the intestine by the pancreas where it is mainly responsible for cleaving peptide bonds in lysine or arginine. Chymotrypsin is the other proteolytic enzyme that mainly cleaves bonds connected to the amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan, phenylalanine and leucine.  It is important to note that the function of the pancreas is dependent on the action of a hormonal peptide called cholecystokinin, which in addition to stimulating digestive function is also responsible for telling your brain you feel full. There are many foods which shut its function off, including MSG meaning that not only do you keep eating after you’re full, but you also have impaired digestive function as a result!
Sources of protein
Where you get your protein is just as important as how much you are getting. Let’s first talk about quality sources of complete proteins, how you can make complete proteins and what are the healthiest choices overall. Following this, we will discuss the recommended daily requirements of protein across various demographics including age, height, weight and activity levels.
As mentioned above, complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce. Here is a comparative list of food proteins (rather than the supplement sources which we will discuss next month) that are technically complete proteins; in the left column are your best choices and in the right column are their inferior counterparts:

Quinoa – This ancient seed is NOT a grain and actually contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein that is loaded with nutrients!
Green Beans – While being good vegetables, these “beans” aren’t a very good source of protein, so make sure they are part of you veggie portion and not considered part of your protein!
Tempeh – This fermented soy product is a good vegetarian source of protein and a much better choice than heavily processed tofu and “fake meats”.
Tofu – Over-processed tofu can contain degraded proteins, high levels of sodium, processing chemicals, and starchy fillers that are not considerate of allergies (ie. Gluten)! Soy is also notoriously genetically-modified, so skip the tofu and go for organic tempeh instead!
Plain Organic Greek Yogourt - While it is one of the few dairy products that I recommend (as it is fermented and easier to digest), the type of yogourt you choose is vital. Only go organic and make sure it is European-style for full fat and optimal nutrition.
Any other yogourt – Commercial yogourts (like all commercial dairy) can be a loaded cesspool of hormones, antibiotics and chemicals. In addition to that, they are often full of thickeners, bad fats and sugars or, worse, artificial sweeteners! Stay far, far, far, far away!
Organic farm eggs – As long as you’re not allergic, organic farm eggs are one of the best, most complete foods known to man! And it makes sense because an egg is a chicken in the making and needs a lot of nutrients, antioxidants, good fats and vitamins to come to life! And anyone who tells you that eggs are high in cholesterol obviously don’t know that eggs also contain lecithin – an emulsifier and nature’s natural cholesterol controller! So fear not – just make sure you eat whites AND yolks!
Any other eggs – Conventionally farmed eggs and egg substitute are a terrifying group to be reckoned with. To quote one nutrient-conscious blogger: If eggs were meant to be eaten as mechanically-separated, low-fat, chemically-altered whites in a carton, the chickens would have done it by now.The same concerns about chemical and hormone exposure that apply to dairy apply to eggs. Make sure your eggs are organic and from the farm to limit your chemical exposure and optimize your nutrition!
Wild Sustainable Fish (Tuna, Anchovies, Sardines) – With concerns about heavy metal contamination, chemical linings from tin cans, and depleted wild stores, it is best to keep your fish consumption to a minimum (2x per week). Make sure you choose wild, sustainable sources that don’t smell fishy. If you have that fish scent lingering, your protein is rancid!
Farmed Fish, fish sticks, popcorn shrimp, fast-food fish burgers – Processed fish products should be avoided at all costs. Normally they are from farmed sources and use the lowest-quality, lowest-nutrient fish available. Farmed fish is produced in a similar way as factory chickens are on land – they live in crowded, contaminated conditions and suffer from disease and infection. Their feed is often substandard and doesn’t yield rich, fatty flesh like their wild counterparts. Plus, the fish is often breaded and loaded with trans-fats and other nasties. Go clean or go home!
Organic, Grass-fed Free Run Chicken – Imagine a happy, frolicking chicken eating long green grass in an open field. It’s enjoying the sunshine and taking in all the elements. It’s a robust, shiny chicken that gets to live a happy chicken life eating what it needs, when it needs it. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it?
Any other chicken - If you haven’t spent half a day watching PETA videos on factory-farmed chicken, you don’t know where your conventional chicken comes from and the price you pay environmentally and ethically every time you choose to eat it. Picture an infested, feces-filled warehouse of sick, dying chickens covered in sores and disease. Sounds appetizing, right? Stay away, far far away!
Organic, Grass-fed Free Run Beef - Imagine the same thing as the chickens above, but an awesome happy cow!
Any other beef – Cows aren’t so happy when they are tethered indefinitely to a feedlot that forces them to consume only corn and grains while standing on concrete. You can only imagine the amount of disease and infection that results from being forced to stand and eat food that upsets your GI tract all day (which is why conventional farmers have to pump them full of hormones and antibiotics that land on your dinner plate!). Don’t do it!
 Lamb/Mutton, Bison, Wild Game – These sources of lean proteins are traditionally grown more ethically than their chicken, fish and beef compadres. They tend to be higher quality and provide you with meat that is lower in fats, cholesterol and harmful chemicals.
Pork -  Pork is one of the single-most parasite-dense meats you could possibly consume. And not only that, but it is also one of the fattiest meats on the market! Even J.H. Kellogg (yes, the cereal guy) argued in 1897 that pork was full of scrofula (TB of the neck lymphnodes), and was the source of tapeworms and roundworms in the food supply. Similarly, these diseases can easily be transferred from improperly cooked pork as their flesh and genetics so closely resemble ours. If you’re not already avoiding it for religious reasons, stay away for health reasons too! (And yes, that includes bacon!)

Protein Combining
Being mindful of the environmental costs in over-consumption of fish and meat products, we’re going to talk about how to get “complete” proteins by combining incomplete sources. Our body is extremely resourceful and even when deprived of complete proteins for a long period of time, it can obtain all of the amino acids it requires daily as long as our diets are varied enough. This means combining at least two of the following: brown rice, corn (organic only – all other forms are GMO), beans, lentils, nuts, seeds. As you can see, these ingredients are often the cornerstones of meatless, ethnic dishes from curried chickpeas and rice to Moroccan couscous and lentils. Mix it up and maximize your protein and fibre at the same time!
Protein Requirements
According to Barry Sears, PhD and author of The Zone, to determine your unique protein requirement, start by computing your percentage of body fat. For women, take your average hip measurement in inches and your average abdomen measurement in inches and add them together. Then take your height measurement in inches without shoes and subtract that from the total. The result is your percentage body fat. For men, take your average waist measurement and minus it by your average wrist measurement (both in inches). The result is your approximate percentage of body fat.
From these numbers, you can figure out your lean body mass by multiplying your weight (lbs) by your % of body fat (don’t forget to use the decimal point system)! This gives you your total body-fat weight. Subtract this total from your % of body fat and you have your lean body mass. Finally, determine your activity level from the list below and multiply your lean body mass by your activity level factor and you have determined the amount of protein you require daily in grams!
0.5 – Sedentary
0.6 – Light fitness such as walking
0.7 – Moderate training (3x/week) or sports
0.8 – Daily aerobic or daily moderate weight training
0.9 – Heavy daily weight training
1.0 – Heavy daily weight training coupled with intense sports training or twice-a-day sports training
Here is an example of the entire process for a woman:
% of Body Fat… Hips (37.5) + Waist (30) = x – height (102) = % of body fat (34.5)
Lean Body Mass…  Weight (153) x % Body Fat (0.345) = Total Body Fat (52.79)… Weight (153) – Total Body Fat (52.79) = Lean Body Mass (100.21)
Protein – LBM (100.21) x Activity Factor (0.8) = g of protein needed daily (80.17g)
Ethical protein
If you’re going to eat animals, you should take some responsibility and support the proper growth and slaughter of them.
In addition to avoiding the horrors of disease, hormones and antibiotics from conventional factory farming, I also recommend staying away from genetically engineered animals. According to Alive magazine as of 2011, there is actually a genetically engineered pig on the market that has its DNA spliced with mice and E.Coli bacteria to make its fecal matter less phosphorus. This so-called “Enviropig” is actually an untested detriment to the food supply and because GMO food is not required for labeling in Canada, you have yet another reason to avoid pork! There are numerous ways to avoid the phosphorus fecal problem (which leads to toxic rivers and water supplies as the feces get dumped), including feeding the animals what they are supposed to be eating as opposed to corn and soy! Don’t support this practice – buy local and organic meat choices from the above “superior” category.
How your animal is slaughtered goes a long way to the quality of meat on your dinner plate and the weight of your conscience on your heart. Consider finding a reputable halal or kosher butcher in your neighbourhood. Halal refers to the Arabic/Islamic term meaning “permissible”. Kosher refers to the Hebrew/Jewish term meaning “fit”. Both practices are very similar in that they require the animal to be slaughtered alone, away from other animals (minimizing the adrenaline coursing through their muscles before their turn for slaughter) and they require a swift, full slicing of the neck up to the spinal cord to drain the animal’s blood, causing it to lose consciousness quickly and minimizing its suffering. There is a lot of debate about these practices, which is why it is important to go to a butcher you can trust. Consider taking part in a slaughtering so you know where you food comes from and how it is being butchered: it will help you to appreciate the sacrifice more.
This concludes our discussion of nutritional food proteins in general. Take some time to implement these changes and change over your inferior, unethical proteins for ones that are good for you, good for your soul, good for the animal and good for the earth too! Next month we will discuss the plethora of protein supplement option available in health food stores and how to pick the one that is best for you!
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This article was written by Nakita Valerio, B.A, CSN, BMSA Technician. She has been working for Optimum Health Vitamins since 2007 and has been assistant manager of the Southside location since June 2009. Her passion for education and learning led her to her certification as a Sports Nutritional Consultant in January 2010 and her current training as a Biomeridian Technician. Working closely under the supervision of John Biggs, BSc, NCP has deepened her understanding of nutritional healing and preventative therapies. Her current position also includes operations as the Campaign Manager and Communications Advisor for Optimum Health's non-profit Freedom of Access to Dietary Supplements Association, which is heavily involved in the current national Health Freedom campaign to have the Natural Health Product Regulations suspended.