The food we eat is made up of three different types of food elements-carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Of these three food groups, the one people are generally most concerned about having a deficiency in is protein. Over the years, we have been taught that we need a generous supply of protein in order to enjoy good health, as well as to maintain energy and endurance.
The word protein comes from the Greek proteios, or "primary." Next to water, protein is the main substance in plant and animal cells, with the exception of fat cells. Proteins in the diet serve primarily to build and maintain cells, but their chemical breakdown also provides energy, yielding close to the same four calories per gram as do carbohydrates.
What are proteins, anyway? Proteins are composed of about 20 different amino acids. Although plants can manufacture all their amino acids from nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals through photosynthesis, most other organisms can manufacture only some of them. The remaining ones, called essential amino acids, must be derived from food. Eight essential amino acids are needed to maintain health in humans: leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, theonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Protein in the body is used for building and repairing tissue, while we get our energy and endurance from carbohydrates. It has been observed that a horse can pull a plow around a field all day, but if you were to hitch a lion to a plow, he would fall from exhaustion after one or two trips across the field.
Besides their function in growth and cell maintenance, proteins are also responsible for muscle contraction. The digestive enzymes are proteins, as are insulin and most other hormones. The antibodies of the immune system are proteins, and proteins such as hemoglobin carry vital substances throughout the body. Proteins also transmit all hereditary characteristics in the form of genes. Nutritional research scientists at Tufts University in Boston conducted a test involving older women aged 66 to 79. They discovered that reducing the protein in-take below half of the recommended daily allowance resulted in significant losses in immune response, muscle strength, muscle mass, and lean body mass.
Many people associate protein with animal products. Often, a vegetarian is asked, "How do you get enough protein?" All essential amino acids, however, are also available from plant sources. Because of extensive research, we now know that the average person, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, gets more protein every day than their body actually needs.
In young animals, growth is the result of the rapid increase of cells. The faster an animal grows the more protein it must have available to support this rapid growth. Therefore, the body's need of protein varies in conjunction with the rate of growth. When maturity is reached, protein needs lessen, and because of this adults only need sufficient protein for maintenance and, in the case of injury, to repair damaged tissues.
Humans grow slower than other animals. A baby takes 180 days to double its birth rate. In comparison, a horse grows three times as fast, doubling its birth weight in just 60 days. A cat grows even more rapidly, doubling its birth weight in just seven days. This is 26 times faster than the growth of human babies.
These varying growth rates are reflected in an interesting way. The milk of a human mother averages 1.4 percent protein during the early weeks of infancy. The mother cat, on the other hand, provides her kittens with a protein level of 9.5 percent. How strange it is then, that as soon as a human infant is no longer on it mother's milk, we immediately replace her low protein milk with cow's milk. An eight-ounce glass of milk contains eight grams of protein.
Present research indicates that an optimal amount of protein for the average man is 56 grams a day, and 44 grams for a woman. An unrefined diet easily meets these requirements, even when no animal products are included. The average American diet provides 100 grams a day, and many get much more than this. Our problem, therefore, is not getting enough protein, but that we get too much.
You may have heard the term complete protein. A complete protein is any protein that contains all eight of the necessary amino acids. Because eggs are a very high quality of protein, it has been held as the point of reference for protein. Any protein that reaches at least 70% of the quality of protein in an egg, is therefore, considered a complete protein.
There are four sources of plant protein:
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils garbanzos, soybeans, peanuts, etc.)
Nuts (walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, etc.)
Grains (wheat, rye, oats, corn, rice, barley, millet, etc.)
Seeds (sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, etc.)
A mixture of items from more than one of these groups with those of another group will provide a complete protein: e.g. grain and legume, nut and grain, or any other combination of members of the four groups.
It is not necessary, however, to get a complete protein at every meal. From the food we eat, an amino acid pool is formed in the blood stream from which the body draws what it needs. It has been discovered that the amino acids will float in the blood stream up to 16 hours after a meal. If a person eats a food that is a little short on amino acids for one meal, the amino acids still floating in the blood stream will combine to make a complete protein.
People's dietary habits generally place them in one of three groups. Vegetarians who eat no animal products. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians who eat no meat, but who do include eggs and dairy in their diet. And, of course, non-vegetarians. In studying these three groups of people, it was found that on an average, a vegetarian consumes 83 grams of protein a day; a lacto-ovo-vegetarian consumes 90 grams; and a non-vegetarian takes in 125 grams.
It is interesting to note that in nature there are basic differences between herbivores, who do not eat meat, and carnivores. An herbivore has flat teeth designed for grinding food, while a carnivore's teeth are designed for tearing. The intestines of a herbivore are 24 to 26 feet long, allowing the necessary time for digesting the nutrients found in plants, while the intestines of a carnivore are only 8 feet long, allowing for rapid digestion of flesh before it putrefies in the body. The saliva of a herbivore contains alpha-amylase, the sole purpose of which, is to digest the complex carbohydrates found in plant food. The saliva of a carnivore contains none. The digestive system of a carnivore produces ten times the amount of hydrochloric acid that the system of a herbivore does, a digestive juice that is necessary for meat digestion.
As with many things, that fact that some is good, it does not necessarily follow that a whole lot more is better. Studies have shown that high-protein diets cause animals to grow more rapidly and develop earlier, but unfortunately, these animals also die sooner. Unlike certain vitamins that our bodies can store and use at a later time, the body has no means of storing excess protein. The waste that is produced and thrown off during the metabolism of protein, puts a strain on the liver and the kidneys. In older women, osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) is of special concern. While a diet deficient in protein can lead to a weakening of the immune system, excessive protein in the diet has also been shown to lead to a depletion of body calcium.
A decided advantage to non-animal proteins is the fact that they come without any of the undesirable food elements that are generally associated with animal food products, including fat and cholesterol, both of which have been implicated in heart disease, as well as cancer, both of which are major health concerns. If we are to be concerned, let us be concerned about getting a wide variety of unrefined natural foods that God has given us in abundance.
Copyright © 1995 by Jack Kendall
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