When I became a vegetarian many years ago, I became aware of protein. Before that, protein was just something that I came across in elementary science class. I guess it automatically follows that when you are changing to a non-meat diet, ‘protein’ begins to have an important meaning to you. So now that I hope you are considering a possible change of diet too, it will help to know a little bit about protein...
What is protein? Protein is a large molecule compound made up of 22 amino acids linked together. There are more than 50,000 different proteins in our bodies. Each one is made up of 22 amino acids arranged in a certain sequence according to that protein's function. The most important function of protein is to build up, keep up and replace tissues in our body. Our body uses protein to build just about everything: skin, hair, muscles and organs. Protein helps in the transfer of messages in our brain. Many of our hormones are made up of protein.
Our body is able to produce 14 of the 22 amino acids needed for each protein to be complete. But the body cannot produce the remaining 8. They are called the ''8 essential amino acids''. We have to get them from the food we eat.
Generally, meat food is considered the only source of protein, that therefore we have to eat meat in order to get complete protein. The fact is, even if a diet is exclusively vegetarian, it can provide all the 8 essential amino acids you need for maximum health. There is no need for meat, fish or egg food. Vegetable food is complete. It is enough simply to have a combination of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and seeds in your meals everyday.
Throughout history, whole grains combined with legumes are the most important source of nutritious protein in ancient civilizations. In India it's rice, wheat and beans. In China, Japan and the Orient, it's rice, soy beans and millet. In the Mediterranean, it's lentils, couscous and wheat. In Mexico and South America, it's pinto beans and corn. In the Middle East, it's fava or garbanzos with wheat.
When choosing protein-rich food, pay attention to what comes along with the protein. With animal sources of protein such as meat and eggs, what comes along are cholesterol and saturated fat. With vegetable sources of protein such as beans, nuts and whole grains, what comes along are healthy fiber, vitamins and minerals.
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