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Super Basic Food Knowledge, Episode 1 - Protein

Protein Defined

The confusion starts here. Already you ask??? Yup, I answer.

There are 2 contexts in which we use the term 'protein'. They are:

1. Large organic compounds containing nitrogen and one or more long chains of amino acids. They are an essential part of all living organisms as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, nails.,etc., and as enzymes and antibodies that facilitate chemical reactions within the body. Hormones are also composed of proteins.

2. Foods consisting of structural molecules as defined in #1 but serve a different purpose - to provide nutrients for our bodies to function properly. When ingested, our bodies break down proteins into their individual amino acid components to regenerate new proteins to use for functions described in #1.

Basics About Protein

To provide context, the largest protein in the human body is Titan. This is a fitting name. It organizes the structure of muscle and gives it elasticity like a rubber band. It is composed of 34,000 amino acids.

Click the button for more information and source.

Eight or nine of the twenty amino acids we need to build all structures that compose our bodies must come from food, as our bodies do not synthesize these. Many people believe that you must consume animal protein to get these nine amino acids. That is a fallacy. It is just important that you eat a balanced regimen of protein (not always the same one). When you find foods that contain the nine essential amino acids it is often referred to as a 'complete protein'. If you interested in seeing examples, check this out.

Much confusion exists about proteins. It is frequently used in marketing dialogue and in conversations with health professionals. For example, this morning, I received an email advertising '10% off protein-rich faves'. We seem to be obsessed with getting enough protein. Anywhere from 10% to 35% of our calories should come from protein. So if your needs are 2,000 calories, that’s 200–700 calories from protein. It should NOT be the majority of your calories.

The truth is that most people in the United States eat more protein than needed. If you are eating an animal protein, portion size equates to the size of your palm. For legumes, 1/2 cup is the recommended serving size, and for nuts a 1/4th cup.

Snacks such as cheese, bars, protein drinks and powders are processed foods and can contain more fat and protein than you need. Many also contain added sugars. 'High protein' labels are in fashion. If you are eating healthy proteins at your meals, your snacks don't need to contain protein and, if they do, a small amount of a healthy protein such as a handful of unprocessed nuts or seeds is enough. Have you tried roasted crispy chickpeas or steamed unprocessed edamame?

Did you know that in 2021 the protein 'bar' business was valued over 4 billion dollars 🥺? Grabbing these as a quick fix may be the easiest path to take but it is not the preferred one. Americans jump on the bandwagon of new 'in' foods, the market of which is created by sophisticated marketing and large food conglomerates. They have carefully studied our behavior. Social media contributes to this craze! Because I follow one vegan site on instagram, I now see posts from 20 other sites. They know more about me than I do😝.

Why do you eat these processed forms of protein? I am guessing one reason is that you think getting concentrated proteins in these forms will build muscle. For most of us, that isn't true. Just eating a variety of healthy proteins in the right quantity for meals is plenty. You will still build muscle. If you are a premier athlete or power builder, it may be necessary to use supplemental proteins to get the nutrition you need without eating 20 peanut butter sandwiches. This post is not for you. Hopefully if you fall into this category, you are working with trainers, nutritionists and others to get adequate protein nutrition.

High protein, low carb diets, such as the Ketogenic diet, have become popular. In this diet, carbs are your enemy. Animal proteins and fats are your friends. It is so easy to eat healthy sources of protein (for example, buying canned or frozen beans and edamame if your concern is about time). How about peanuts or almonds or a nut-butter sandwich or roasted chickpeas (you don't need oil to roast chickpeas but you can experiment with varying the favor by using spices)? How about roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)? Popcorn (ok, no butter but you can get used to it!) is a good snack but watch out for bingeing on it.

Carbs are not your enemy. It is the type of carb that defines whether it is a friend or foe.

The chart below provides additional information about protein sources and corresponding foods. The examples are not comprehensive as there are so many varieties of each protein type.

Protein Type

Protein Type



Beans and Legumes

  • black beans

  • kidney beans

  • chickpeas

  • peas

  • edaname/soybeans

  • white or navy beans

  • split peas

  • lentils

  • Tofu

  • Tempeh

  • Seitan


Nuts and Seeds

Almonds, peanuts

Flax Seeds

Chia Seeds

Hemp Seeds

Sunflower, Sesame Seeds

Nut butters, Tahini


High Protein Grains







Hi Protein Vegetables





Meat and Dairy

Fowl, e.g., Chicken, Turkey






Dairy such as Yogurt, Cheese

Of course I am going to advocate for plant-based protein consumption over animal-based, but this does not imply that all plant-based proteins are healthy or all animal proteins are horrible. As stated earlier, plant-based foods touted as 'high protein' can also be highly processed. There is a range. I have stated frequently the reasons for replacing one or more meals containing animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins. The reasons are:

  • Environmental, Climate Change (animals produce greenhouse gases).

  • Health-related reasons.

  • Farm space and water/feed required to raise animals.

  • Processing required to butcher and package animal products and associated safety issues, in addition to transport and refrigeration costs required for transport.

  • Animal cruelty and treatment ( if you watch a documentary on how large beef-producers treat their animals, you might stop eating meat!)

  • Many plant-based proteins do not have to be refrigerated and will last a long time e.g., dry or canned beans. If your refrigerator loses power 😳 you don't have to throw anything away😃.

Some guidelines to help:

  1. Buy organic if you can and only what you need.

  2. Limit your animal protein to 2-3 times per week if you eat these. Look at how the animals are raised - the best is pasture fed, free range, organic.

  3. Buy local if possible.

  4. Eat with the seasons.

  5. Reduce kitchen waste.

Here are pictures of healthy options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Add spices for extra flavor or vary combinations of greens, veggies, and/or protein.


Oatmeal or other whole Salad with spinach, chicken, Soup with peas ( or tofu),

grain with almonds and lots of veggies and pomegranate lots of veggies in a veg

blueberries seeds stock or broth.

Fancy avocado toast Quinoa with tomatoes, Veggie pizza on whole

(anything can top the arugula wheat or other grain crust


One beauty of all of these meals is that you can modify each of them to be totally different the next time you eat them. The possibilities are enormous. Don't be afraid to experiment. What's the worst thing that can happen?

Basics about Processed Foods - a refresher from concepts in previous posts

An example of the different hierarchies of processing is peanut butter. The unprocessed version are; in-the-shell raw unsalted peanuts. Peanut butter is a processed food but you can buy nothing added organic peanut butter as the least processed and the best option or you can choose traditional Jiff, Skippy, Nutella as highly processed products. Do they all have protein - yes. Are they all good choices - no. Read the labels!

Unprocessed and minimally processed foods

NOTHING has been done to the food, e.g., a piece of fruit or vegetable right off the store shelf or picked from a garden Minimally processed foods have been touched by a human hand but not much has been done to it. Examples include bagged lettuce or other veggies, frozen grains or veggies without additives and canned goods with a single ingredient. such as bagged carrots, chopped lettuce and raw nuts. If there has been processing it is usually for preservation purposes.

Unprocessed ingredients combined or treated

Food obtained directly from unprocessed or minimally processed foods or from nature. They are altered by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding so that they can be used in cooking. Examples include syrup from maple trees, vegetable oils extracted from olives or seeds, nut butters such as peanut and almond butters.

Lightly Processed foods

“Lightly Processed Foods”includes foods that are canned or frozen or contain a processed food. Spaghetti sauce, canned green beans, tuna are examples. They may have one or two added ingredients, such as salt, sugars, or oils and seldom have more than 3 or 4 ingredients. Some breads, cheeses, pastas, salad dressings and sauces fall into this category. Packaged items with only a few high-quality added ingredients (e.g., herbs, spices, oils) might also be considered lightly processed, such as some pasta sauces, and salad dressings.

Heavily/Ultra Processed food

Many foods in this category are called “Junk Food”. These are foods made with five or more ingredients and are filled with sugars, oils, fats, salt, stabilizers, and preservatives and often have added vitamins and minerals which contribute to the marketing. If you eat a candy bar fortified with vitamin C is it better than a non-fortified candy bar? NO it is not! Generally speaking, ultra processed foods include lots of added stuff that doesn’t occur naturally. Ultra-processed foods account for about 90% or almost all of the added sugars Americans eat. The food in this category is unhealthy and eating too much increases the risk of obesity diabetes and heart disease.

The take away is; READ INGREDIENTS for anything other than unprocessed foods. There is a guiding principle that if a food product has more than 5 ingredients, don't buy it. Obviously, this is a judgement call but I think it is a good guideline. When I pick up a product that has a laundry list of ingredients I put it right back.

These? OR These? Hint: Choose these🤪!


As a final thought, I must admit that I am not a fan of any diet. Diets don't work. There is no right diet. Healthy eating is a lifestyle and it doesn't have rigid rules. That doesn't mean you will tolerate all foods equally. For example, if you have a nut (peanut is most common) or gluten intolerance (wheat-based protein sensitivity such as Celiac disease), you must eliminate these foods however there is still plenty of choice. Keep in mind however that 'fads' such as gluten-free often exaggerate the real problem. Many people who do not have a gluten problem will still not eat gluten.



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