This is Part 5 in the Nutrition series.
Our bodies are made mostly of water and protein. Whereas carbohydrates provide us with energy, protein provides us with structure and function. Our bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and organs are made mostly of protein, and hormones are functional proteins that are absolutely essential for all life processes.
Protein has become very popular these days, what with carbohydrates and fats taking all the blame for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. While protein is absolutely essential, it is also possible to eat too much of it. Eating too much protein doesn’t show up directly as weight gain, although if our main source of protein is from meat, then often the meat is high in saturated fat. The typical American diet is too high in meat protein, and therefore, often too high in saturated fat.
The real problem with eating too much protein is that it takes so much stomach acid and energy for us to digest it. Protein isn’t a great source of energy, because it takes so much energy to turn it into carbohydrates. That’s exactly why high protein diets can lead to short-term weight loss. By replacing fats and carbohydrates with protein, you can force your body to use a lot of energy to turn the protein into carbohydrates. But a better way to use your energy is for exercise, rather than protein digestion.
There are many whole foods that contain protein. Chief among them is meat, of course, which contains the highest concentration of readily available protein of any food source. Second to meat are eggs and milk products, in terms of density of available protein. It doesn’t take much meat, eggs, and milk to get our protein needs met for the day, because the protein is very concentrated in those foods. The average person needs about 50 to 90 grams, or about three ounces, of protein a day. One egg and one modest sized piece of meat contains all the protein we need. Philosophical, ethical, and ecological arguments aside, the human body loves eating animal protein in small amounts.
But animal products aren’t the only way we can get perfect protein. Most vegetables contain protein, especially legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), grains (rice, corn, and other grains), and potatoes. There are many different kinds of protein. In order to best use the protein found in vegetables, the body has to get some kinds of protein from one source, and other kinds of protein from other sources. Beans contain some of the essential kinds of protein, while grains contain the others. So, to get a “complete protein” from vegetables, we have to combine our vegetables in the correct ratio. It’s a simple ratio: about two parts grain to one part legume. Since the dawn of agriculture, human beings have been eating complete proteins in combinations of beans and rice, beans an corn, beans and other grains. It is quite easy and delicious to eat just the right amount of perfect, complete protein with a vegetarian diet, as long as we match our beans with a grain.
Eating beans and grains is also the most economical and ecological way to meet our protein needs. When considering the wellbeing of others, Middleway Method recommends reducing our consumption of meat because of the widespread ecological damage that is the inevitable result of industrial meat production. As environmental degradation increases, and global malnutrition increases, we may find that we no longer have a choice but to reduce our consumption of meat, simply because only the richest minority will have access to it with the abundance we are used to now. But really, there’s no need for that doomsday scenario to come to fruition, since we don’t need that much meat protein anyway. A little bit of meat goes a long way, and the delicious combination of beans and grains work just as well for most people. Of course, Middleway Method says, “Do what works, not what we tell you,” so build your personal diet according to what works.
There’s one processed food that warrants a bit of extra discussion, and that’s white rice. Because it is missing its outer hull, white rice is lacking both enzymes and fiber that are present in the whole grain. However, it retains the bulk of its protein. It may be that human civilizations the world over choose to eat white rice instead of brown rice because we can eat less white rice and still get enough protein, and because white rice has fewer active enzymes, it stores longer than brown rice before going rancid. White rice does have a higher glycemic index than whole grain brown rice. That means that the carbohydrates in white rice convert more easily and more quickly into sugar. For people with diabetes, hyperglycemia, or yeast infections, this may be problematic. Our recommendation is to try eating both white rice and brown rice, and notice which feels better in your body.