The Importance of Protein as Part of Healthy Diet

Author: Linda DiBella

There are three macronutrients derived from the foods we eat:  proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.  Of the three, protein is the only one that cannot be stored in the body.   What’s interesting about this is that what makes up most of our cells, organs, glands, tissues and bones are proteins.  They are the workhorses that maintain structure and carry out all of our body’s enzymatic processes involved in:


- cell growth and proliferation,

- DNA and cellular repair and housekeeping,

-  regeneration,

-  immune function,

-  cell metabolism and energy production

Therefore, it is vitally important that we include healthy sources of protein in our daily diets.  In terms of digestion, there are a number of benefits to including protein in every meal:

-  When eaten with carbohydrates, it slows down their digestion and the release of sugar into the bloodstream, keeping blood sugar levels more steady.

-  It stimulates the production of a hormone called glucagon that triggers the release of stored sugar and fat for energy.  If you’re trying to lose weight, this is important since you’d ultimately want to lose the fat.

-  It helps to induce the feeling of fullness by activating the production of a hormone called PYY that signals the brain that you’ve had enough to eat.

In general, there is much disagreement over the amount of protein we should be getting everyday.  In addition, depending on your age, activity level, or health status, protein requirements may change.  For example, developing children need significant amounts of protein, active individuals require more protein than sedentary people, and anyone healing from an illness or injury tends to need more protein than normal.

The best sources of protein depend on your diet.  If you consume animal products, then beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products are complete sources of protein, meaning that they contain all the essential amino acids that the body does not produce.  If possible, try to choose high quality sources of meats from animals that are fed a natural diet and that are free from antibiotics and growth hormones.   Choose organic dairy products from similar sources.

Choose wild caught over farmed fish, which are treated with antibiotics, as well as fatty fish high in omega-3 fats such as wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring. In addition, choose those breeds that typically contain lower levels of mercury.  A guideline for safe fish choices can be found here:

For those that do not consume animal products, or for a meat-free meal for a change, the best sources of plant protein are below. Because most plant sources of protein are usually missing one or two essential amino acids, it is helpful to eat a variety or combine them, for example, a grain with a legume.

- Beans/legumes are great sources of high quality protein as well as fiber, iron and B vitamins.  They can be purchased dried, in bulk and then soaked overnight and boiled, or cooked in cans.  Smaller beans such as adzuki and mung beans and lentils are more easily digested than larger beans.

- Grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, brown rice, amaranth, oats.   Whole grains are a versatile addition to a healthy diet that can be cooked as side dishes with vegetables, added to soups, and used as a breakfast grain with milk, nuts, and fruit.  Quinoa is unique in that it contains all the essential amino acids, which is rare in plants, and its protein levels are similar to those found in milk.

- Nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and peanuts.  Since they’re also a good source of fat, eat these sparingly, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Peanuts, which are actually legumes, are one of the highest sources of protein in this group.

- Leafy greens – yes, even vegetables such as spinach, kale, bok choy, collard greens, watercress and broccoli have small amounts of protein that are easily assimilated by the body.  Combine these with grains and/or beans for a healthy satisfying meal

- Soy  – soybeans are one of the most difficult beans to digest and contain fair amounts compounds considered anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and trypsin inhibitor that prevent the absorption of key minerals and protein digestion, respectively. Also, whether or not the phytoestrogens found in soy pose a health risk is a matter of debate.  However, if you do like soy, your best bets are fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh, and natto because soy’s toxic compounds get neutralized during the fermentation process, making them more digestible.

Healthy protein recipes:

Two buckwheat recipes:  one sweet and one savory

Rice, lentils and kale – try this with brown rice too!


  1. clailanda said on March 4th at 9:34 am:

    Eventually you can get into the nuts and bolts of reality: nurturing, caring, and getting along.

  2. Hockessin said on March 7th at 12:21 am:

    An cool blog post right there mate . Thanks for the post !

  3. Linda said on March 9th at 3:33 am:

    Clailanda, the healthier our diets are, the better we can nurture and care for our loved ones. Our diets affect every other aspect of our lives. The better we feel, the more we will share those good feelings with others.

    Glad you liked the article Hockessin. If there are any food or nutrition related topics you would like me to cover, please let me know…


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