Are You Protein Deficient?

Lots of people trying to eat healthy don't get enough of this crucial nutrient

Lara Rondinelli By Lara Rondinelli, RD, LDN, CDE

The daily menus below are actual food records from patients of mine who thought they were eating very healthy diets. See if you can spot the problem. One eats a vegetarian diet and the other does not.

Vegetarian ("Lacto-ovo," i.e. eats eggs and dairy products)

Breakfast — 1 cup Raisin Bran and 1 cup skim milk
Lunch — 1 cup rice, 1/2 cup lentils, and 30 grapes
Dinner — 1 cup spinach and eggplant, 2 slices whole-wheat pita bread, 1/2 cup white rice
Snack — 1 apple, 1 oatmeal cookie

Non-Vegetarian

Breakfast — 1 banana, 1 whole-wheat bagel with light cream cheese
Lunch — green salad with 2 ounces chicken breast and light balsamic dressing, 1 can "healthy" cream of broccoli soup, high-fiber granola type bar (30g carbs and 2g protein)
Dinner — 2 cups whole-wheat pasta with marinara sauce (with green peppers and zucchini), 1 whole-wheat roll
Snacks — 1 cup sugar-free pudding, 30 baked tortilla chips with salsa

In the vegetarian record above, the protein sources are skim milk and legumes. Most of the other foods, such as the cereal, rice, bread, and the cookie, provide large amounts of carbohydrate and little protein. In the non-vegetarian example, the main protein source is chicken. Although both patients were trying to eat lowfat, high-fiber foods, their diets were inadequate in protein and excessive in carbohydrate, which is very common. When people don't eat enough protein, it's easy to overeat carbs in an effort to feel satisfied.

Why is Protein Important?

Proteins function as building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood, as well as for hormones and vitamins. Protein is the structural component of all cells in the body. During digestion, proteins in food are broken down into amino acids, which the body uses in all those ways. Nine of the amino acids must be supplied by our diet (they're not made in the body); these are called essential amino acids. All nine essential amino acids are found together in animal products. Protein is important for people with diabetes for another reason: They don't raise blood glucose levels like carbohydrates do.

What Foods Contain Protein?

Meat, eggs, and milk are all considered excellent sources of high-quality (or complete) protein. Some plant-based foods contain good amounts of protein, but in general they don't contain all the essential amino acids and so are not "complete" protein.

When you combine certain incomplete protein foods you can form a complete protein. For example, you get a complete protein when you combine grains (such as barley) with legumes (such as lentils), or legumes with nuts. In the past, it was thought that complementary proteins needed to be eaten at the same meal for your body to use them. But studies have since shown that your body can combine proteins as long as they're eaten within the same day.

Protein sources for vegetarians include eggs (for ovo-vegetarians), beans, lentils, peas, nuts, nut butters, and soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers). It should be noted that many vegetarian protein sources, such as beans, lentils, and some soy products also contain large amounts of carbohydrate and should be counted carefully.

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Last Modified Date: March 07, 2014

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