tales from culinary school: the importance of protein

Posted on Feb 17, 2012 in Food

For the past 18 months, my blog has been a journal of one amateur’s exploration into food, fitness and wellness. But now that I’m becoming professionally trained (read about my culinary school announcement here), I feel like I can step up my content on food and nutrition a bit. Never before did I feel comfortable waxing on about complicated topics surrounding food because I knew I wasn’t well-trained (now ask me about Photoshop, typography or color theory and I will comfortably school you all day long). Of course, I knew what worked for me, and knew what I’d heard second-hand, but I didn’t feel it was my place to share that info with you guys and pretend I was an expert. This is especially true of nutrition—a mighty complicated science that I wasn’t about to touch on my laywoman’s blog.

But as the semester progresses, I’m starting to feel more and more confident in my knowledge. I’m bursting at the seams to share some super cool information with you guys that I’m learning in class. This semester, I’m in a nutrition class that is geared toward culinary professionals and I’m finding a lot of stuff really fascinating. Honestly, I don’t 100% agree with what is being taught, but I think learning the scientific basics is a great foundation for me to explore my own nutrition journey. Anywho, I figured whenever I came across something I thought was particularly interesting, I’d share a little bit about it with you guys.

Disclaimer time. While I am being professionally trained in culinary arts, nutrition is a very small component of my program. As always, chat with a RD or a doctor before making any major lifestyle changes.

Alright, enough of that stuff, let’s talk about protein. Yum.

Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is one of three macronutrients that the body needs to do it’s bidness. Both fats and carbs have their own vital roles in how our body functions, but it wasn’t until I found myself in this class that I quite realized just how important protein was. Before, my motivation for having adequate protein in my diet came from three places:

  • Protein helps me build muscle
  • Eating meals with protein helps me feel fuller for longer
  • Foods with lots of protein are yummy

All of those are true and valid reasons for eating protein. But I also discovered that protein has so many more functions in the body that are vital to our life processes. Protein is present in every single cell of the body. You’ll find protein in the cells of your skin, your hair and your heart. Because protein is so prevalent in the body, it’s functions are wide and varied. A few examples:

  • Protein is important in the cell replacement process. Cells live only a limited amount of time, and in order for the body to replace the cells at regular intervals, protein is necessary.
  • The largest amount of protein is needed for building new tissue. This is why protein is extremely important during pregnancy, when the body is building massive amounts of new tissue everyday. This is also why protein helps you build big strong muscles.
  • Proteins are also found in enzymes—catalysts that increase the rate of reactions in the body. Almost all processes in the body, such as digestion, use enzymes.
  • The amino acids that proteins are made of are also vital parts of the body’s hormones. Without adequate protein, hormones (such as insulin, which regulates blood sugar) have a hard time doing their job.
  • When it comes to protecting the body, antibodies (the guys that help fend off potential invaders such as foreign bacteria and viruses) are actually blood proteins. Low protein = low immunity.
  • Protein also works as a taxicab and shuttles iron and other minerals around the body.
  • Some proteins in your blood have the ability to neutralize both acids and bases and help keep the acid-base balance of the blood.
  • In extreme cases, amino acids can be burned to provide energy.
  • Protein helps in blood clotting.

I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to have old cells, low immunity or acidic blood! I’m on the protein train.

Because many protein-rich foods can also be high-calorie, many women don’t get enough protein for fear of gaining weight. Popular diet plans focus a lot on calorie counting (which is great and how I lost 50 pounds), but don’t prioritize where the calories are coming from. A third of women in the U.S. ages 20 to 40 do not get their recommend dietary allowance of protein a day. That can mean a whole host of problems ranging from as docile as frequent hunger to as severe as muscle atrophy, weakened immunity and depression.

Protein can be a bit of a bugger to get with our on-the-go lifestyle because the best sources are not portable. I don’t see a lot of folks walking around with a salmon fillet in their back pocket, but it’s easy to grab a carb-loaded granola bar. Because of the convenience issue, that means we have to get a little creative to make sure we can pack in our protein. Here are a few of my favorite on-the-go protein superstars:

  • Natural Protein Powder—Individual packets of your favorite protein powder can be stashed in your desk or purse and easily mixed with a bottle of milk from the store or a glass of water.
  • Hard Boiled Eggs—The HBEs (what we call them in our house) are one of my favorite post-workout snacks. They are easy to eat and come in their own protective case.
  • Hummus—Vegetarians can struggle to get complete proteins—proteins (often from animals) that include all the essential amino acids. Make this up by combining incomplete proteins. Hummus is a great example because it combines two incomplete proteins—chickpeas and tahini—to make a complete protein food.
  • Soy Nuts or Edamame—I don’t eat a lot soy because of personal health reasons, but soy is a great complete protein option for a lot of folks. Try a handful of soy nuts or a bowl of steamed edamame.
  • Beef or Turkey Jerky—Roll your eyes all you want at this road trip staple, but jerky is an awesome way to pack in some protein in a portable package. Avoid the stuff sold at the gas station and instead look for the all-natural, low salt varieties at your local health food store.

I hope I haven’t totally bored you with my monologue about protein, but I know after learning all of this, I’m definitely going to take a closer look at my daily protein intake.

Do you get enough protein daily (check here)? What’s your favorite way to get protein?

31 Comments

  1. I DEFINITELY don’t eat enough protein during the day, but I also struggle with getting enough calories in, too. I’ve struggled with this even when I wasn’t a vegetarian, honestly. I eat well enough, but I don’t eat enough at all. I thankfully have some awesome leftover three bean chili for lunch, so I’ll get some protein in then!

    • I wonder if you could find some higher-calorie high-protein foods that pack a big punch but in small quantities? Like whole milk yogurts and cheeses.

  2. This was a great informative read. Thanks for sharing your new knowledge!

    • Awesome, Amanda! I’m glad you liked it. :)

  3. According to MFP I consumed 96 grams of protein yesterday, so I’m definitely getting enough! Right now I’m working ridiculous hours, so I focus on eating enough protein and vegetables and the rest tends to fall into place.

    • That’s awesome! You’re a protein rock star. :)

  4. This was awesome, I love posts like this! I’m definitely thinking of ways to pack the protein into my diet right now, haha.

    • Thanks Heidi! :)

  5. LOVE the post!! I saw a RD last year and this was soetehing she talked about….even how to get more protein in. I love having HBEs as a mid-morning snack! AND so true about snacks available on the market….so carb heavy & all non-existent protein!

    • Awesome, Lisa! I’m glad you liked it. I always struggle with finding protein-rich snacks on the go. On road trips, I’ll often grab a bottle of chocolate milk. Yum!

  6. This wasn’t boring at all! I often think that low-calorie diets miss the point of looking at where your calories come from! Grams of fat are important to see as well. With a low cal diet, people end up buying frozen meals with far too much additives and sodium. My boyfriend is taking a nutrition class (as part of his bachelors in Nursing) and I’m planning to steal his book and do some reading.

    • I totally agree that low-calorie diets miss the mark! You can hit 1800 calories eating McDonalds and Diet Coke, too. It doesn’t mean it’s healthy!

  7. I have to say first that I love the first part of your post mentioning your graphic design knowledge. I am SUCH a typography nerd and miss having discussions for hours about fonts with my classmates in college. Super nerd alert!! (and I can’t believe I graduated 10 years ago- agh!)
    I get most of my protein from legumes and other plant-based foods along with eggs and Greek yogurt. I eat meat maybe 1-3 times a week. I try to get a lot of protein after workouts, usually in the form of a smoothie with some Vega Health Optimizer. YUM.

    • My day job is in design, so I get to talk about that stuff everyday. :) I’ve never had anything from Vega, but I’ve heard awesome things about it.

  8. God for you! I’m a bit the opposite ~ I’m currently in the process of obtaining my bachelor’s to ultimately become an RD. on the flip side I would also LOVE to do culinary school! We’ll see though… There are very many things that I would love to do ;)

    • It’s interesting to see how people go down the different paths. I’m thinking once I finish my culinary degree, I’ll go into a nutrition certificate program through Cornell just so I can have a little bit of both. :)

  9. Yes and Yes! Thanks, Cassie, for the heads-up.

    Just to add one thing regarding consuming adequate protein for the purpose of getting enough Amino Acids: One super-duper-important AA is L-tryptophan, which is used to make Seratonin.

    Seratonin, as many of us know, is a brain chemical that puts us in a happy mood and keeps anxiety at bay. So for those of us who suffer from anxiety/depression (occasional/acute or chronic) then inhibited seratonin production/processing is a BIG problem and we are often put on SSRI drugs. What the doctors might not be telling you though is that getting adequate protein in your diet is so So SO important when you’re recovering from depression/anxiety, both in the middle of treatment and especially when you’re eventually going off your meds. I can’t stress this enough. (Especially for vegetarians.) Give your body a fighting chance to make seratonin: get enough protein and your mood will thank you for it. Combine this with vitamins and exercise too, but that’s not really the point of this post.

    I’m going to go ahead and cite my sources here: “The Mood Cure” by nutritional psychotherapist Julia Ross is quite a good read.

    For myself I usually make sure to get a protein-full breakfast, and I carry a bag of mixed nuts or an “emergency” protein bar with me for a protein shot between meals or when I have to skip a meal. Getting enough protein is hard for vegetarians, but utmost care should be taken to ensure that you are!

    • AWESOME! Thanks for the additional info! :)

  10. Thanks for posting this, Cassie! Very informative read. I am such a carb-aholc(bad, bad, bad!), and always looking for different ways to get protein in. I love peanut butter, but hate “wasting” calories/fat for the day on it. I was doing hard boiled eggs as a snack for a while, but got sick of them.. Will have to bust that out again!

    Thanks again for the important read!

    • Carbs definitely aren’t bad! If you don’t have enough carbs, the body starts to burn protein for energy and then protein can’t do it’s other jobs. But it’s important to balance and get your protein, too. :)

  11. Love, love all this information! I currently eat a high protein diet and my body responds in kind. Is there a Natural Protein Powder that you can recommend that doesn’t have wheat/gluten or soy in it?

    • Have you tried hemp protein or brown rice protein powder?

      • I’ve tried brown rice protein and the taste was fine, but the texture was really really gritty. But I only had one brand, so maybe a different brand would be better?

    • My favorite protein powder is Spiru-Tein (it blends awesomely). I do know it has soy in it. I don’t have any other suggestions. Sorry!

  12. Any time I tell people I am a vegetarian, I always get the same question – where do you get your protein? Am I the only one who gets touchy when people ask this? I always reply that I get my protein from FOOD. REAL FOOD. :) I consistently eat around 70-90 grams of protein each day. According to the protein calculator you linked to, this is enough for my 5 foot athletic frame.

    • I think that people confuse protein in general with complete proteins. It takes a little bit of creativity with vegetarian and vegan proteins (you must combine the right incomplete proteins to make sure you get all the amino acids, not just hit a generic protein mark), but it’s totally possible without eating meat. :)

  13. I couldn’t agree more on the importance of protein! In the past when trying to lose weight I always counted calories, and my goal was to eat as few calories as possible. Therefore, I ate mostly carbs, extremely little fat and very little protein. I felt awful, fought cravings all the time, and was often hungry and tired! When I finally stopped being scared of eating a decent amount of calories at once and upped my fat and protein in take, I felt so much better! It’s amazing how much longer protein stays with me and keeps me full. I’ve really completely changed my mind about healthy eating and the best way to lose weight.

  14. You Rock! When I started tracking my food intake, trying to lose weight, it took a few days before I really looked at my Carb/Fat/Protein levels. I was all about the Calories.

    When I DID notice, I realized that I was eating about HALF the amount of protein I should have been. No wonder I was tired and worn down and hungry all the time!

    This is great information and I think you’re amazing for putting it out there in a way that’s easy to understand!
    THANK YOU!

  15. I’m really enjoying Chobani Greek Yogurt these days. It’s got twice the protein of regular yogurt – almost 30% of the RDA in one serving! Plus, it’s either 0% fat or 2% fat depending on the flavor, so it’s rich taste is not due to it being unhealthy for you. I find that if I mix one cup of the yogurt with a generous handful of fruit (strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, etc), and just 1/4 C of granola, it keeps me full for most of the morning. That full-ness is thanks to all that protein! I love it!

  16. don’t forget quinoa! When I went vegan it became my favorite food – a complete protein that cooks pretty much however you want it to! I cooked it into puddings, breakfast “cereal”, and used it in place of rice for stir-frys.

  17. Great post! I know protein is important for sure, but I didn’t realize what exactly it was used for (building muscle aside). Thanks for the information!

    I usually get enough protein, which is a relatively new thing for me. I struggled with it a lot, so I added meat and seafood back into my diet on a pretty-much-daily basis as opposed to a couple of times a week, max (since I didn’t want to rely on protein powder all the time).

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