tales from culinary school: the importance of protein
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.