Eating the Right Kind of Protein

A rock formation in Barbuda! (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A rock formation in Barbuda! (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

A balanced diet consists of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fruits and vegetables to provide you with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Proteins are considered essential nutrients for the human body. They are one of the building blocks of body tissue, and can also serve as a fuel source. The body needs protein for growth and maintenance. Aside from water, proteins are the most abundant kind of molecules in the body.

There are many sources of protein: grains, legumes, nuts, seeds as well as animal sources such as meats, dairy products, fish and eggs. Vegetarians and vegans can get enough essential proteins (amino acids) by eating a variety of plant proteins.

A recent study from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (published in JAMA Internal Medicine) shows people who eat more protein from plants and less from animals may live longer even when they have unhealthy habits like heavy drinking or smoking.

If you like to eat animal protein then you should avoid processed red meat and choose fish or chicken instead.

The Harvard researchers followed more than 130,000 nurses and other health professionals over several decades. Half of the participants were getting at least 14 per cent of their calories from animal protein such as meat, eggs and dairy and at least four per cent from plant protein sources such as pasta, grains, nuts, beans and legumes.

The researchers noted that previous studies have indicated eating fewer starchy foods and more protein can help people manage their weight, blood pressure, sugar and blood lipids. But the Harvard study shows animal protein is deadlier for individuals who were obese or heavy drinkers.

The researchers found that meat eaters with an unhealthy lifestyle and higher mortality risk tended to eat more red meat, eggs and high-fat dairy than the fish and poultry eaters favoured by those with a healthy lifestyle.

The new study also found that meat eaters with a healthy lifestyle tended to consume more fish and poultry, while those with an unhealthy lifestyle and higher mortality risk – such as those who were overweight and drank at least one alcoholic beverage per day – tended to eat more red meat, eggs and high-fat dairy.

The authors say the study cannot prove that the type of protein people eat directly influences how long they may live. It’s also possible that the eating and lifestyle habits of health-care workers (participants in this study) might not be representative of the broader population of adults.

The real risk of mortality from animal protein also appears largely tied to processed meat, such as bacon, salami and hot dogs.

The take-home message here is to eat specific healthier plant-based foods such as fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and non-starchy veggies. Avoid dangerous plant-based foods such as French fries to soda to white bread and white rice. And pursue a healthier life-style.

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