Protein is one of those things that a lot of people tend to worry about. Honestly, I think it’s a slightly misguided worry – most of us tend to do fine in terms of protein as long as we eat a balanced diet (unless you have extraordinarily high needs, like my baseball friend). However, it is important to make sure the protein we get is of adequate quality.
Many sources of protein are unexpected. Yes, there is protein in meat and other animal products but there are also many plant-based products that have protein, such as grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian. This is not me trying to push everyone else to be vegetarians too. I don’t think it’s my place to tell other people how they should eat, unless they’ve specifically asked for my opinion, and I have no interest in forcing vegetarianism upon anybody.
However, I do think it is important to point out that plant-based foods can be a cheap, delicious option for protein. As college students, good quality meat can be hard to afford and vegetarian meals can be a great alternative.
One problem with plant proteins is that they are often low in certain amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins) that your body needs. The best way to combat this is to mix and match them so you get a complete protein.
The classic example of this is the college staple of rice and beans. If you check out the handy chart above, you can see that grains like rice are naturally low in the amino acid lysine and high in the S-amino acids cystine and methionine. But wait! Beans are high in lysine and low in the S-amino acids, meaning that you get a complete source of protein when you combine the two into one cheap, nutritious, and tasty meal.
Of course, you don’t want to carry a chart of amino acids with you when you go out to eat. You want to make sure you’re getting all your essential amino acids but it’s also fine if not every single meal you eat is completely balanced as long as they generally even out. Eating a diverse array of whole foods and combining different sources of plant protein is a great way to ensure your body is getting all the high-quality protein it needs.
Figuring out what exactly is in your food can be pretty tricky. Food labels are there to help us, but if you’re not used to reading them, they can be more confusing than anything else.
One really important thing to realize before reading a food label is that food companies are not always on your side. Their goal is to make a profit, not necessarily to make sure you get the healthiest food possible.
There has been a push toward healthy food and healthy consumer choices, which means that a lot of companies are trying to market their products to seem as healthy as possible. Some of these products are actually healthy while others, not so much. Looking at a food label with a critical eye can give you a better idea of what is actually in your food.
When I’m doing my grocery shopping, the first thing I check is the ingredients.
Ingredients are listed in order of proportion, so if the first ingredient is flour, that means that they put more flour in the food than any other one ingredient (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is mostly flour). Little confusing, I know.
Sometimes, companies will use different names for the same product. Sucrose, corn sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup and brown rice syrup are all different ways to say the same thing – sugar.
On the flip side, sometimes things that sound scary aren’t really that bad. Alpha-tocopherol is just the scientific name for Vitamin E but manages to sound much more frightening. If there is something on the ingredient list that I don’t recognize, I try to look it up so I know what I’m actually eating.
Next, I quickly scan the box that tells you how much of each nutrient is in the food. I use this as a quick reference to get an idea of what is in my food but I don’t spend too much time on it.
The first thing I do here is look at is the serving size and make sure it is representative of how much I will actually eat. This part is super important – the amount of nutrients you get from the food changes depending on how much you consume.
Some companies are sneaky with this one. They’ll label a single serving bag of chips as having two servings, or a bottle of soda as having two and a half. No one eats half a single serving bag of chips. When you eat the whole bag, you’re getting double the nutrients listed on the label which you probably won’t realize if you don’t notice the serving size.
After I look at the serving size, I skim through the rest of the label. I pay attention to different things depending on what I want in my diet. Last summer, I had some blood work done and my doctor told me I was mildly anemic. After that, I made sure to check my nutrition labels for iron, in addition to finding ways to increase the bioavailability of the iron.
One part of the label that can be a little deceiving is the percent given on the right side. This is called the Daily Value and while it can be useful, it is important to realize that these numbers are based on a 2000 calorie/day diet.
There is a large amount of variation in the amount of calories each of us needs to eat depending on our size, age, activity level, and if we are trying to gain or lose weight. For this reason, I use the Daily Value percentages as a very rough indicator to determine if a food is high or low in a certain nutrient. For instance, I would pay attention if I see that something has 80% of the Daily Value for saturated fat.
Front of the box
I’m pretty skeptical of foods that make a big deal out of how healthy they are. We know pretty instinctively when food is healthy; broccoli doesn’t have to say that it is “All natural!” for me to know that it’s good for me.
Again, it’s important to remember that the company wants to make a profit off of you. Sometimes, companies take advantage of consumer fears and miseducation about nutrition in order to sell their products. Cholesterol is only found in animal products, but you can find plenty of foods made from plants that are advertising how they are “100% Cholesterol Free!”. Well yes, of course they are. However, this is far from obvious to most people and the cholesterol free option sounds much more convincing.
It’s incredibly frustrating that companies try to pass their foods off as being healthier than they are and this is something consumers really have to be aware of. If you want to eat your favorite cereal because it tastes awesome, then thats great! But if you’re eating it because the company is portraying it as being healthier than it really is, then I think that’s a problem. I’m not saying that consumers should always pick the healthiest option available, but they should be able make informed decisions about their food.
Personally, I think that one of the most useful ways to use nutrition labels is to compare two products. If I’m debating between two types of yogurt, I’ll pull them both off the shelf and take a look at the back to see which one has a nutrient profile that better fits what I’m looking for.
Nutrition labels are a useful tool but I’m careful not to become too fixated on the numbers – it is very easy to fall into the trap of always looking for a healthier option and personally, that’s not how I want to live my life.
So moral of the story: nutrition labels can be useful tools but they are also flawed. Try to see through some of the tricks that manufacturers use. Use nutrition labels to be more aware of what is in your food, but remember that they have their limitations and don’t let them dictate how you eat.
Note: Right after I posted this, I found an awesome article from The Kitchn on proposed changes to the nutrition label. I’m a fan, especially of the push to make serving sizes more accurate and the inclusion of added sugars to the label.
I always assumed that when we eat food, we can get all of the nutrients out of it, but in the first nutrition class I took, I learned that I was very wrong.
In this class, we talked about the concept of bioavailability, which essentially means that our bodies only get a certain amount of the nutrients in some foods.
Part of this is due to the fact that food goes through a lot before we can actually use the nutrients. In nutrition, we call this process ADME: absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion. I won’t go into detail about it but the take-home message is that the process of getting nutrients out of our food is complicated and our nutrient levels don’t necessarily match our nutrient intake.
One thing that can decrease the bioavailability of a food is its physical structure. If we can’t break a food down, we can’t get the nutrients out of it. As our professor pointed out, we can see this in our daily lives – some high fiber foods pass right through you in one piece (you get to talk a lot about poop in nutrition classes).
In fact, a lot of food processing is done to break down food structure so we can get to the nutrients. If you’ve ever seen a stick of sugarcane, you know that it basically looks like bamboo. You could chew on that for hours and get very little sugar out of. Once it has been refined into table sugar, you can get a whole lot of sugar very quickly and easily.
Okay, so all that is interesting but how does it apply to your average college student (who usually isn’t gnawing on sugar cane)?
You can use fun food chemistry facts to maximize your nutrient bioavailability! Yay! And yes, I realize this is super dorky but I think it’s actually really cool too.
One way that I do this in my own life is with iron absorption. As a vegetarian and a woman, I have to be really careful to makes sure I’m getting enough iron. Iron is in both plant and animal based foods but it’s more bioavailable in meat. We use iron in our blood cells to help carry oxygen throughout our bodies, which makes it super important. When we lose blood, we lose iron too, so women of menstruating age tend to have lower iron levels.
The good news is that having some Vitamin C with your iron makes the iron more bioavailable. They don’t have to be in the same food but should be eaten around the same time. So if you’re eating iron fortified breakfast cereal and have a glass of orange juice on the side, you can absorb more of the iron in the cereal.
Green veggies, like spinach, kale, and broccoli, are also high in iron and taste great with a squeeze of lemon juice, like in the roasted broccoli below.
You can check out a list of more iron rich foods from the American Red Cross here.
Of course, if you don’t like the more bioavailable form of a food, it is better to eat the less bioavailable form than not eat it at all but sometimes the more bioavailable form as as tasty, if not tastier, than the original.
Roasted Broccoli with Lemon
So simple and so delicious! The amounts given depend on how big your broccoli heads are so feel free to tweak them.