Articles and Topics
Nutrient Series: Proteins
Protein is an essential nutrient that provides a wide range of tasks to keep our bodies growing and healthy. The word actually comes from the Greek “protos,” which means “of prime importance.” Protein is part of every living cell, and each protein molecule is a combination of amino acids in a specific sequence, designed to carry out a specific function. Amino acids are either essential, which means we must acquire them through food, or non-essential, which means our bodies can manufacture them by themselves.

Proteins are little powerhouses of activity! They provide collagen, which gives elastic strength to bones and skin, and keratin, the primary constituent of your hair and nails. Proteins allow your muscles to function and provide immunity to help you fight off infection and disease.

Enzymes are proteins that help you metabolize the foods you eat through digestion, and hormones are necessary for many bodily regulation processes like glucose control and fluid balance. As if that wasn’t enough, proteins also help transport other necessary substances in and out of cells and through the bloodstream, and can be stored for energy when you’re working out extra hard! So, yes, we need protein in our diet for basic survival.

That being said, wealthy societies tend to overindulge in protein.

We used to think that you needed meat and dairy products to get our required daily proteins, but research has shown that this isn’t true. While these foods are a guarantee that your body will have the essential amino acids available, we also know that digestion breaks the molecule down into its individual amino acids, the body rebuilds them for specific purposes and that usable protein is also found in grains, vegetables and dried peas and beans. So it’s not necessary to eat all that meat. In fact, too much protein can stress your kidneys and uses a lot of energy to digest.

Many parents are concerned about their child’s refusal to eat meat. Children 1 to 3 years of age require 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This can be calculated by dividing your child’s weight in pounds by 2.2 and multiplying by 1.2 grams to get the protein amount. For example, if your 18-month-old child weighs 28 pounds, the calculation is as follows: 28 divided by 2.2 x 1.2 = 15.6

Therefore, your child needs about 15 grams of protein a day, the equivalent of the amount found in 6 ounces of milk and one egg. That’s not nearly as much as most of us think! (By the way, for children 4 to 6 years replace 1.2 grams with 1.1 grams in the above formula.)

Most medical and nutrition professionals strongly recommend a reduction in our daily red meat consumption and an increase in whole grains, legumes and vegetables as a way to improve overall health, decrease dietary fat and perhaps even protect against heart disease, obesity and related illnesses. In addition, raising cattle for meat is extremely costly to the environment, using large amounts of land and water resources to maintain.

One concern many people have about cutting back meat intake is that they’ll lose their best source of iron in their diet. However, studies of human iron stores show that vegetarians have no more iron deficiency than meat consumers.

Many humans, especially those in the Western Hemisphere, love their beef, and reducing red meat consumption is a personal decision. But for those children who won’t or don’t eat meat, it’s unlikely that there will be a negative effect on their growth if they are given a variety of other foods, or continue to breastfeed or drink milk. Of course, fish, eggs, skinless chicken, turkey and pork are also excellent sources of protein, and many children willingly eat any of these foods. And if you’re looking for high-protein, non-meat alternatives for your child, consider baked beans, yogurt and cottage cheese.

Next in this series: Carbohydrates.
Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant