Lean protein is the darling of the diet industry. Still married to the same low-fat dogma that brought us the obesity epidemic in the first place, mainstream weight-loss programs can’t recommend a diet based on fat. With the growing popularity of low-carb diets for weight loss, carbohydrates have also become a black sheep, leaving protein as the only “good” macronutrient left.
Paleo dieters, fortunately, aren’t interested in conforming to mainstream nutritional guidelines. Healthy animal fats are the backbone of a Paleo eating plan: even the much-demonized saturated fat is nothing to be afraid of. But this doesn’t mean that a Paleo diet excludes the other macronutrients – carbohydrates are a hotly debated topic, but everyone agrees that a healthy diet includes at least some protein. The question is not whether to eat protein, but how much protein is ideal for optimum health.
What Is Protein?
Biologically speaking, proteins are complex molecules (polymers) formed from smaller subunits called amino acids. Each of the 20 known amino acids amino acid belongs to one of three groups. The first group, called the essential amino acids, includes the ten amino acids that your body cannot make on its own; you have to get enough of them in your diet. In the second group, the nonessential amino acids, are all the amino acids that you can synthesize either from essential amino acids or from protein. Despite their name, these amino acids aren’t any less important than their essential cousins. They might not be “essential” to get in the diet, but they’re still “essential” from your body’s point of view. The third group, the conditional amino acids, contains the amino acids that are usually nonessential, but become essential when your body is under stress (for example, if you get sick).
Protein plays many important roles in the body. It’s a fundamental building block, functioning as the structural “skeleton” for cells. Various types of proteins also perform an enormous number of functions – enzymes (the substances that drive biochemical reactions like digestion) are a type of protein, other proteins help cells in your body communicate, and special motor proteins are responsible for large-scale movements like muscle contraction as well as the microscopic movements involved in cell reproduction. Proteins also help transport substances within the body, and can combine to form even more sophisticated mechanisms.
Making sure to get all 10 essential amino acids every day sounds like a tedious chore, but fortunately the answer is very simple: eat meat. Almost any kind of animal product (meat, eggs, or dairy) is a “complete protein,” meaning it contains all the essential amino acids, so on a Paleo diet, getting your amino acids in shouldn’t be a problem. The only people who have to worry about mixing and matching specific protein sources are vegetarians, since plant proteins like beans are generally not complete.
Paleo Perfect Protein: