What makes one protein better than another? And what exactly constitutes a “whole food protein”? Valid questions. As a whole food protein bar company, we herald the superiority of more food-based sources of protein (rather than isolates), but it’s hard to say for sure what is better or worse for you. Of course, we have our bias but we wanted to break it down for you and let you decide what is best for your body, diet, and lifestyle.
A Study Into Whole Food Protein
Whole foods, real ingredients, unprocessed. What do they have in common? They’re some of the most commonly-used phrases circulating around the health and wellness scene in recent years. However, we hardly if ever stop to ask ourselves exactly what they mean. Just like the ambiguous and often-repeated “all natural,” these terms are things we know are in a general sense, good for us and healthy, but beyond those fuzzy associations, do we really know the specifics? For example, just what are whole foods? (as opposed to…?) These are all questions any smart, health-conscious person should ask. And when it comes to one of the vital macronutrients, protein, there is an increasing emphasis on getting “whole food protein” in one’s diet.
So just what exactly does this mean, how does one get these whole food proteins, and how much do we need?
The Journey Back to Real Foods
In the world of dieting and quick fixes, the food industry has created a culture of confusion, telling us for years and decades conflicting advice on what to eat, what to count, what to worry about, etc. Luckily, the general public is becoming more and more interested in getting back to basics and commonsense approaches to our food and health.
We’re in something of an awakening period, one where common sense and real ingredients are once again the focus. As more and more people kick the diet culture to the curb and move away from a quick fix, crash and burn approaches, there is a collective interest in ditching the artificial and processed and instead, eat fresh, real foods, mostly plants, and only ingredients our grandparents would have recognized.
But once you’ve successfully ditched all the “advice” of the 90s and early 2000’s—telling us to avoid carbs, limit our fruit, that fake sweeteners are good, and a whole slew of other nuggets (fat-free is the better option?) largely cooked up by food marketers, what does that leave?
Getting reacquainted with real food and re-educating ourselves with eating according to what makes our bodies and minds feel their best…and forgetting everything else.
Nothing Basic About The Basics
Whole foods are full of nutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals—they’re left with the full nutritional profile nature made them with. And they’re usually only one ingredient, unlike their processed counterparts.
For example, think fresh berries (whole) vs. berry-flavored fruit chews (processed,) a baked potato (whole) vs. store-bought instant mashed potatoes, loaded with preservatives, artificial flavoring, added fats and salts, and maybe even food coloring (processed.)
With whole foods, less it more—so reach for foods that have been left untouched and in the form nature intended it to be.
Processed alternatives are cooked up by the food industry to sell, to have a longer shelf life, and to stand up to long transportation distanced, but provide very little real nutritional value. Eating a bowl of cooked, old fashioned oats will provide your body with far more healthy carbs and fiber than a bowl of instant oatmeal, which has had nearly all the benefits stripped away from it during the processing, and has also had extra calories and sugar added.
Whole Foods and Protein
The gist of eating real, whole foods is simple: pile your plate with lots of produce, whole grains, minimal processed foods or sweets, and nothing artificial. But what does “whole” mean in the context of protein?
One common thread in almost any dietary approach is to eat plenty of protein, and for good reason. Our bodies simply cannot thrive without it. It’s easier to get plenty of this vital macronutrient now, more than ever, whether you’re an omnivore or vegan, with options like protein bars, protein shakes, protein and enriched plant-milks. Most people think of animal products and dairy when they think of protein, or even traditional protein shakes made from whey, but it’s actually not quite this simple. Many “traditional” protein sources heralded as health foods are highly processed and actually do more harm than good.
But before diving into some healthier, whole food protein sources, let’s get a better understanding as to why protein is so important in general. We know we should eat it, but why is it so important for our health?
Understanding Protein To Start
Along with carbs and fats, our bodies rely on protein as a major macronutrient and source of fuel. Everything from our skeleton and musculature system right up to our hair and nails, not to mention daily functions, could not exist without protein.
The textbook definition of protein is that it’s a complex molecule found throughout the body, in everything from bones, muscle, skin, hair, and tissue. Its also the material responsible for many chemical reactions, not to mention responsible for hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the bloodstream.
Protein is made up of various types of “building blocks,” which are known as amino acids—you may be familiar with these. They include the “essential” amino acids–histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—which we call essential for the simple fact that our bodies can’t organically produce them, meaning we only obtain them from the foods we eat.
Protein comes into play also in healthy weight maintenance, weight loss, and mental clarity since it keeps us full and satisfied to make it through our day. Reaching for high protein snacks is a must to keep full for longer and resist urges you’d otherwise have to snack on junk and treats. Interestingly, when it comes to protein, a lot of the talk in articles you may have read in health and fitness magazines, as well as the messages you see from food advertisers, pertain to how much protein you should be eating, not necessarily the source.
The recommended daily allowance of protein is actually super attainable for the average person—around .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, meaning with a balanced healthy diet and high-protein snacks, you should have no trouble ingesting this amount of protein per day (especially with the plethora of protein bars and protein drinks on the market.)
However, when choosing the source, there’s a little more to take into consideration. This is definitely a question of quality over quantity, and more and more health-conscious people are realizing that simply scarfing down tons of “junk” protein and caring only about how many grams they’re getting is so last decade…and not that great for you in the long run. With this resurgence in prioritizing whole, real foods, people are taking a harder look at where their protein comes from.
Why All Proteins Aren’t Created Equal
Understanding Protein in Protein Bars
Protein, just like carbs, fats or any other food for that matter, can be processed and turned into something other than its original form. One of the most convenient, popular, and not to mention delicious ways to meet the recommended daily amount for protein is with either a shake or a protein bar, but unfortunately many are packed with highly processed ingredients.
To make smart choices about protein sources, it’s important not just to scan the total protein content—the grams or percentage of the RDA—but to look deeper into the ingredient list and see where that protein is coming from. Does your bar or protein powder have recognizable ingredient making up its protein, like rice protein, pea protein, or nuts, eggs, quinoa? Being able to recognize the ingredients as actual foods you could harvest directly from the earth is a great sign that the protein sources are whole.
Or, what is often found, is your protein bar packed with impossible to pronounce, chemically-made versions of protein such as soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate, and other clearly processed ingredients?
With every protein bar and shake on the market making big claims about their protein content and health benefits, it takes looking beyond the label and deeper into the ingredients themselves to choose one that’s smart and truly healthy.
A Quick Look Into Common (Non-Whole Food) Types Of Protein
Whey protein is one ingredient that’s commonly found in many bars and especially protein shakes. Once popular mostly among the athlete and bodybuilder crowd, now many “average” gym goers and people use it. The problem with this that whey is that far from being a whole food—though it’s derived from one, milk, it’s been heated up, processed, and made into something else. Though it ranks high in digestibility, the fact is that around 65% of the population is genetically lactose intolerant (some stats say more), meaning whey can trigger an unhappy digestive system.
Soy Protein Isolate
Another common ingredient in protein-rich products is soy protein isolate. While soy in its pure form, soybeans, tofu, and tempeh, for example, are a great whole source of protein, soy protein isolate is its highly processed cousin that’s commonly found in bars and powders. To create soy protein isolate, flakes are washed in alcohol or water, de-fatted, and stripped of their dietary fiber, and as a result, all of their beneficial nutrients. It’s classified as one of the top seven dietary allergens and can cause thyroid issues and even brain issues, some studies suggest. Non-GMO pure soy, on the other hand, can reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol and improve symptoms of menopause.
Probably the most common form of protein that many rely on is meat and dairy. While animal products are what many traditionally think of when they think protein, they’re often the furthest thing from whole or unprocessed. Lunch meats, bacon, sausage, or even many “cleaner” seeming meats like chicken breast can be pumped full of sodium and preservatives, and even coloring.
Deli lunch meats and other processed meats that many think of as healthy were recently categorized by the World Health Organization as a class 1 carcinogen. Numerous studies over the years have linked consumption of processed meat to unhealthy lifestyles and various chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure.
While animal products have become a key piece of many people’s diets over the years, reaching instead for whole, unprocessed protein sources like organic soy, legumes, pea protein, or nuts ensure you’re skipping the sketchy added ingredients and getting a wider array of nutrients and vitamins.
Whole Food Proteins to Load Up On
Care about your protein intake but convinced to forgo the processed options, and instead stick to whole foods? Here are a few great options.
Not only are nuts versatile and super portable, making the ideal snack, but they’re also a whole food and packed with protein. Peanuts for example (arguably our fave), provide 7 grams of protein in just one ounce. Nuts make a great base for bars, can be enjoyed on top of smoothie bowls or oatmeal, and also happen to be packed with magnesium, fiber, and healthy omegas.
Almonds and pistachios are other healthy options, with around 6 grams of protein in a small serving (23 almonds, or 49 pistachios both contain this amount). Make sure you’re enjoying nuts in their whole form, meaning roasted or raw rather than packed in oil or excess salt. If you’re eating them in the form of nut butter, the only ingredients should be peanuts and salt if you choose.
Dairy and Non-Dairy Milk
Though much of the world’s population is intolerant or sensitive to dairy milk if you can tolerate it, make sure you are only buying the highest quality milk free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Plant milks are a wonderful alternative if dairy isn’t your friend—with options like pea protein milk, cashew milk, soy milk, and many others providing up to 10 grams of protein in a 1-glass serving. Enjoy them plain as a drink or blended into a smoothie.
A favorite protein source among vegetarians and vegans, legumes such as lentils, edamame, chickpeas, black beans, and peas are packed with totally whole, unprocessed protein. One cup of cooked lentils contains a whopping 18 grams of protein and can be used in soups, on salads, or in curries. (By comparison, our Peanut Butter Perfect Bar has 17g of whole food protein!)
Pea protein is becoming something of the latest “it” protein in recent months, and is available as a plain or flavored protein powder, but also is added to many bars and grocery store items like pasta and potato chips even. Pea protein is healthy, whole food alternative to milk and soy since it’s just as high in protein without the potential allergic reactions or digestive woes. As an added benefit, non-GMO, organic pea protein is readily available, and peas are a highly sustainable crop, meaning it’s a friendly choice not just for your body but for the planet.
The seed that acts and tastes like a grain, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse and is found on just about any “top health food” list, and also happens to be a superstar whole food protein. It’s been popular for years in the vegetarian and vegan community since it’s a plant-based “complete” protein. It’s also loaded with fiber, miners, and antioxidants, and just one cup contains 8 grams of protein.
These are just a few examples of whole foods proteins that are readily available, versatile, delicious, cheap, and will help you to easily meet your recommended daily allowance of protein. There’s really no need to reach for options like lunch meats or sugary yogurts that may be high in protein, but also pack a wallop of sugars, artificial preservatives, flavoring, and saturated fat. Protein is best enjoyed just as Mother Nature made it—no doctoring up, processing, or flavoring needed.
Final Thoughts On Whole Food Protein Filled Diets
When it comes to protein and your optimal nutrition, remember to reach for options with the least processing and closest to their original form. Eat a wide variety of these whole foods, include options like nuts, milk, legumes, and whole grains to your diet, whether you enjoy these plain, in savory or sweet dishes, or in bar form. Your body and health will thank you.
Up to 17g of Whole Food Protein?
Yup, that’s Perfect Bar! With flavors like Dark Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter, Chocolate Walnut Brownie, Almond Butter, and Coconut Peanut Butter, it’s hard not to find something you’ll love. We rely only on whole food sources of protein — no whey, soy or isolates! So start filling up on the goods, and add some Perfect Bar to your routine.