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Protein 101

October 27, 2016

This month I want to shed some light on protein.  It’s one of the macronutrients that keeps us alive and healthy!  We need it for many functions - immune system, metabolism, enzyme activity, structural uses, motor and coordination and many more.  It’s essential to life!  Protein is made of peptides, which in turn are made of amino acids. There are primarily 20 different amino acids that make up different types of protein in the body. 

Lately, there’s been a wide spread divide on the pros and cons of protein; partly education, partly cultural.  Expats primarily think protein is a good thing; whereas, locals frown upon it.  For years and years, starting with the Atkins diet and now Paleo diet, there are people that truly believe in a high protein diet.  (I even wrote a term paper on the paleo diet, way back when, in naturopathic school).  On the contrary, there are people that believe protein is bad for you; damages your kidneys, your liver and that it’ll clog your organs, cause heart disease and even increase cholesterol.   

I’ve always been and advocate of a well balanced, whole foods diet and I’m not saying either or, is right or wrong.  Every individual responds differently than others, taking into account genetics, lifestyle, eating habits, exercise, etc.  First and foremost, it is about quality over quantity!  It is important to source high quality protein.  Second, its about % ratios with respect to fruits & vegetables, fats, and carbohydrates.  Yes, you’ll also need carbohydrates!  If you don’t have carbohydrates, there’s a certain % of protein that will not get absorbed.  Plus your brain is fuelled by carbs.  Low carbs are fine, but zero carbs is bad!   

We won’t get into the details of how protein works in the body, but rather a brief introduction to what are the sources of protein!  There are two categories of protein really; protein that comes from animals which makes up our primary diet, unless you’re vegetarian or vegan.  Protein can be sourced from animal “byproducts” like dairy and eggs.  And, plant based proteins from beans, nuts, legumes, and seeds.   

Different types of protein:
Meat - most people eat meat in some form of chicken, pork, beef, lamb, etc. to get their source of protein.  The “quality” issue comes into play on the way the meat is raised.  Questions arise when we discuss: the food they feed the animals with; if there are any hormones injected; and any drugs that are given to keep the animals ‘healthy’.  There is the discussion of keeping the animals in warehouses and in pens or if they are free to roam the countryside, which is better or its negligible.  There is the debate on the humanity of how we raise our food and the sustainability which we won’t discuss in this article.  But it is a cause for concern, in my opinion, that how we raise our animals is a direct correlation of how our food is affecting our health and well-being.   

Dairy - there is plenty of debate on the health benefits of dairy.  Dairy does have its place in our nutrition.  It’s not for everybody!  Dairy is primarily in milk, cheese, yogurt…and whey protein.  More and more research data is concluding that dairy is not good for us.  Although, some cultures in the world live primarily on dairy and they seem to be healthy.  What I question and believe that it is the drug companies and the amount of drugs and hormones that they pump into these cows to fatten them up and to produce more and more milk that is so unnatural that is causing our health problems.  Lactose intolerance for some people might be a silver lining, in preventing us from over consuming the amount of dairy we’re so accustomed to.   

Whey - this is a byproduct that comes from milk that the sports nutrition world consumes a lot of.  I put this in a category of its own cause whey almost has its own industry in nutrition, primarily as a supplement for exercise.  Whey is an alternate source of quick and easy protein that is designed originally for exercise and training, but now with people’s schedules, it’s becoming a food group.  Some vegetarians take whey cause they don’t get enough protein from other sources or doesn’t have time to eat enough plant based protein.  Whey over the years have gotten the short end of the stick and people think it is bad for you and hurts your kidneys and liver.  I actually don’t believe that and there are no studies that I’ve seen so far that states whey is correlated with kidney or liver failure.  However, there are certain brands of whey protein that do add all these “other nutrients” in their formula to stimulate muscle growth or hormone manipulation, which I think is bad news.  Nowadays, you can get hormone free, antibiotic free, even grass fed, organic whey protein vs. 10 years ago.   

Beans, Legumes, Nuts & Seeds - Plant based proteins have always been underrepresented as a good source of protein, but the proteins from plants are easier assimilated and in my opinion more healthy than their animal counterparts.  You do have to eat more of it to get the same amount, but it is a cleaner protein and it comes with fibre, minerals, even vitamins if eaten raw.  Plant based protein powders were almost non-existent 15 years ago, but now there are a wide variety of different plant based proteins.  There use to be only soy protein, but now there’s brown rice, hemp, pea, chia, quinoa, millet, amaranth, etc.   

Eggs - whomever said eggs were bad, I don’t know what that’s all about.  Yes, the cholesterol debate about the yolks.  If it’s hardboiled or solid, the cholesterol tends to be the bad form; whereas, if it’s runny, the cholesterol is actually the good kind!  Eat more eggs in the right way!   

After we find good sources of protein, make sure you eat the right amount.  Everyone will be different, in terms of how much protein to consume per day.  You have to also account for your lifestyle, genes, activity level like if you exercise or not, also water consumption is important.  I do recommend drinking more water, if you do decide to eat more protein that you’re use to.  Moreover, I’ve always been an advocate of a higher fruits and vegetable % of your daily intake and a protein percentage around 30-35%.  The rest would be in good fats and carbohydrates.   

Protein is an integral part of our diets.  I think the more we talk about nutrition and protein sourcing, we realize the connection we have with agriculture and the “knowing” of where our food comes from; what has it been done to it; how was it treated?  Even if you’re plant based, it’ll be questions of non-GMO, organic, sprouted, fermented?  It was once said “you are what you eat!”   

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