Nutrition 101. Proteins

Why read about Proteins? Because food molecules such as Proteins, Lipids/Fats and Carbohydrates sustain life.

They maintain structure and vital functions for our bodies, and provide us with energy to live. Therefore, Proteins are known as essential nutrients. We must consume them in order to live and live well.

Before I explain the kinds of Protein and how much we need in our food, let’s first look at some fundamental facts about Proteins:

  • They provide building blocks for our bodies to grow and repair all organs and tissues;
  • They are critical for function of Immune System, that protects us against bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, etc.;
  • They participate in the production of enzymes and hormones, which, in turn, govern a multitude of daily processes in our bodies;
  • They control water balance by holding  fluids;
  • They keep blood from becoming too acidic or basic/alkaline;
  • They supply energy at 4 kcals for each gram of Protein we eat.

Considering all these critical functions, Proteins must be replenished daily and make up 10% to 20% of the daily diet.

What exactly is a Protein? It is a complex molecule that is made of smaller units (building blocks) called amino acids, which are grouped together to offer endless variations of Proteins. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids. Eleven of these 20 amino acids are non-essential, meaning they can be made by our body and do not have to be consumed by eating the right food. Nine of the 20 amino acids, on the other hand, are essential because they cannot be manufactured by the body and must come from food.

It is crucial to understand that if one or more essential amino acids are not consumed, the body’s need to produce a Protein requiring  that essential amino acid  will not just slow down and wait for you to eat the right Protein. Instead, assembly of the Protein will STOP, and the body’s need for a certain kind of Protein will not be met.  That is not a good thing. In other words, any of the critical functions mentioned above can be compromised.

So, the question becomes: How can you know if you are getting all the essential amino acids that you need?

First, it is important to understand that the food that is the source of Proteins can be divided into two categories:

  • A source of Complete Proteins will contain all the essential amino acids. Animal-derived Proteins are always complete,  such as in fish, eggs, milk, cheese and the like;
  • A source of Incomplete Proteins does not contain all the essential amino acids. Plant sources of Proteins are mostly incomplete. Soy and quinoa are notable plant exceptions, and those provide all essential amino acids.

With this said, if you prefer plants as a source of Proteins (and it is definitely advisable that you eat large amounts of plant-based food) certain combinations will provide you with complete Proteins. Examples are rice and beans or peanut butter and toast. While separately those foods do not contain all the essential amino acids, together, they do. If you have ever wondered why these particular “food duos” are so popular, now you know!

So, to follow the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ direction that we must eat complete Proteins every day to function well, you probably want to know how much we need.

The current recommendation for adults is to consume approximately 0.4 g per pound of your ideal weight per day. Endurance and power athletes, persons recovering from injury, or growing children need around 1 g/pound or more. Here are couple examples:

A 250 lb. adult needs approximately 100 g of Protein/day
A 150 lb. adult needs approximately 60 g of Protein/day

Now let’s look at some examples of Protein rich foods to see how much Protein they can provide to us (numbers are approximate):

1 serving (100 g) of salmon or chicken, 1 can of tuna or sardines = 22 g

1 cup of soybeans = 22 g

1 15 oz. can of red kidney beans = 28 g

1 cup of cooked brown rice = 5 g

1 cup of quinoa = 10 g

1 slice of bread = 3-5 g

1 cup of 0% fat Greek yogurt  or 1 glass of 1% milk = 10-15 g

1 egg = 7 g

14 halves of walnuts = 4 g

22 whole almonds = 7 g

1 cup of cooked spinach or broccoli = 4-5 g

Of course, Protein amounts are printed on nutrition labels. Whole foods often do not come with nutrition facts, so please check this great link  and make a note of nutrient quantities in your favorite food.

In conclusion, if I can impress one thing upon you that reflects current nutritional guidance about Proteins, it is this: 

Everyone must consume a sufficient amount of complete Proteins every day!

Enjoy great food!

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Upcoming post: Fats. Now that’s exciting.










Nutrition 101. Phytonutrients (Phytochemicals)

Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, are biologically active compounds of plants (apart from vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats). Plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves, but these substances are also known to benefit human health in a multitude of ways. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas are rich sources of phytonutrients.

Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains may lead to a lower risk for certain types of cancer (by preventing the formation of potential carcinogens, blocking the action of carcinogens on their target organs or tissue, or by suppressing cancer development), prevent and treat some chronic diseases, improve serum lipid (cholesterol) profiles, control levels of blood glucose, reduce the risk of cardiovascular and eye diseases, counter obesity, as some examples.

Phytonutrients work multiple ways. Some have predominantly antioxidant activity (which means protecting our cells against the damaging effects of excessive free radicals*), others  moderate cell functions (such as cell division or cell death), still others have hormone-like actions or provide anti-microbial effects.

There are many phytonutrient classifications, which are confusing because of the complexity and variety of these components. In any publication on phytochemicals, following the direct name association within this family of thousands of members is not easy. To give you a general appreciation of the phytonutrient family, here is an adapted version of The Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University classification:

  • Carotenoids: Alpha-Carotene, Beta-Carotene, Beta-Cryptoxanthin (these chemicals can be converted by the body to retinol, form of vitamin A), Lycopene, Lutein, and Zeaxanthin.These richly colored molecules provide the yellow, orange, and red colors of many plants. These nutrients aid in human eye health, benefit in treatment and prevention of some types of cancer, and reduce the risk of developing inflammatory disorders.
  • Chlorophyll and Chlorophyllin. Chlorophyll is the pigment that gives plants their green color. Its usefulness in cancer treatment and wound-healing is presently being investigated.
  • Curcuminoids, primarily Curcumin are found in turmeric and shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
  • Flavonoids and Lignans: A large family of polyphenolic (meaning containing multiples of phenol structural units) chemicals. Biological effects of flavonoids appear to be related to their ability to control cell division and cell death, which is critical in cancer management.
  • Fiber: is a very diverse group of substances and complex carbohydrates, which cannot be digested by human enzymes in the small intestine. Lignin, Cellulose, Beta-Glucans, Pectins, Gums, Resistant starch, for example. They help lower cholesterol and control blood sugar levels, promote digestive health to name a few health benefits.
  • Garlic and Organosulfur compounds: Crushing or chopping garlic releases an enzyme called alliinase that causes the formation of the major biologically active component of garlic. According to epidemiological studies, garlic is beneficial to health. Clinical effect of garlic in heart diseases, some cancers, and the common cold is under evaluation.
  • Indole-3-Carbinol and Isothiocyanates: Found in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale, these are shown to have an anti – cancer effect.
  • Phytosterols: sterols and stanols: These are plant-derived complexes that are similar in structure and function to cholesterol and inhibit the intestinal absorption of cholesterol. They are naturally present in vegetable oils, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Resveratrol: found in grapes, red wine, purple grape juice, peanuts, and some berries. Current studies are assessing the role of resveratrol in coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases.
  • Soy Isoflavones: This is a class of phytoestrogens, plant-derived compounds with estrogenic activity. We are only just beginning to unravel the multifaceted effects of isoflavones on cancer.

Important considerations:

One must keep in mind that plant-based whole foods are complex mixtures of bioactive elements. Therefore, helpful information on the health effects of individual phytochemicals usually comes from information on the health effects of the whole foods that contain those phytochemicals. Attempts to study one component of the whole food separately from its complex source are complicated and the results are often confusing and can be misleading. This is one of the reasons why Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for phytonutrients are not defined as they are for Vitamins, Minerals, Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates.

Importantly, studies on individual phytochemical supplements did not show the same health benefits as whole food. There are many possible reasons for that:

  • The beneficial health effects of a diet high in vegetables and fruits or other phytonutrient – rich foods may be caused by differences in the chemical composition of nutrients in foods versus those in supplements.
  • Better health could be initiated or supported by other dietary factors present in the same foods or, indeed, the benefit could be prompted by additional lifestyle choices, geographical locations etc.
  • The effects of the large doses of compounds used in supplementation studies may not be equivalent to the effects of the smaller amounts of nutrients consumed in foods.
  • Combination of the several nutrients may be necessary to achieve beneficial effect.

It is not always clear which of the many compounds in vegetables and fruits have the greatest health value. Additionally, different vegetables and fruits are sources of different phytochemicals.

Bottom line: eating a variety of colorful produce every day will benefit your health in a multitude of ways.

Caution: Certain phytochemical supplements, especially when taken in large amounts, have side effects and, very importantly, can interact with some treatment drugs. If you decide to take phytochemicals in the form of a supplement when you are taking a treatment drug, be sure to talk to your doctor.


* Atom or group of atoms that has one or more unpaired electrons and therefore unstable. These radicals can be produced in the body by natural biological processes or introduced from outside (as in tobacco smoke, toxins, or pollutants), they can damage cells, proteins, DNA and lead to multiple diseases.

Nutrition 101. How do I know if I get enough nutrients?

There are many great organizations that claim that most healthy people can get all the nutrients they need by eating a variety of Nutrient-dense Colorful Food, unless a nutritional gap is found or the person is managing a medical condition, is pregnant, an older adult, immunodeficient, or undernourished, etc. In those situations, a doctor should advise that supplements should be taken.

American Heart Association Scientific Position: “We recommend that healthy people get adequate nutrients by eating a variety of foods in moderation, rather than by taking supplements. An exception for omega-3 fatty acid supplements is explained below  Read more

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that the best nutrition-based strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to wisely choose a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods. Additional nutrients from supplements can help some people meet their nutrition needs as specified by science-based nutrition standards such as the Dietary Reference Intakes.” Continue…

But, let’s say you are a healthy individual. How do you know if you get all nutrients you need from food sources?

Here are few great tools: The first one will help you get your personalized Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs); the others will let you check to determine if the food you normally consume has the nutrients your body requires.

Personalized DRI. Print and Post it somewhere for your reference (the refrigerator is always a great place).

Nutrient information on over 8,000 foods. Search or browse this list of foods and their nutrient content.

Or search for a particular nutrient in a wide variety of foods.

Nutrition 101. Minerals

Minerals are inorganic substances. They serve multiple key functions in all cells, tissues, and organs of the human body. To name a few, minerals provide structures to bones and other tissues, assist in contraction and relaxation of muscles, aid in the production and transport of energy, promote the production of protein, contribute to enzymes activity, play a crucial role in heart functioning and blood pressure maintenance, support the oxygen-carrying system and acid base balance, immune defense against bacteria and viruses and much, much more.

There are 7 major minerals that are crucial to our Health, with daily requirements of over 100 mg: Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, and Magnesium.

There are 14 trace minerals that we need in quantities of less than 100 mg/day: Iron, Selenium, Iodine, Chromium, Zinc, Fluoride, Copper, Manganese, Molybdenum, Boron, Silicon, Vanadium, Nickel, and Strontium.

As with vitamins, healthy people can get adequate amounts of Minerals simply by eating a variety of nutrient rich foods in moderation.  If mineral deficiency is suspected or predicted – as with some illnesses, during pregnancy, competitive sports, undernourishment and other conditions – please consult your doctor before taking supplements.  They may do you harm.

To check if you getting enough nutrients in your food please read my blog: “Nutrition 101. How do I know if I get enough nutrients?”

Nutrition 101. Vitamins

Vitamins are organic substances that our bodies need in small amounts to maintain optimal health.

In future posts we will explore comprehensive scientific data and the fascinating ups and downs of some vitamins as they fade in and out of the spotlight. But today, let’s tackle some fundamentals.

There are 13 classified vitamins: A, C, D, E, K, and the B group which includes Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Biotin (B7), Folate (B9), and Cyanocobalamin (B12). Only Vitamin D can be synthetized in our body, all others vitamins must be consumed.

The thirteen vitamins are divided into 2 main groups:

Water-soluble vitamins (C and B group) are easily absorbed by the body and are not stored in our body to any great extent (exception B12). If our diet contains less than 50% of the recommended daily amount, vitamin deficiency symptoms can begin to show within 4 weeks.

Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are dissolved and stored in our body’s adipose (fat) tissue. Toxic reactions can occur at fold-excesses of the recommended daily amounts.

For your consideration:

It is important to decide what your Vitamin Strategy will be and run it by your primary care physician.

You can get the vitamins you need by eating a variety of Nutrient-dense Colorful Food. If a nutritional gap is found or you are in a sensitive population category (managing a medical condition, pregnant, older adult, immunodeficient etc.) your doctor can advise you to take vitamin supplements.

If you choose to take vitamin supplements on your own, it is safer to go with multivitamins as they will get you closer to the recommended daily amount (RDA) for each individual vitamin. If you are taking separate vitamin supplements, then YOU need to do all the calculations to ensure you do not exceed the tolerable upper intake level. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) refers to the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects.(Note that RDA guidelines are developed for healthy individuals).

Do not chase headlines. Solid medical research takes time and the efforts of many. Choose reliable sources to educate yourself!

Know that too much of a good things can be toxic.

Nutrition 101. Water

There is no dispute that proper hydration is critical to our body functions. But what is proper hydration? Not enough water leads to dehydration – too much water leads to over-hydration or hyponatremia. Both conditions can be very dangerous. Eight 8-ounce glasses (2 liters) of fluid per day is a good guide, but will not work for everyone. We live in different climates, exercise at different rates, have different body weights and so on. There are many factors that impact our hydration. Thirst is a poor indicator of hydration as there is a time delay between getting dehydrated and experiencing thirst. So, how do you decide? If you are serious athlete – your coach and sport dietitian should guide you. But for many of us, a simple guide published on The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation website will do.

Web site suggests practical ways to monitor hydration:

  • Urine color. The color of the first morning’s urine after awakening is an indicator of hydration status. Think pale lemonade, not apple juice.
  • “Daily body weight: Daily monitoring of body weight is useful for measuring fluid balance because total body water does not fluctuate significatly under normal conditions.
  • Sweat loss. Change in body weight before and after exercise is useful to estimate sweat loss. Each pound of body weight lost after exersise amounts to 16 ounces of sweat, and to rehydrate, you need 16 to 24 ounces of fluid, according to Professor R.H. Anding. Director of Sports Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine.

If you know you are experiencing high sodium losses during exercise (think salty skin, white sweat marks on clothes), you will need to replace sodium loss with a salty snack in addition to replacing fluid.


Nutrition 101. Five key food groups

Let’s say you can only allocate one min for a nutrition related thought. OK. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) replaced MyPyramid with MyPlate. MyPlate is a simplified way to ensure that the five key food groups considered to be the building blocks for a healthy diet find a place on your plate.

Memorize this picture of the plate with its vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, dairy (1% fat or less, please). Note that Fruits and Vegetables take up half of the plate. At every meal, compare this mental image to your actual plate. Do you see all five?

For an extra parenting Gold Star: have your kid draw a plate with examples of each of the five food groups.