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Healthy Eating

Simple Food, Complex Nutrients

Which (protein) food is the best? It depends…

It’s easy to refer to foods by their main macronutrient – you know, carbohydrate, protein, or fat. But it’s way too simplistic to do so because it neglects the complex nutrient matrix in each food.

So you want to know which one is the “best”? What if I told you that the “best” depends on what else you ate that day/week? If you keep eating the same food with the same nutrient profile, that’s not the “best” you can do in terms of nutrient variety.

You know how each superhero has a particular set of skills? It’s like that but in vitamin and mineral (nutrient) form. In choosing superheroes (food), you are actually getting an entire group of Avengers, knowing each one of them offers something unique and important. Would you want Batman to show up if you really needed Wonder Woman? No. See what I mean? 😉 (…and yes, I know, neither of them are Avengers – they are an entirely different set of superheroes. Superheroes and food are complex!)

This is why the phrase “super food” is kind of super silly. One food on its own isn’t really going to save anyone. What each food WILL do that IS super is contribute nutrients, that, when paired with other foods containing other nutrients, you get more of what you need to support your health and activities (both mental and physical).

Let’s take protein foods, for example. A food that has protein pretty much never provides “just” protein. It has nutrients like zinc, iron, and so forth.

I made this chart below using the protein group in MyPlate for inspiration. Note that actual amounts vary within each choice (check out the links provided at the end of this for more detail). Also, this doesn’t cover EVERY micronutrient, but you’ll get the point:

chart of some micronutrients found in protein foods
Amounts within each category vary depending on factors such as type and portion. This is a simplified example of some (not all) nutrients found in these foods, and some specific examples may not be represented here in this food group point of view.

We also get different amino acids (in type and amount) by our selection. I set out to make a chart of amino acids by food, but it got unwieldy and a bit distracting. Plus, you can check out charts from FAO if you want to get super focused on amino acid profiles.

There are also other factors to consider when it comes to eating and obtaining nutrients, such as bioavailability (how much can be absorbed and used), biological value (amino acid profile and our body’s needs), and a “zillion” other things, including weather/drought, soil, and other details beyond what we actually see on our plate that impact our food.

So what to do? Here are your easy – but impactful – action steps to gain the benefit of a variety of foods and the nutrients they provide:

  1. Eat different things on different days and at different meals.
  2. Consider your entire week versus nitpicking one meal or snack (it’s the collective accumulation of nutrition that really matters).
  3. Eat a rainbow of colors in fruits, veggies, and grains in addition to varying your protein routine. Each color – you guessed it – offers a different package of helpful components for our health.
  4. Enjoy all the wonderful foods that provide nutrients, flavor, and support of our health and well-being.
  5. Allow room for the other things food represents – cultural relevance, a show of caring/support, and whatever else it means to you. Memories of a loved one known for a special recipe, Moments of togetherness at a celebration with a certain menu…
  6. Connect with a true expert (farmer, dietitian, environmental scientist, etc.) on questions you have about things you read that may seem off, confusing, or incomplete.
  7. Evolve your thinking and your communication as science evolves. We humans don’t know everything, and sometimes what we know and do changes as we learn more. Remember when there were no computers? No social media? Yep. We learn more, we get more choices, things replace other things. Knowledge really is power if you activate it.
  8. Communicate clearly. If you are the trained expert, talk in ways that make sense to those outside your field. If you are the audience, be bold and ask questions if the expert is not including the details you need to learn what they know.
  9. Be open. What might strike you as odd may not be odd at all. Getting familiar with things that we don’t know is one of the joys of life. We can’t be experts in everything. We can be inquisitive about anything.

And that, my friends, is the simple complexity of it.

What will you eat this week to complement what you had last week?

Resources/References:

American Society for Nutrition (ASN). Protein Complementation.

Gorissen, S., Crombag, J., Senden, J., Waterval, W., Bierau, J., Verdijk, L. B., & van Loon, L. (2018). Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolatesAmino acids50(12), 1685–1695. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-018-2640-5

Joint WHO/FAO/UNU Expert Consultation. Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. World Health Organ Tech Rep Ser. 2007;(935):1-265, back cover. PMID: 18330140.

Khazaei, H., Subedi, M., Nickerson, M., Martínez-Villaluenga, C., Frias, J., & Vandenberg, A. (2019). Seed Protein of Lentils: Current Status, Progress, and Food ApplicationsFoods (Basel, Switzerland)8(9), 391. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods8090391

MedlinePlus. Amino Acids.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). Choline.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). Iron.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). Thiamin.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). Zinc.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Agricultural Research Service. National Agricultural Library. Protein Abridged List.

USDA. Vitamin B6.

USDA. Vitamin B12.

USDA. Vitamin E.

USDA. Fiber.

USDA. Magnesium.

USDA. Niacin.

USDA. Omega-3.

USDA. Riboflavin.

By Kim Kirchherr

Global food and nutrition professional focused on health from the farm to the store to the table