Protein, part I

Nutrition Stripped


Ever since introducing the Basics series on Nutrition Stripped, you’ve all been going wild about it, which is completely awesome. I love that you all are hungry for knowledge when it comes to nutrition and learning the basics of micro and macronutrients amongst others. Protein is an all too popular topic, especially when you’re living plant-centric lifestyle which many of my recipes and what I promote here is about. Today, I’m not talking about vegan, nor paleo, I’m strictly educating you on what protein is, where it comes from, best sources, all wrapped up into an easy to read guide to keep bookmarked for future use.

It all starts with amino acids.

Protein actually isn’t protein unless we first learn what amino acids are, the literal building blocks of protein. You may hear about amino acids or hear the term aminos in relation to their type or how “essential” they are. There are technically three groups of amino acids, non-essential meaning that our bodies have a supply of them or we have the ability to make them on our own (pretty cool), essential amino acids meaning we must gather these from the foods we eat, or conditional meaning these amino acids are not essential unless during times of severe stress or trauma (think of a surgery, medical illness, etc.).

Why does it matter to know about essential amino acids? Well, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you should know and sorry I’m singling ya’ll out, but you’re in the group who should be the most mindful. Given that we now know amino acids are the building blocks of protein and that all life forms need protein in order to live, build, grow, etc.; we know that having enough variety of all amino acids is important. Before we get into the sources of protein, here’s a list of all the amino acids:

Non-essential amino acids

1) alanine, 2) asparagine, 3) aspartic acid, 4) glutamic acid

Essential amino acids

1) histidine, 2) isoleucine, 3) leucine, 4) lysine, 5) methionine, 6) phenylalanine, 7) threonine, 8) tryptophan, 9) valine

Conditional amino acids

1) arginine, 2) cysteine, 3) glutamine, 4) glycine, 5) ornithine, 6) proline, 7) serine, 8)tyrosine

True or false…

You need to consume all amino acids at each meal to make a complete protein?

False. This has got to be one of the biggest myths I read time and time again, even by nutrition professionals! You do not, I repeat, you do not need to consume all amino acids at each meal to make up a “complete” protein. Remember to give our bodies some props here- our bodies are incredibly resourceful and we naturally have a “pool” of amino acids in supply to use for when a meal might be a little low in one amino acid or the other. The key is to consume a wide variety of amino acids every single day! This will make sure your body has enough to make up for those times where you might be lacking- definitely something to share.


Protein part 1 Nutrition StrippedHere’s a little bit more science if you’re interested. Just like we talked about in Carbohydrates, part I and part II, proteins have different molecular structures. Proteins can be found as primary, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary structures all of which have different bonds, groupings, and ultimately structures, and remember amino acids are what build these! Primary structures are simply a linear amino acid sequence, secondary is a regular substructure containing alpha-helix and beta-strand, tertiary structure is a 3 dimensional structure, and quaternary is the largest and most complex structure. Okay mini science lesson is over, but here’s a little picture depicting proteins!

…but what does protein do?

Protein plays a HUGE role in the body, as do carbohydrates and good fats, but protein is probably one of my favorites to talk about. It’s involved in digestive health, rebuilding tissue and muscle, energy, hormonal production (ex. growth hormone), immune health as antibodies, enzymes (ex. phenylalanine hydroxylase), structure, and storage/transportation of other molecules (ex. ferritin). Protein is part of every single cell in our body. Let’s just soak that in for a minute…

If protein is involved in every cell in our body, now you can understand the importance of eating enough, but also eating the best quality and most bioavailable forms if possible. Let’s put this into perspective, every cell in your body including the cells that make up your gorgeous skin, thick hair, strong nails, lean muscle and tone, healthy digestive tract, and so much more. Now you can see not only the structural importance, but also how it may manifest physically (since that’s the easiest for most of us to notice). Protein comes from many food sources all of which have different levels of bioavailability- simply put our bodies digest and absorb some proteins a little better or worse than others. The higher bioavailability and absorption, the better (an egg is often used as the golden standard of the “perfect” protein). There are many ways to measure how protein is digested and utilized in our bodies such as Biological Value (BV), Protein Efficiency Value (PEV), Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCCA), and Bioavailability Score. For most of us, I don’t think these need to be on your radar, but know they’re out there. The main point is that different food sources of protein result in different absorption. As you can guess, animal proteins such as eggs, beef, chicken, fish contain high amounts of protein and are also more bioavailable; but this doesn’t mean you can only achieve high protein bioavailability with these foods.

Food sources of protein


  • Those coming from animals: wild caught fish, grass-fed beef, wild game, fresh eggs, etc.


CLICK the illustration below to pin it for later AND download it for free by clicking the image.


Knowing how protein is digested is important as well, you can see that the structure of animal proteins and vegetable/plant based proteins are very different. Some digest animal proteins with ease and their bodies “do” very well on them whereas others may suffer from constipation, bloating, or sluggish digestion which most likely means their body doesn’t have the digestive capacity or strength to break that food down. It could also result from lower than normal HCL levels in the stomach, HCL (hydrochloric acid) is a natural part of digestion in the stomach and is the first enzyme to break down food in the gut.

Of course we know the first place digestion takes place is the mouth, but when we’re talking about protein it’s mainly focused in the stomach and gut. The stomach releases gastric juice which helps breakdown the food/protein for our example, into chyme which is just a word for food + gastric juices. Our gastric juice has important components for protein breakdown including pepsinogen which is converted to pepsin, which digests protein. HCL converts pepsinogen into pepsin, which breaks down the proteins into peptides and also keeps our stomach pH in the normal range of 2- dissolving food and killing harmful microorganisms, hence the importance of HCL. I could talk at length about HCL and digestion, but for the sake of knowing it’s role in protein, we’re set. Little note, if you think you have low HCL, it’s nothing to self-diagnose- go see your physician. Cris Kessler loves talking about digestion and HCL, read up on some of his resources if you’re interested.

There are a couple foods that help digest and break down protein by their enzymes: pineapple, papaya, apple cider vinegar. Both pineapple and papaya contain bromelain which is an enzyme that helps our digestion when breaking down protein, the apple cider vinegar is great to add acidity to breakdown proteins as well. I’ll be sharing much more detail about this in entire post on digestion soon!

Part II will cover more detail on food sources, portion sizes, how much protein do you need, optimal times to eat protein, and more of your questions answered. What other questions do you all have around protein? Are there topics you’d like to see covered or mentioned about protein in part II. Comment below and share.

I have a hunch you’ll also enjoy these posts as well…

xx McKel

Share your thoughts

  • Annie

    Very interesting! As a new trying-to-go-vegan this a great source of informations on proteins. Looking forward to read part 2!

  • So many have been written about healthy protein sources, and maybe one could get easily confused with all the information available online. Your article is so friendly structured and it’s a great guide for anyone wishing to start eating healthier. I would also add that some of the plant based protein (legumes for instance) do not have all the nine essential amino-acids and should be eaten with veggies and greens for the protein synthesis to be complete. Can’t wait to read part II! 🙂

    • Thank you for your kind words! Remember, I noted this in the blog post, you do not have to eat an “incomplete” protein with another “incomplete” protein to become “complete”! It’s all about the total amino acids taken in during the course of a day or week, etc. 😉

  • Sara

    Thank you for another great guide, McKel!
    Do you think that eating eggs everyday is wrong? If so, how many per week would you recommend?
    And another question… Do you thing lysine is important for preventing cold sores?

  • Lucy

    I cannot WAIT for part two. Does this make me a loser??! Your website, posts and recipes are helping me through a tough recovery process. Thank you ever so much.

  • Catherine

    Last year I ended up on hospital with a viral infection of my liver. I had a number of weeks off work. I felt like eating very few foods and so started searching online and discovered your website. Having now changed my diet radically and cooked many of your recipes, I just wanted to say thank you. I now feel and look very healthy – many people at work ask what I have done and they are amazed to discover that it was as simple as thinking about what you eat.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story, I’m glad that I can help through this blog! xx M

  • Rebeca

    I appreciate so much that you take the time to put these together for your readers! So much great information that I feel like taking notes! I’ll keep my eyes peeled for part II.

  • McKel these posts are amazing! As a fellow nutritionist i love that you are going back to basics and giving people such amazing tools. You are awesome! xo

  • Karla

    Thank you for this convenient guide and the information about protein. I look forward to your posts, and have especially enjoyed the ones from the past couple of weeks. I have a question about the quantity listed for hemp seeds, did you mean 1 ounce instead of 1 cup? Also, I am assuming the oatmeal quantity is meant to be 1/2 not 12, because as much as I love oatmeal that’s a lot of it, lol.

  • McKel – These posts are top-notch. So appreciate your dedication to creating these great resources. Looking forward to the digestion one too!

    As far as questions, I’m curious if there’s any legitimacy to theories on food combining, especially with regard to proteins. Some specifically state that combining animal proteins with grains is bad news (ie: no eggs and toast, etc). Is there any science to that, or just individual opinions on digestibility?

    • This is one of the most requested questions out there, I’ll be addressing that in the digestion, part II most likely! xx M

  • McKel, this is an awesome post! I love what you are doing and how you are providing the FACTS for all your followers! I’m a dietetics student at Saint Louis University and you are such an inspiration! Keep up the awesome work!

  • Lynn Gruss

    Thanks for passing on some great information, I appreciate you taking time to simplify the science behind our food. I am just wondering how much protein do we need in an average day?

  • Patti

    Hi McKel,
    Thank you so much for your comprehensive and lay person friendly post on protein. It was informative and very interesting to read. I have come across conflicting sources of information regarding how quickly you need to consume all the necessary amino acids before a plant based protein becomes “complete”. Some sources contend that you must consume all of the “partial” protein components you need to make up a “complete” protein within a twenty-four hour period. Others have suggested that the partial protein components will “hang around and wait” for their completion counterparts for as long as it takes to render the protein source complete and thus bioavailable to the body. These differing perspectives have significant implications for those of us that rely soley on plant based protein to meet our nutritional needs. For example, I am unclear as to whether I need to eat corn and rice within a twenty-four hour period in order to complete my protein source or, alternatively, whether the amino acids contained within these foods will “hang around” until all the necessary protein component completion requirements have been fulfilled. I am wondering if you have heard these two somewhat differing perspectives, and would love to hear your comments regarding this important issue.

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! I stand by my recommendation, I was strict vegan for 3 years and did it well and safely without having to “pair” rice/corn, etc. at each meal or even in a day. Be sure to take a step back and look at the bigger picture- quality of food sources, digestion, eating enough, etc. If you want more detail on your question, please set up a consult! 🙂

  • LB

    Hi, I love your site – it will change my life. I do have a little question! Have you ever written an article or given info on a particular hummm health problem and what to eat … in my case, I have a colite(french)/in English I think it’s colitus – gut problem). I’ve a bit of a problem with raw … and that brings me to say, I like quinoa and other grains/nuts even raw, and sauerkrout kimchi etc… but they seems to hurt me LOL! do you have a suggestion beside eating potage all the time or too cooked veggies … even almond powder sometimes hurts – and my worst ennemy is constipation (really bad), of course the solution of my doctor is to take medications (that I don’t want to take). Fibers can hurt me! besides that I’m healthy and happy person. Hope to discover and be able to encourage you in the near futur. I’ve also shared your site with my many friends. Take care and Merci encore pour votre aide très précieuse. Lucie

    • I hope you try this one out and enjoy it! It’s full of probiotics that help gut function, although I can’t recommend or comment for your individual digestive issues without knowing far more about you- but in general this is a great condiment and food to add into anyones diet for extra probiotics

  • Laura

    Love this McKel, very inclusive and comprehensive!
    Love all that you’re doing, keep going! xx

  • Jade

    Coming from a biological background, I see a lot of misconceptions. I am happy that you cleared out the idea of eating all the amino acids at one meal 🙂 Also, some people think that it is good to eat raw food for the enzymes it contains. The truth is that the body makes all of the enzymes it needs. It makes no difference if you eat enzymes, they are just broken down like any other food you eat. Lovely post by the way!

  • Zarah

    I LOVE Nutrition Stripped!!!! Every article is amazing! Thank you.

    You touch a bit on the energies of apple cider vinegar as it relates to HcL levels. I was wondering how you feel about ACV as a whole? I have read that ACV is a natural miracle worker, I. That it helps the body run more efficiently. Also, that drinking an ounce in the morning before eating is one of the best things you can do to assist and cleans your innards. Curious as to your thought? Thank you in advance for any info you can provide!

    Warmest Wishes.

    • Thank you so much for all the love and support! I love raw ACV, yet I hesitate to call anything a miracle worker, but it is fantastic to incorporate into your diet 😉 xx

  • Megan

    I am absolutely in love with this website. As an aspiring Dietitian with a new-found passion for fitness and wellness, this site makes learning even the basics of nutrition easy and interesting to learn about. I will continue to use this site for both information and inspiration!

  • Isabelle

    Hi Hill Mckell,

    Great artivce, thanks for sharing!! You are such an amazing writer, an explaining always everything so simple, clear and good!! Thank you!!

    Today I made my debut as someone heading to a plant based diet. To make my story short, I went to look for some “homemade protein powder recipes” on the internet and came across one. The blog “The First Mess. She too mentions spirulina, but also chlorella.

    So now the question. What is so different from those two algaes? One is green the other blue-green. I have done some research myself but still don’t know what’s the best chose is for me. I am a triathlete so I do need more protein than the average person. Can you give me a little help, please?

    Thank you so much!! You really inspire me!! Keep up the amazing work!!


    • You’re very welcome! YES great question- I love both spirulina and chlorella both have similar properties. If you check out my 10 plant based proteins you should be eating blog post, you’ll see an entire list there as well! I’ll answer this question more in depth for part II!

  • Laura

    Thank you for this article. I appreciate the inclusion of the scientific facts. I am a distance running trying to convert to a plant-based diet and am worried about consuming enough protein, particularly when training for a marathon. I am looking forward to reading Part II soon. I’ll be trying some of your recipes for the first time today!


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