For most of us, protein is the one macronutrient we actually struggle to get enough of. At least 30% of our daily caloric intake should come from protein.
And it's not always easy.
Even those of us who are fairly nutritionally aware or educated are often unknowingly consuming foods that we think are proteins, but which are actually fat or carb by nutritional composition. This mistake happens more often than you might think -- just check out the list below... I bet there's at least one food in there you thought was a protein that technically isn't!
If we happen to be relying on several foods we think are protein but aren't, we may not be getting the protein we need, and/or we may be getting more carb/fat than we intend.
TRUE PROTEINS VS. "PSEUDO" PROTEINS
A "true" protein food derives the majority of its caloric energy from protein. It may also get some caloric energy from carbs and/or fat, but the bulk of its calories come from protein. True proteins include all varieties of meats, fish, poultry, pork, seafood, cottage cheese + some plain greek yogurts.
A "pseudo" protein is a food commonly mistaken as a protein, but which does not actually derive the majority of its caloric energy from protein. Rather, "pseudo" proteins get their caloric energy primarily from carb and/or fat, and are not "true" proteins.
12 Common "Pseudo" Proteins
Here's a look at 12 foods that are commonly mistaken for proteins:
Beans gotta be the most misunderstood food on the planet. They're not a "magical fruit," they're not a veggie + they're not a protein.
Beans are actually a.... carb.
The energy profile of plain beans falls around:
Lentils usually have more protein than beans, but not enough to be counted as a true protein.
Lentils are actually a.... carb.
The energy profile of plain lentils falls around:
It's smooth, creamy + delicious. Not so much tough, chewy or meaty. That's because...
Hummus is actually a.... fat.
The energy profile of plain hummus falls around:
If you're thinking it's too sweet to be meat, you're right.
Corn is actually a.... carb.
The energy profile of plain corn falls around:
Sorry to break this terrible news, friends. While cuts of bacon may differ in their meat/fat ratio...
Bacon is actually a... fat.
Some argue that if you bake bacon extra crispy, it renders out more fat and thus increases the protein percentage. This could make it a near tie between fat and protein.
The energy profile of thick-cut, uncured bacon falls around:
6. TOFU (SOY)
It's such an odd + controversial food already...
Tofu is actually a ... fat.
The energy profile of unflavored, plain, firm tofu falls around:
There's a lot of pea protein propaganda. But...
Peas are actually a... carb.
The energy profile of plain snow peas falls around:
8. NUTS / SEEDS
Sorry, this one is bound to drive you nuts...
Nuts + seeds are actually a... fat.
The energy profile of nuts/seeds falls around:
Cashews - 71% F, 18% C, 11% Protein
Almonds - 84% Fat, 13% Protein, 3% Carb
Peanuts - 73% Fat, 17% Protein, 11% Carb
Pumpkin Seeds - 74% F, 15% Prot, 11% Carb
9. NUT / SEED BUTTERS
You knew it was too good to be true (protein).
Nut butters are actually a... fat.
The energy profile of nut/seed butter is around:
Plain Peanut Butter - 71% F, 16% Pro, 14% C
Sunflower Seed Butter - 72% F, 14% C, 14% P
Plain Almond Butter - 73% F, 14% Pro, 12% C
I know, I know, another bummer...
Cheese is actually a... fat.
The energy profile of cheese falls around:
Sharp Cheddar - 74% F, 26% Protein, 0% C
Blue Cheese - 72% Fat, 24% Protein, 4% C
Gouda - 75% Fat, 25% Protein, 0% Carb
12. WHOLE EGGS
A shocking + tragic truth!
(But there's hope, below, keep reading!)
Eggs are actually a.... fat.
The energy profile of eggs falls around:
Some (but very few) yogurts are true proteins.
Most yogurts are actually a... fat or carb.
The energy profile of yogurts varies widely:
Activa vanilla probiotic -70% C, 16% F, 14% P
Brown Cow plain - 51% F, 29% C, 20% Prot
Plain whole milk - 47% F, 30% C, 22% Prot
Chobani 100 calorie - 56% C, 44% Pro, 0% F
Oikos Dannon vanilla - 50% C, 50% P, 0% F
Fage 2% plain greek - 54% P, 24% F, 21% C
So, How Should We Handle "Pseudo" Proteins?
Many "pseudo" proteins are whole, healthy foods. So do we really need to avoid them? Or just reclassify how we think about them?
Well, if we're relying on too many "pseudo" proteins there's a good chance we're not getting enough actual protein -- especially if the "pseudo" proteins have become staples at each meal that take the proper place of "true proteins -- and this may be preventing us from being whole, healthy people.
When we're continually deficient in protein, it's likely we're not getting enough of the essential amino acids (or related vitamins, minerals or co-factors) that our brains + bodies need to function optimally. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins; they are the powerful pieces of protein that are directly credited in the healing, repair, and restabilization of the brain + body. Higher intake of true proteins yields higher intake of amino acids -- not to mention a lower intake of carbs and/or fat -- which promotes weight reduction, increased metabolism, proper brain + neurotransmitter function, balanced moods, proper nervous system activity, healthy hormone production + balance, increased thyroid activity, restful REM sleep, heightened immune system function, natural preservation of muscle tone, thickened hair/skin/nail growth + so much more.
BUT WAIT! Don't Give Up on Them... Entirely
I encourage us to avoid using any "pseudo" protein food in lieu of a "true" protein if it's energy profile reveals that it's comprised of less than 33% protein. Count these foods, which are less than 1/3 protein, for what they really are -- carb and/or fat.
For the "pseudo" foods that are at least 33% protein, we might consume these foods in lieu of a "true" protein up to 1 meal/day. In other words, eggs, bacon, or a high-protein plain greek yogurt may be an ok substitute for our "true" protein at one meal -- especially if we are diligently consuming "true" proteins at the rest of our meals/snacks.
Limiting our intake of "pseudo" proteins will help us attain that 30%+ daily protein intake marker and will also point us in the right direction for achieving our health goals.
A Note on Soy / Tofu:
Despite the wide availability of tofu + soy-based "protein" products, most aren't very healthy or natural (not to mention "pseudo" proteins). Tofu + soy are usually highly GMO-ed and highly processed. Tofu and soy foods often contain a number of undesirable additives/fillers. Soy is also suspected to have an estrogenic effect on the body. If we choose to consume soy/tofu, it would be best to seek out organic, plain, properly fermented forms, and to limit this option (like those above) to up to 1 "true" protein substitute a day.