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The necessity of protein for survival scenarios is well known in the emergency preparedness community. In addition to keeping the structures of the body such as muscles, bones, skin and hair in a state of good repair, protein is necessary to keep organ function running and even maintain mental health through the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.
As we learned in our primer on Amino Acids and Proteins, your body is more concerned about having a complete selection of amino acids than any specific form of protein. Any source of protein, animal or vegetable, is ultimately reduced to a combination of the 20 proteinogenic amino acids.
Defining a complete protein
Of the 20 proteinogenic amino acids, 8 are considered essential because they must be taken in through dietary sources. A diet that doesn’t contain all eight essential amino acids is just as deficient as a diet that does not contain enough protein. Diseases of deficiency such as pellagra and kwashiorkor can develop in people who are eating ample amounts of protein on a gram for gram basis.
On the other hand, having a full complement of the eight essential amino acids means that the body’s needs for protein are covered. No diseases of deficiency will arise and all of the components necessary for making any protein within the body will be present.
Aren’t whole sources of protein better?
Whole sources of protein such as healthy meat, fish and dairy include a full complement of the eight essential amino acids as well as some other beneficial items, including vitamins and minerals. For example, red meat is an excellent source of iron.
Despite the fact that these other items are beneficial, it becomes a matter of “nice to have” vs. “essential to have”. None of the vitamins and minerals are found solely in protein. Returning to the iron example, nuts, squash, and leafy greens are all excellent sources as well. The only component required for survival that is unique to protein is the amino acids it contains.
While it is certainly nice to get vitamins and minerals from a variety of sources, it may be incredibly difficult to do so in an emergency situation from an availability, transport and storage perspective.
Amino Acid Uptake of easily stored proteins
The common adage of “beans, bullets and band-aids” refers to the need for protein in survival situations. However, there are significant issues with following this prescription literally. Beans have among the lowest Amino Acid Uptake rates of all proteins, with over 8 out of every 10 grams of protein digested as carbohydrate instead of usable amino acids. This is due to a less than optimal ratio of the essential amino acids and the body’s ability to digest vegetable protein.
Generally speaking, the most complete proteins from an essential amino acid proteins are animal proteins such as dairy, meat and eggs. These are also the quickest to spoil and most difficult to transport.
Has this been tested?
Use of essential amino acids as a total replacement for protein has been extensively tested. IV solutions containing amino acids are part of the standard protocol in emergency rooms around the world for bedridden patients who are unable to eat whole foods.
In addition, use of essential amino acid formulas specifically for protein replacement in mobile subjects has been tested for over a decade. One little known study tracked the health metrics of an athlete undertaking a 28 day, 14 mile a day unsupported desert tracking with essential amino acids completely replacing protein. At the end of the study, muscle mass, blood markers and markers of cardiovascular health had improved.