All around the world we tend to make an association between grains and legumes, for example : rice and lentils in India, corn and beans in South America, rice and soy beans in South East Asia… but why? The quite unexpected answer is protein.
Let’s start with a quick reminder of what a protein is : a protein is made of 10 to 600 amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. You need to eat food that can provide enough proteins to renew and replace the proteins and amino acids that your body uses to function on a daily basis.
Our body cannot store proteins and this part is actually very important. You need to eat a certain amount of protein everyday to stay healthy. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) recommends an intake of 0,57 grams of protein per day and per kilogram of body mass for men, and 0,52 grams for women. On average, we do eat more than this everyday. But there is a quality concern too. Your body is made of 20 amino acids, but only 8 of these 20 are what we call “essential”. This means that your body cannot stay healthy without you eating them regularly.
So how do you get these 8 essential amino acids ?
For meat eaters this is not a big issue as when you eat meat, fish or eggs you do get all the essential amino acids. But for all my fellow vegetarians and vegans, this is a tricky question that requires a bit of thinking. The issue with proteins from legumes and grains (the second main source of protein after meat and fish) is that they are lacking one of the 8 essential amino acids. However, they each lack different amino acids. When legumes and cereals are combined in the same dish, for example Khichdi, you do consume all the amino acids your body needs. They are complementary to each other. It’s a very good way for vegetarians and vegans to prevent protein deficiency. If you lack one of the essential amino acids, your body cannot produce proteins. This would lead to some serious health issues, such as weight loss, decreased muscle mass, changes in hair or skin,diarrhea, extreme fatigue and difficulty recovering from infections.
How did our ancestors know about these food combinations ?
It’s actually quite simple : the families who ate often this kind of dish were healthier. So they had more kids, and the tradition was passed on to more people. Even without knowing, you probably cook to answer your body’s needs, in terms of amino acids. To conclude it’s important to look at traditional eating not only as a cultural thing but also as a heritage from thousand of years of learning.