Protein… Definitely the most popular of the macronutrients! Fat has had its fair share of bad press, now it’s back to poor carbohydrates… But protein prevails. So, what is it about our devout obsession?
Let’s take a look…
What is protein? Protein is one of three of the macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and fat), and is made up of amino acids. Of the twenty amino acids found in protein, some can be made by the body, while it is essential we obtain others through diet i.e. essential amino acids.
What does it do? Amino acids are “the building blocks” for muscle tissue as well as required for the structure of bone, skin and hair. Proteins also support the creation of enzymes, hormones, vitamins and neurotransmitters all required for proper bodily function. (Note the words required and support, thus while extremely important, not the only nutrient we need!).
To understand nutrition, it helps to look at the origins of nutrients… All nutrients come from the sun (vitamin D) or the soil (everything else). For example, calcium in milk is only present due to the fact that the cow ate plants, which obtained calcium from the soil. The same goes for omega 3, iron, B12… the common nutrients under the firing squad when it comes to questioning the adequacy of the vegan diet.
Amino acids, are no exception. Just like humans, other animals don’t produce them either, they too obtain essential amino acids from their diet. Thus, all essential amino acids originate from plants and microbes.
As such, ALL plants have ALL essential amino acids, despite what you might commonly hear. The idea that they don’t was debunked by the scientific community decades ago, but for some reason, no one is talking about it. This notion that plant protein is inferior is based on studies conducted on rodents over a century ago, whereby baby rats didn’t grow as well eating plants. But rats have different requirements to us, because they actually grow 10 times faster! Reflecting this, their mothers milk has 10 times more protein in it than human mothers milk! Therefore, the two are incomparable.
The Protein Combining myth – the idea that vegans need to consume complementary sources of plant protein e.g. grains + beans, to obtain all essential amino acids. Whilst yes, some plant proteins are relatively low in certain essential amino acids, the body has the incredible ability of doing all the “complementing” for us – we have an efficient protein recycling program, whereby around 90g of protein is dumped into the digestive tract daily from our own body, broken down, reassembled and added to, effectively mixing and matching amino acids to the proportions we require. Amazing!
In fact, the very concept that protein combining was required was adamantly retracted by its propagator Frances Moore-Lappe in the edited edition of her book, Diet for a Small Planet, in which she wrote:
- “In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought… if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”
Other researchers have also cleared up this myth:
Thus we do not need to be at all concerned about amino acid imbalances when the dietary amino acid supply is from the plant-food proteins that make up our usual diets.
But how much protein do I need? The Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for adults is based on the amino acids needed to maintain body tissues and replace losses. Believe it or not, this can easily be met. The calculation is simple: your weight in kg, divided by 0.75g for adult females, and 0.84g for adult males.
E.g. a 60 kg woman, aged 19-69 years old, would require 60 x 0.75 = 45g of protein/daily.
Note: it really requires intensive training to require significantly more than this amount e.g. moderate-elite endurance athletes.
What does 45 grams of protein look like? To give you some perspective…
- 150g of fish or meat ranges from 30-40g protein;
- 1 cup of beans/legumes is approximately 18g protein;
- 1 cup quinoa is around 8g protein;
- ½ cup dry oats 6g protein;
- 1 handful almonds (28g) 6g protein;
- 1 cup of broccoli 4g protein.
Why I show you this variety is to point out how with just one serving of meat, the woman in our example above would almost hit her quota. Yet surely she is eating other things throughout her day? Hopefully she is eating at least 5 servings of vegetables, which could add up to approx 5-20g. Let’s not forget a piece of fruit or two, some oats for breakfast, maybe a handful of nuts and seeds on her lunch. And boom! We are now well and truly over. Yet most people are intent on consuming animal protein at every meal, whether it be eggs or protein powder for breakfast, tuna for lunch and chicken for dinner!
My point… The rice in your sushi. The spinach in your salad. The peas next to your main. The pumpkin seeds atop your oats. The oats themselves! It. all. adds. up.
Sufficient calories = sufficient protein.
But wait, so what if I well exceed my “quota”? What’s the harm of too much protein? So glad you asked! Because no one really does! Well, higher protein diets, especially those obtained through excessive meat consumption, are linked to chronic diseases such as kidney disease, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers, not to mention the other uncomfortable conditions often associated such as constipation, IBS, bad breath, acne, hormonal imbalance and other lifestyle impedances. The type of fat, excess protein, natural carcinogens, synthetic hormones and antibiotics, the natural hormones in the animal and of course, the absence of fibre in all animal products all play a part in these problems. What’s more, pathogenic bacteria in our bodies thrive on accumulated excess, unused proteins (“junk protein”). However when we give our bodies a break from protein or consume it moderately, our natural recycling process, autophagy, is allowed to operate smoothly, breaking down these accumulated “junk proteins” into usable amino acids. Autophagic dysfunction is associated with cancer, neurodegeneration, microbial infection and aging. High protein diets have also recently been found to have adverse effects on metabolic function, because protein consumption reduces the bodies sensitivity to insulin after a meal. A quick note on high-protein diets for weight-loss, this statement really sums it up – they offer quick weight loss (a large part of which is attributed to the diuretic effect due to low-carbohydrate intake), that has been found to be unsustainable and carries negative health consequences. There are very few long-term studies on the safety and effectiveness of such diets.
Interestingly, whilst there has been no established upper limit i.e. highest amount one can consume safely, the Australian Nutrition Reference Values recommends consuming no more than 25% protein as energy…
A quick calculation I did of a 60kg 25 year old woman: consuming a whey protein smoothie with banana, berries, spinach, a chicken wrap for lunch, and a salmon fillet with salad in the evening, equals a total of around 80g of protein. That is without me adding in snacks, and many vegetables at all! That is very close to double her required intake, and approximately 35% of her diet sourced from protein. Yet this is a common dietary pattern amongst both women and men trying to stay “lean” by choosing animal protein breakfast, lunch and dinner.
See how easy it is to meet and exceed your required intake?
And whilst, vegan diets are likely to be lower in protein compared to the intake of meat-eaters (to vegan’s benefit, as we established above), this is generally because those eating meat consume far more than actually required of them.
My hope with this article is this:
- Do not be afraid of not hitting your protein quota by following a plant-based diet;
- Do not assume vegans lack protein;
- Do not think of a vegan diet as lacking in nutrients;
- Reassess your protein intake, whichever diet you choose to follow.
Eat for health & longevity, always.