Why You Should Stop Worrying About Protein
One question that I have been hearing over and over again from people who are thinking or are making the switch to a whole food, plant-based diet is “where do I get protein?”. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’ve probably heard it once or twice (or a hundred thousand times). People have been convinced that meat is our main source of protein and the terms are often used interchangeably even by those who really should know better (like chefs or nutrition experts). But are they really the same? Here’s my answer.
Protein and Your Body
You cannot deny the importance of protein in the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids which help build our body’s cells and repair tissues. Its role in the body is the reason why athletes and weight lifters increase their protein intake – to help with tissue recovery after training. But while everybody needs protein, not everybody realizes that meat is far from the only source of this essential nutrient. Protein can be found everywhere!
Eating 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds, for instance, will give you 5 grams of protein with a bonus of great ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, if you just make sure you eat enough for your caloric needs with every meal, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be safe from protein deficiency.
A study showed that less than 10% of the population consumes protein in amounts below their estimated daily recommended intake, and this is almost always a result of general malnutrition and not consuming enough food.
For most people, protein is simply a non-issue. Just eat vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes, and grains in the right amount and you already have your daily protein needs covered! You also don’t need that much protein.
The RDA for sedentary or moderately active individuals is 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight or roughly 0.4 (0.37, to be exact) grams per pound. Elite athletes training multiple hours per day, 6 days a week, may go as high as 2.2 grams per kilogram or 1 gram per pound, but there are no studies that would prove the benefits of consuming more.
So don’t fall into the trap of eating too much protein as it may increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney problems – and the sources of your protein matter, too. One recent study revealed how high red meat intake increases the risk of breast cancer in women, while eating legumes and nuts can decrease the risk. Another study has shown that non-vegetarians have the lowest intakes of plant proteins, fiber, beta carotene and magnesium. They also have a higher level of fatty acids. This means a higher risk for obesity and chronic diseases. Think about this: lentils have 18 grams of protein for every cup cooked. Ground beef has 18 grams of protein per 3 ounces serving. You actually get almost the same amount of protein but without the risk of the mentioned diseases, and hundreds of vegan bodybuilders are living proof that there is nothing low-quality about plant-based protein. So next time someone asks where you get protein if you’re not eating meat, the answer is everywhere! Break the belief that protein is exclusively found in meat. [1, 2, 3]
So if you should not be worried about protein, what do you need to check? The answer is FIBER. Yes, fiber is found exclusively in plant-based foods. While people are getting crazy about protein, studies have shown that the daily fiber intake since 1999 has not improved. The recommended adequate intake for dietary fiber is 25-38 g/day for any adult. Unfortunately, the average intake for the past decade has not even reached 16 g/day.
So while everyone is worried about protein, there is an actual nutrient deficiency that’s been going on for decades.
This is alarming given that having a low-fiber diet has been shown to increase the risk for diverticular disease. Industrialized nations have around 70% of their population suffering from mild gastrointestinal disturbance to incapacitating pain. All because they are forgetting their fiber! So don’t skimp on the beans, whole grains, nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables. Not only do they provide protein and fiber, they also have other essential nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and antioxidants. Beyond the question of protein is the fact that you should be eating a diet that is clean and provides your body with the right nutrition, while also making sure your energy needs are met with sufficient portion sizes. So instead of asking where do you get your protein, why don’t you ask yourself if you’re getting enough fiber? [4, 5]
Question for you: what’s your favorite non-meat source of protein?