Thursday, March 31, 2011

Food for Thought Thursday - Plant Protein

As I mentioned the other week, "Where do you get your protein?" is my least favorite question to answer. But it's also a big concern for people transitioning to a plant-based diet - or at least (to snag a phrase from Brendan Brazier) it's a big concern for the people surrounding those transitioning to a plant-based diet.

There's so much misinformation about protein in our country, due in no small part to the strong influence the marketers of animal protein (meat and dairy) have in our culture and our regulatory agencies. Due to this misinformation, many people still believe the following myths:

- More protein is better - especially for athletes. While the average American eats up to 30% of their calories in the form of protein, the World Health Organization recommends a protein intake of the range of 5-10% of total calories. Even the RDA recommends a diet of only 15% protein. Breast milk, designed to sustain a human  through the most rapid growth period of their life, contains about 10% protein. So why do we think we need so much protein when we're not growing and developing at anywhere near the same rate? Probably because the protein pushers have the best TV commercials.

- You can't get enough protein unless you eat meat. Again, this is a TV advertising slogan, not a research-based fact. While protein deficiency is definitely dangerous, it is almost unheard of in the Western world. As long as you are consuming a normal amount of calories (meaning, not starving yourself) you are most certainly getting enough; most plant foods get a decent percentage of their calories for protein. The far bigger concern, especially in the US, should be protein excess. It is much more common and can cause serious health problems. As the American Heart Association says . . . 

"The American Heart Association doesn't recommend high-protein diets. Most Americans already eat more protein than their bodies need. And eating too much protein can increase health risks. High-protein animal foods are usually also high in saturated fat. Eating large amounts of high-fat foods for a sustained period raises the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and several types of cancer. People who can't use excess protein effectively may be at higher risk of kidney and liver disorders, and osteoporosis. High-protein diets don't provide some essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutritional elements."

- There's no protein in plant food. So what exactly are they made of??? Fat? Carbs? The truth it, most plant foods have a nice variety of all three macronutrients - plus the added benefit of the tens of thousands of micronutrients that are only found in plant foods. The Vegetarian Resource Group has a great article on protein that includes a list of the quantity of protein found in certain plant foods. Most people would be surprised to know that - per calorie - spinach has more protein than beef (12 grams/100 calories of spinach vs. 10 grams/100 calories of beef). You didn't see Popeye eating hamburgers to build those muscles, did you?

- Plant protein isn't as good as animal protein. Well this one is kind of right . . . it's isn't "as good as", it's better! Imagine two identical gift boxes. Both are nicely wrapped and look very appealing - but the contents are very different. Inside one are things that are great for your body - antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber. And in the other? Loads of calories and saturated fat. Which gift would you give to your body?

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So how would you know if you're not getting enough protein? Many people assume that feeling tired means they're not getting enough. In my experience, however, fatigue is much more likely to be caused by a lack of micronutrients (from fruits and veggies) than by a lack of protein.

Quite a few years ago - way before our vegan days - Jim and I experimented with a vegetarian diet. It lasted about two months, and we stopped because we felt more tired than usual. Perhaps it was just the normal exhaustion of first-time parents, but more than likely, it was because we simply substituted eggs and cheese for meat. Instead of living on meat, refined carbs and a sprinkling of produce, we lived on eggs, cheese, refined carbs and a sprinkling of produce. Mistakenly thinking it was the lack of meat - and not an increase in dairy and a diet lacking in micronutrients - that was making us tired, we returned to our previous ways.

Our second attempt - spurred by the knowledge gained from Disease-Proof Your Child and Eat to Live - was the complete opposite. We learned to make fruits and vegetables the starting point for a diet - not an afterthought that we tried to squeeze in the required amount of every day. We complimented them with plenty of beans, nuts and whole grains - had more energy than ever before. The one phrase I remember using a lot was "I feel like things are right with my body that I never knew were wrong before."

In the almost four years since then, I definitely notice a direct correlation between my energy level and my fruit/veggie consumption. When I fall into what I like to call a "bad vegan" slump, eating more refined grains and fewer fresh foods, I definitely notice a decline in my energy levels and mental clarity. But when I'm doing it right, nothing can stop me!!!

Want to learn more? Check out these great articles from Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, Organic Athlete founder Bradley Saul and Eat to Live author Dr. Joel Fuhrman.


  1. Thanks Jess! I'll be mum about the protein :-) Bought some tempeh today too...and made brownies with applesauce and sweet potatoes. They have ginger in them too...not great but definitely edible. Baking has never been my strong suit.

  2. Oh no . . . don't ever stop asking questions! I've just had quite a few people (not just you) with similar concerns lately, so you inspired me to post about it. Hopefully some of the links will be helpful! :)

  3. Such a timely post. I know you and I had a conversation, but it was just an affirmation for me. I've been eating a plant-based diet for almost two years now. I agree with you, Jess, that I have more energy (on the good days) than I ever did when I was eating meat, and I feel my general health is better.

    I've recited the stastics about high protein diets since I was in my early 20s. Most people look at you as thought you've grown a second head. If one understood how the human body worked, however, it would make more sense to them that they shouldn't consume such high volumes of protein. It's our LAST source of energy -- not the first. When your diet is mostly protein you're training your body to "eat" that micronutrient first; you're saying eat my muscles before you eat my fat.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Marie, and you made me laugh with the "second head" remark (probably b/c I get that one a lot too). :) Good point about protein being our last source of energy!