The Low Down on Protein

As a plant based eater one of the things I hear all the time is “How do you get your protein?”  With high protein dietary approaches in the marketplace, I also see a huge emphasis on protein — protein shakes and bars especially.  Since protein is a nutrition buzzword, let’s take a look at it.  In a few minutes you will understand why protein is important for good health, how much you need and where you can get quality protein.

What is Protein?
Protein is an essential nutrient, which means that without it, you can’t survive. Protein is contained in every part of your body: bones, muscles, skin, hair, fingernails, blood, organs, eyes.  Protein is second in volume in the body only to water.  So, if you get the picture, it’s pretty critical.

Why do I need Protein?
It’s simple, but critical; the body requires protein in the same way it requires carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.  Because protein is a major component in bones, nerves and other organs it makes sense that we need protein for the physical structure of our body.  However, protein is involved in many body processes as well — enzyme production, cellular repair, cellular growth, hormone production, general energy requirements.  When we lack adequate protein, our growth is affected as well as our bone structure and bone density, muscle strength and stature, brain health and general body chemistry.  This is important stuff, so let me fill you in on the science and then we’ll talk about how to get enough protein for optimal health.

Understanding Protein

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids; 10 can be manufactured in the body and 10 cannot. The ones that can’t be made by the body are called “Essential” aminos because it is essential that we get these from food sources. The University of Arizona’s Biology Project gives the following summary:

“The 10 amino acids that we can produce are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine.
Tyrosine is produced from phenylalanine, so if the diet is deficient in phenylalanine, tyrosine will be required as well.

The essential amino acids (that we cannot produce internally) are arginine (required for the young, but not for adults), histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These amino acids are required in the diet.

Plants, of course, must be able to make all the amino acids. Humans, on the other hand, do not have all the the enzymes required for the biosynthesis of all of the amino acids.”

The failure to obtain enough of even 1 of the 10 essential amino acids has serious health implications and can result in degradation of the body’s proteins. Muscle and other protein structures may be dismantled to obtain the one amino acid that is needed. “Unlike fat and starch, the human body does not store excess amino acids for later use the amino acids must be in the food every day.”(Biology Project)

So, we can make certain aminos and not others.  The ones we can’t make MUST be consumed on a daily basis from dietary sources or the body WILL BREAK DOWN its own protein sources to get what it needs.  This is one reason why people can lose muscle when on very restrictive diets or when they are sick and cannot eat.  The body breaks down muscle to get the supply of aminos needed for critical functioning.

Now, you may have heard the term “Complete Protein.” Complete proteins are proteins that are made from the 10 Essential Aminos (the ones that your body cannot make on its own.)  Complete proteins are most commonly found in animal foods, like meats, eggs and fish, but there are plant sources too.  We will get to sources in just a minute but it’s good to know that you have options and a variety of sources.

The main take away from this lesson is that Amino Acids are the building block of proteins.  There are 10 aminos that we absolutely need to get from foods.  Aminos are crucial to the regulation and maintenance of the body because the body not only uses them for critical functions but is also structurally comprised of protein.

How Much Protein do I Need?

Now that we’ve covered what protein is, what it does and we understand a bit about it, let’s cover how much protein we need.  The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is calculated by age and weight; gender can be a factor during the teen years and during pregnancy and lactation.

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) based on body weight, include age-related adjustments for the extra protein needed for growth
(USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine)

For adults, the basic calculation for daily protein requirement in grams is
Body weight in pounds x .36 = grams of protein needed per day 

Got Super Powers?  You know who I’m talking about… all the pregnant ladies, breastfeeding moms and athletes?  Well, then the numbers adjust!  People who call upon their bodies to do Super things require approximately double the amount of protein that the rest of us do.  The great thing is that caloric needs increase for these bodies as well.  Focusing on eating a variety of whole foods will ensure that you get the increased calories as well as fats, carbs and proteins.  When we get down to the sample menu, you’ll see how very easy it is to get to the increased protein numbers as calories increase.

How can I get enough Protein?

This is the big money question!  Thankfully, it’s easy to answer and really simple. Regardless of whether you eat meat or don’t, getting enough protein usually isn’t an issue.  The issue becomes the quality of the protein and making sure that you don’t get TOO MUCH.  Meat eaters typically consume SIGNIFICANTLY more protein than is required.  Even vegans can consume more than enough protein daily.  What’s the problem with too much protein?  Well, there are a couple of things.  The first is that excess protein puts a strain on your kidneys.  The second is that if more protein is consumed than the body needs for building, maintaining and repairing tissue it will either be converted for use as an immediate energy source if there is not enough glucose(from carbohydrates) or it will be stored as fat.  We don’t want either of those things; we want balance!  When looking at dietary approaches like Atkins and Paleo, consider what the extra protein load can do in your body and whether a protein heavy approach feels right.   For balance, the key is to choose your protein sources wisely.  Clean, lean proteins are best.  Plant based proteins provide the added benefits of significant fiber, micronutrients and complex carbohydrates (all of which are necessary for overall balanced health).

What are the best sources of protein?

The most common sources of complete protein, as mentioned earlier, are animal foods like meat, fish, eggs and dairy.  The issue with these sources is that they come with a cholesterol load as well as any environmental toxins that the animal consumed — so things like hormones, pesticides, systemic illness suffered by the animal all become a factor. 

Most plant proteins are missing one or more of the essential amino acids.  However, when you combine with other plants and grains means that where one item is deficient another will have the missing piece, so eating a variety throughout the day will ensure that you get them all.  There are a few superstars in the plant world that are complete proteins: Quinoa and Soy.  While these superstars are great in combination with other foods, they can stand on their own as a source of the 10 essential amino acids.

Here is a sample daily menu that easily provides 82 grams of protein.  Protein values are approximate, but you will get the idea.

What to Eat Grams of Protein Added Benefits
Green juice    or smoothie 2+ grams   protein Lots of   micronutrients
1 cup quinoa   + 1 Tbsp nuts 13 grams   protein Manganese,   magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, healthy fats
Apple or   Celery   + almond   butter 8 grams   protein
(1 gram from apple or celery, 7 from nut butter)
Flavanoids,   polyphenols and fiber to help regulate blood sugar, pectin, vitamin C, micronutrients//vitamin   K and calcium, B vitamins in celery; healthy fats, vitamin E, B2, magnesium,   potassium, copper
Salad with   ½ cup black   beans, ¼ cup hemp seeds 19 grams   protein
(1 from 2 cups of romaine and spinach greens, 7 from beans, 11 from hemp)
Vitamins   A, K, C, Calcium, fiber, healthy fats, omega 3, folate, molybdenum
Veggies +   ¼ cup hummus 12 grams   protein Micronutrients,   fiber
Broccoli   stir fry + 4 oz tempeh   + ½ cup brown   rice 28 grams   protein
(6 from 2 cups broccoli, 20 g in 4 oz tempeh, 2.5 g in 1/2 cup brown rice)
Isothiocynates   (cancer fighting compound), Calcium, vitamin C, K, A, fiber, zinc, probiotics

As you can see, it’s not hard to rack up the protein using plant sources.  If you choose to use animal proteins, know that a little goes a long way:

What to Eat Grams of Protein Added Benefits
1 cup   milk 8 grams   protein calcium
3 oz   meat 21 grams   protein
8 oz yogurt 11 grams   protein Calcium,   probiotics

The Bottom Line

You can easily get enough protein by consuming a variety of real whole foods in the form of fruits, vegetables.  Not 100% veg?  Lean meats, dairy and fish are all sources of complete protein but they are concentrated and present added cholesterol into the diet as well as the possibilities of contamination from ingested hormones and antibiotics.

Commercially hyped protein powders, shakes, and bars… likely won’t hurt you, but also likely won’t help you.  If you are very active or need an occasional meal replacement consider a product that is as close to whole food as possible and one that does not contain genetically modified soy.

Ultimately, eating a balanced diet full of greens, beans, fruits and veggies is a healthy way to go because you will be fueling your body with nutrient dense, low calorie, high fiber foods that are rich in amino acids.  According to nutrition and health expert, Dr. Joel Fuhrman in his groundbreaking book Eat to Live, “almost any assortment of plant foods contain about 30-40 grams of protein per 1,000 calories.  When you caloric needs are met, your protein needs are met automatically.  Focus on eating healthy, natural foods; forget about trying to get enough protein.”  Eat well, eat real, eat a variety of rainbow colored natural foods… Whatever you choose, choose smart for a healthy body.

Want to learn more?  Check out these resources:


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2 Responses to The Low Down on Protein

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