In this new series I’m calling "Let's Talk" I'll be focusing on things I'm often asked about in the presentations I give on plant-based eating in hopes I can reach more people, and quell fears and misconceptions that hold people back from going one step further on the plant-based path, wherever their starting point may be.
One thing that comes up a lot among people new to plant-based eating is protein. Where do I get it if not from meat and dairy, is often the question. My point of view is that we do need protein to form the amino acids necessary for muscle growth. Muscles are a great thing. They hold us upright and allow us to do all kinds of useful things like pick up heavy objects, hold impossible yoga poses for cruel lengths of time and run marathons, or simply from homicidal maniacs, for example. But unless we’re competing in a body building contest (and maybe not even then), we really don’t need to worry about getting enough protein to be fit and to live happy, healthy lives. Protein deficiencies are just not something doctors commonly see in the Western world.
Here are a few great, current facts about protein, described in my own very unscientific short-hand, and gleaned from articles and interviews with Dr. Garth Davis, M.D., author of Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession with Protein is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It.
Protein is everywhere: It’s found in nearly every natural food imaginable… seeds, nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables. The advantage of getting protein from plant sources is the abundance of good-for-you micronutrients and phytochemicals you won’t find in animal proteins… things like fiber, vitamins, minerals and more). Another benefit is the absence of saturated fat, known to cause heart disease.
A little goes a long way: We don’t need as much protein as most people think we do — only 56 grams per day for men; 46 for women (USDA Recommended Daily Allowance). Most Americans consume 100-130 grams per day, way more than we actually need. Consider the standard American breakfast: Two eggs, a couple pieces of bacon, toast and a little milk in your coffee can get you up to about 30 grams. Throw in a chicken salad for lunch, a 6-ounce steak for dinner, a power bar as a snack, not to mention fruits and vegetables you can actually feel good about snacking on, and it’s easy to see how you could get to 100 grams or more every day. It’s important to remember the RDA is not a minimum requirement; it’s the optimal requirement. So just because protein is good for us doesn’t mean more is better. Plus, our bodies recycle protein. Unless we happen to be calorie deficient to the actual point of starvation (as in the serious medical condition caused by chronic calorie deficiency) we’re all good, people! We have a constant supply of amino acids at our disposal whenever we need them.
Less is more: Too much protein is actually bad for you, contributing to excess body weight and inflammation, not to mention animal protein is tough on the gut. The healthiest people on the planet (with the highest rates of longevity) eat the least amount of protein. Conversely, Americans eat the highest amount of protein -- mostly from animal products -- and we’re the sickest country in the world. Not even high-performing athletes need much more protein than the rest of us for proper fitness and muscle development.
Keep it simple: The combining of certain proteins (beans and rice for example) within one meal or within a certain period of time was a popular belief in the 80s. But like bad hair (also a thing of the 80s) it’s now known to be unnecessary. The reason to combine rice and beans is because it tastes good. Don’t sweat the timing of it all.
Watch out for imposters: Experts agree we should avoid isolated proteins in powdered and processed foods (whey, pea, soy, and wheat are common in heavily processed vegan and other foods). Protein, when taken out of the whole food, becomes… an imposter (that’s technical talk) and is not good for you.
I'm a chef, not a nutritionist. My job is to make good food taste great, and my goal is helping people to see how plant-based foods improve health, wellbeing and longevity. I’m an avid consumer of information about food, especially plants, and I’ve learned a lot about why plant-based diets are optimal for not only the biggest, strongest, longest-living land mammals on Earth, but also for humans. My opinions are informed by current scientific schools of thought on how vital fruits and vegetables are to a healthy diet. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this podcast interview with Dr. Davis on No Meat Athlete for a much more elegant explanation on the greatest misconceptions around protein.