Popular diet gurus today suggest we crank up the protein and cut the carbs. They say protein helps you lose weight by causing you to feel full so you can avoid extra calories. Protein, they say, builds and repairs tissues and provides building blocks for muscles and bones. They say vegans cannot possibly get enough protein without consuming meat, a persistent myth. But cardiologists and proponents of plant-based diet disagree with what they claim is a dangerous over-preoccupation with protein, especially animal-based protein. How much protein do we really need? Why is too much animal protein dangerous? And what are examples of plant-based protein?
As long ago as the nineteenth century, people believed you could not get too much protein. Americans were told to eat well over 100 grams of protein a day, and an abundance of animal protein was associated with affluence, good health and even with masculinity. Later, when it was discovered plants also contained high-quality protein, the meat and protein connection held steadily on its high pedestal.
Carl von Voit, an unusually prominent German physiology professor in the late 1800s, recommended 118 g/day [of protein] for an adult man of average weight, even though he had determined that 52 g/day was enough (later research showed even lower levels were enough). His recommendations continued to be promoted at 100-134 g/day by his students, some of whom became equally famous. By the early 1900s, the meat-protein linkage was firmly established in the minds of men. It defined macho man. ~T. Colin Campbell
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are organic compounds that link together to form proteins. A requirement for protein is really a requirement of amino acids. Virginia Messina, R.D. explains, “There are 20 [amino acids] in total, of which 8 (or 10, considering the classification system you are using) are considered ‘essential’. An essential amino acid is one which the human body cannot produce on its own, and must be obtained from diet.”
Although many people believe meat provides “complete protein” and that plants do not, these beliefs are based on outdated and incorrect information. A healthy plant-based diet provides the body all the essential amino acids.
Myths about amino acid shortages and food combining were put to rest decades ago by experts and researchers in protein nutrition. Every plant food that provides protein — which includes all grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables — contains all of the essential amino acids that are needed by humans. Individual plant foods have lower percentages of some of the amino acids relative to needs, but it doesn’t matter for those who eat a healthy vegan diet. For one thing, the body maintains its own temporary storage of amino acids. And amino acids from different foods work together throughout the day to produce the right amounts and ratios of these protein building blocks. ~ Virginia Messina, R.D.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WE NEED?
MedicineNet.com says protein consumption should be anywhere from 10%-35% of daily calories. A typical adult woman might need an average, 46 grams of protein a day, while a typical adult man might need about 56 grams.
Consuming excess protein in the diet (over 35% of total calories), especially with carbohydrate restriction, can lead to the buildup of toxic ketones, substances made when the body uses its own fat cells for fuel in the absence of sufficient carbohydrates. Ketones can harm the kidneys as they try to excrete these substances. This is accompanied by a corresponding loss of water through the kidneys, leading to dehydration. Symptoms of consuming a ketogenic diet can include fatigue, headache, dizziness, heart palpitations, and bad breath. There is excess stress on the heart, and muscle mass and bone calcium both decline. The American Heart Association does not recommend high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets because they often contain high-fat foods and can lead to deficiencies in some nutrients like fiber and certain vitamins. ~MedicineNet.com
The Physicians Committee said, “to consume a diet that contains enough, but not too much, protein, simply replace animal products with grains, vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), and fruits. As long as one is eating a variety of plant foods in sufficient quantity to maintain one’s weight, the body gets plenty of protein.”
Note: Some experts believe ideal protein consumption should be along the lines of 5%-10% of total calories instead of 10%-35%. In any case, the advice still stands. To get a healthy amount of protein without counting things or worrying, eat a variety of high-quality, plant-based food.
As you’ll see in the following section, plants easily provide enough protein in the diet. So that you have a point of comparison when you read about plant-based protein sources and amounts, a serving of eggs (2 eggs) offers 12 grams of protein. A 3-ounce serving of red meat might contain 21 grams of protein.
PLANT-BASED PROTEIN SOURCES
The first thing that comes to mind for people when they think about vegan protein sources is good-old tofu! For whatever cultural reasons, threats to masculinity or simply not knowing how to cook it, many people won’t try it. I love it baked, and I’ll start here with a little recipe that works really well. I often bake the tofu and then store it in the refrigerator until I’m ready to use it. I’ll cube it and throw it into fried rice or pad thai. Or I’ll cut it into sticks and add it (cold) to salads. But you may bake it and serve it just as you would with a piece of meat and side dishes. It’s quite appealing and versatile.
- One tub firm tofu, patted dry with paper towels and sliced into 8 slabs, about ¼" thick
- ¾ cup fresh orange juice
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger (or 1 teaspoon dried/powdered ginger)
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- In a shallow container, mix all ingredients.
- Add the tofu slabs and allow to marinate for 15 minutes or covered overnight in the refrigerator.
- On a parchment-covered baking sheet, spread the tofu pieces out so that they are not touching.
- Bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, turning the pieces over after 15 minutes.
But beyond tofu, these plant-based sources of protein may surprise you. Here are several examples.
Incidentally, all plant-based foods are “carbs.” Lettuces are carbohydrates, cucumbers are carbohydrates, seeds are carbohydrates. When people advise you to “cut carbs,” I think what they mean is to cut refined carbs and processed food from your diet. Things with white flour. Cookies, crackers, white bread. Those are examples. Eat whole foods whenever possible.
I encourage you to explore other sources of plant-based protein. If you need a proven weight-loss plan, turn to cardiology experts. It is my hope to save you the trouble of learning about animal-based protein the hard way as we did in our family. A heart attack is traumatic and frightening on one end of the spectrum and deadly on the other. It’s not a fun spectrum. In fact, it’s a proven, anti-fun spectrum.
What IS fun? Experimenting in the kitchen!