Understanding Protein: Enough Is Enough
Protein is a vital macronutrient - we cannot survive without it. It makes up about 20% of our body weight and is a primary component of our muscles, hair, nails, skin, eyes, and internal organs (especially our heart and brain). Our immune system needs protein to form antibodies and fight infections. We use protein to regulate our metabolism, as well as for the growth and maintenance of body tissue. Needless to say, protein is essential for a well-balanced diet and healthy life. However, it is also the most misunderstood nutrient, especially in our protein-obsessed society.
Insert Protein Here
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and long chains of amino acids form this vital nutrient. When we eat, our body deconstructs these amino acid chains and rebuilds them specifically for our body’s needs. We can’t just eat a KFC drumstick and expect our body to instantly absorb the protein. ("Ahh, this is exactly what I needed. You’re awesome!") What really happens is that our smarty-pants body breaks down the amino acids of the (genetically modified) chicken, and then rearranges the amino acids into protein chains specific to humans.
Our body takes control of the food we eat. Our food is not the boss of our body; our body is the boss of our food, got it?
The Meat Myth
How many of us think, or have thought at some point, that protein only comes from animal products? When I told my grandma I wasn’t eating meat anymore, I was committing slow suicide in her eyes. ("Where will you get your protein?") Every sniffle and complaint of fatigue was a sign that I was dying a little more each day. ("I bet she wouldn’t be feeling that way if she would eat a little protein.") From her perspective, since I wasn’t eating meat, I must be protein deficient. (Don’t fret Grandma, and thanks for loving me, by the way.)
I understand where she’s coming from because she, like a lot of people, have been over-saturated with the protein hype. The Standard American Diet is full of protein - in the form of animals, of course. Beware of fat! Cut those carbs! Stop eating so much protein! Wait, what? That’s not right. Protein makes me a lean, strong, energetic sex machine! True? Not necessarily. Think of cows. Don’t forget that those muscle-bound beasts are getting all the essential, protein-building amino acids from a diet of only grass.
So, the most important thing to note here is not that I used the words sex-machine and Grandma in the preceding paragraphs, but that our body really requires amino acids, not protein.
The Essential Eight = Complete Protein
There are 23 different amino acids, eight of which are considered essential amino acids because our body cannot naturally produce them; we must eat foods containing them.
When the food we eat contains all eight of these essential amino acids, our body can make a complete protein.
Essential amino acids are abundant in plant foods, such as lentils, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, veggies, and whole grains. By eating a wide variety of these foods, our body gets all the essential amino acids we need to build complete protein, as well as the phytonutrients (found only in plants) we need to prevent disease and aging. Bonus!
Just like our body has vitamin and mineral reserves, it also has amino acid reserves. It was once thought we had to compensate for a missing amino acid by eating another food containing that missing part in the same meal. We now know that as long as we’re consuming our essential amino acids over a period of time, complete proteins will be made in our body. So don’t worry so much about eating your beans with rice, as long as you’re eating a wide variety of plant foods throughout the day.
How Much Is Too Much?
Humans need a lot less protein than most people think. To get a better understanding of your daily protein needs, multiply 0.36 by your weight in pounds (For instance, a person weighing 150 lbs. needs 54 grams of protein/day). The problem with high-protein, low-carb, low-fat diets is that they are often missing other crucial components such as fiber, phytonutrients, and enzymes. When we eat more protein than we need, we place our body, especially our digestive system, under significant stress. In fact, the digestion of meat leaves a highly acidic residue in our body, as well as unhealthy bacteria in our colon, due to the by-products of uric acid, purines, and ammonia.
A Day of Plant Protein
To get a better idea of what a day of sufficient plant protein looks like, here’s a sample menu:
Breakfast: A Green Smoothie, of course! (32 ounces = 12 grams of protein)
Mid-morning snack: Apple with 2 tablespoons of almond butter (8 grams of protein)
Lunch: Large salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and 1/4 cup sunflower seeds (11 grams of protein)
Snack: 1/2 cup of hummus with 1 cup of baby carrots and 1 cup of red bell pepper (10 grams of protein)
Dinner: 1 cup cooked quinoa with 10 spears of asparagus, 1 cup of sun dried tomatoes, 1/4 cup of pine nuts, a drizzle of olive oil, and 1/4 cup fresh basil (28 grams of protein)
Total: 69 grams of protein, not too shabby for a meat-free day!
No More Meat?
My intention behind busting some of the meat myths that are so ingrained in us is not to ban animal protein from anyone’s life, but to promote the idea of adding more plant foods into your diet. Each step closer to a plant-based, alkaline diet is one step closer to living a long, disease-free life filled with food passion (instead of food regret). For some, maybe that means changing just one thing, such as substituting a green smoothie for a sausage biscuit at breakfast. For others, it could look like one meatless day a week filled with healthy meals like I outlined above or, for you true carnivores, maybe even one meal a day with plant protein rather than animal protein. Whatever you decide, pat yourself on the back and show yourself a little gratitude, because it’s in those moments that you’re eating to live.
Haas, E.M. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. New York: Random House, Inc.
Snyder, K. (2011). The beauty detox solution. Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.