Protein, the world is crazy for it. From gym goers chugging protein shakes to additional protein being added to everyday foods it seems the world has a protein obsession. We are told protein is good for health, it will make us big and strong, the more we consume the better after all you don’t want to be protein deficient.
This obsession is real in 2017 there were over 70 million web searched for the word protein. Food and marketing companies have jumped on the craze they know that if the packaging says, “high in protein” most consumers will say “I’ll take it”. In the supplement industry alone protein supplement sales are anticipated to reach $14b by 2020. I regularly hear people discussing their macros and how they need more protein to reach targets.
As if all of that wasn’t bad enough imagine being a poor vegan eating only a plant based diet, how can we possibly be expected to get enough protein just eating plants! The truth is I can understand the obsession. You see I was one of those who looked for extra protein intake at every opportunity.
I am a level 3 qualified personal trainer and have completed additional diplomas in nutrition yet despite this only 10 years ago I was on the protein bandwagon. So, let’s look at protein, discover why I jumped off the bandwagon and how a whole food plant based vegan diet will provide you with all the protein you can ever need. Protein the myths, lets explore…
What is protein
The word protein, like many words in use today derives from ancient Greek, in this case the word protos which means first. The first use of this word is credited to a Dutch organic chemist by the name of Gerardus Johannes Mulder in a journal paper he wrote in 1838. What is particularly interesting is that in the same paper he comments that “the principle substance of all animals is immediately drawn from plants.
There is no doubt that protein has a critical role in virtually every structural and functional mechanism of our bodies. Infact every cell contains tens of thousands of proteins from our hair, teeth, skin, nails, through to tendons, ligaments and muscles. Protein is indeed the building block of life and at any one time our body will have around 20,000 different proteins some of which last minutes and other decades.
All of these different proteins and believe it or not none of them come directly from our diet! So where do all of these proteins come from? Well our bodies DNA contains the blueprints for all the protein that we require and is able to synthesize them from the building blocks known as amino acids and it is these that we require from our diet.
Amino Acids – the building blocks
So, we now know that it is our body that constructs the proteins that we require and it does so using the building blocks known as amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids. Each protein is composed of a different sequence of amino acids similar to how all the thousands of words in a dictionary are made from the same 26 letters. Plants are able synthesize all the individual amino acids that are used to build proteins, but animals and humans cannot.
From these 20 amino acids, there are 9 that humans cannot make and thus, these must be obtained from our diets and are referred to as “essential”. After we consume protein from our diet our stomach acids and intestinal enzymes digest the proteins and break them down in to individual amino acids where they will become part of a circulating pool. These amino acids are then reassembled as required in the relevant sequence to produce whatever protein is necessary at the time.
All living organisms require all 20 amino acids although the levels will vary between species. The only way for us to ensure that we get the essential amino acids that we cannot produce is to either eat the plants that produce them or eat the animal that ate the plant! So, as you can see whether directly or indirectly to obtain all the essential amino acids they will have come from plants.
Animal Protein v Plant Protein
You’ve heard it a thousand times as a vegan but one of the most asked questions must be, but where do you get your protein from? Meat, eggs, milk you have to eat these to get your protein, right? It seems that still a vast majority of people believe that animal products are essential for protein and anyone avoiding them will be deficient. Fortunately, we know that this is a myth.
We have just seen above that all the essential amino acids originate from plants. The interesting thing is that many of those who believe meat is essential for protein will never ask where the animal got its protein from. No one queries if a steak has protein but vary few will consider that the cow it came from has primarily eaten grass. In fact plants are perfectly able to meet the protein needs of the earth’s largest animals including elephants, hippos, giraffes, and cows so as you can imagine they are more than capable of providing for us small humans!
The “quality” of plant proteins also gets raised with some people still believing that plant protein is of a lower quality. Much of this stems from research conducted over a century ago by Mendel and Osborne who reported young rats grew better on animal rather than vegetable, sources of protein. A result of their studies meat, eggs, and dairy foods became classified as superior protein sources and vegetable proteins as inferior. Of course, rats are not people and require protein levels 10 times that of humans.
Protein combining is another myth. The concept was based on the idea that you had to combine certain plant based foods to get sufficient levels of the essential amino acids. This theory has been conclusively repudiated. All plant sources (other than gelatine) contain all the essential amino acids although these do occur in different levels. However, as we have learnt the body is able to pool together all the amino acids that it obtains from food and recreate the proteins it requires.
There is one major difference between plant and animal protein and that is how it is “packaged” What do I mean by that, well plant protein comes packaged with phytonutrients, antioxidants, fibre, minerals and vitamins a complete range of health promoting nutrients. In contrast animal proteins come packaged with saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), heme iron and Neu5Gc all of which have been proven to have a detrimental effect on human health. See more here on why plant protein is preferable
How much protein do we really need?
Well hopefully we have shown that plants can supply us with all the essential amino acids and from these our body can produce the proteins that we require to thrive. But now we come back to the numbers. The current protein mania has everyone believing that more is better. Even people who acknowledge that plants can supply the required amino acids are still worried about reaching their daily targets.
As we mentioned in our introduction there are many reasons for these beliefs from century old studies to marketing hype from multi-billion dollar industries. However the fact is that we don’t need to eat large quantities of protein to maintain optimum health. If we consider there is actually only one substance that is designed specifically to be human food and that is human breast milk.
It is the vary food that is created specifically to nourish a baby during the stage in life when humans grow the quickest. Human breast milk is only 1% protein (approx. 5% by calorie). It makes sense then that The World Health Organization estimates that it is this number, 5% of total calories from protein, that is required to maintain health. This would mean only 38 grams of protein for a man burning 3000 calories a day.
In the United States the RDA set by the US Department of Agriculture for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight. If you weigh 80kg, for instance, your recommended intake would be 64 grams. The great news is that all whole plant foods contain protein and all 20 amino acids. Many of these foods are vary high in protein per calorie particularly beans, legumes, seeds and nuts.
Chickpeas for example have 20%, lentils approx. 35%, leafy green vegetables over 40% and even those foods that are considered “carbs” would far exceed the WHO requirements for health, potatoes having 8% and brown rice 9%. In fact if eating to calorific needs whilst following a whole food plant based diet it is impossible to be protein deficient.
How much protein is to much?
Rather than being concerned with not getting enough protein many people particularly meat eaters should actually be asking are we getting too much? Our kidneys have to work hard to break down the nitrogenous waste that builds up with a high protein intake. This excess can cause kidney stones and lead to more serious illnesses.
As we know proteins are made from amino acids which are of course acidic. Excess protein has been shown to be a major contributor to osteoporosis as it produces acid when metabolised. As our bodies cannot tolerate substantial changes to our blood pH it is neutralised by sodium and calcium. When body reserves of sodium become depleted calcium is taken from the bone contributing to osteoporosis.
This of course leads us to challenge the argument that we need dairy for calcium. In fact a twelve-year US study of over 120,000 women found that those who drank in excess of 2 glasses of milk per day had a 45% higher risk of hip fractures. We also mentioned the fact that plants tend to have a lower level of certain amino acids.
Methionine is one of these amino acids and studies have shown that certain cancers such as those found in the breast are actually dependent on methionine. It was shown that cultures of healthy breast tissue were able to survive methionine restriction whereas cancerous breast tissue was not. A whole food plant based diet naturally restricts certain amino acids such as methionine. Many of these issues are referenced by Dr J McDougall here
Plant based athletes and protein needs
Athletic ability of course goes hand in hand with nutrition. The beauty and simplicity of a whole food plant based diet is that if eating to calorific requirements you will meet all of your nutrients needs enabling you to push your body to the maximum intensity. Elite athletes across a diverse range of sports are demonstrating the benefits of plant based nutrition. Ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll credits his athletic accomplishments to his plant based diet.
This is a man who completed 5 iron man triathlons in 7 days across 5 Hawaiian Islands. In his article on the protein myth, he talks about how plants fuel his 25 hours a week training regimen. He also references the incredible achievements of other plant-based athletes such as record-breaking strongman Patrick Baboumia.
But of course this is hard for many to believe, particular those wishing to gain muscle or “bodybuilding” who are constantly bombarded by the protein myth that more is better. The US academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that bodybuilders require 1.4 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram and that anything in excess of these numbers will have no benefit.
For an 80kg athlete this would be 112-136g of protein, these numbers are substantially higher than the recommended minimum but of course we have to consider that because bodybuilders/athletes require more calories they will automatically obtain more protein by eating more food.
Each gram of protein contains 4 calories so we are looking at approx 500 calories of protein from a 3000-calorie diet which is still only 16% protein per calorie and we have already seen that this is far exceeded by many plant foods. Believe it or not when you eat and drink may be just as important as what you eat but that is for another article.
The protein conclusion – just eat plants
It’s great that we live in an age where so much information is available at our fingertips. The problem with this is that there is also so much misinformation. Studies that are funded by big industry to achieve specific outcomes. Companies selling their products with clever marketing, often it is difficult to know what to believe.
It is because of this it is up to us to look past the hype and take responsibility for our own health. Sometimes this is not so easy, after all who has time to read all the science and how do we know what is independent and what is biased? Well the good news is that as we have discovered a whole food plant based vegan diet will meet all of our nutrient needs including protein.
The protein it supplies will come packaged with phytonutrients, antioxidants, fibre, minerals and vitamins. We know that the body requires certain essential amino acids and that all of these originate from plants. Either we eat the plants or the animal that ate the plants! And most importantly we know that when eating to our calorific needs on a whole food plant based diet we will never be protein deficient even if we are an elite athlete.
The result is we don’t need to drive ourselves crazy worrying about where our protein is coming from. We just need to indulge in the wonderful array of plant based foods and let our body, the environment and the animal’s thanks us for doing so.