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Demystifying Protein – Animal vs Plant Protein

One of the most common questions vegans or vegetarians get is “where do you get your protein?” Animal foods such as meat and eggs are seen by many people as the gold standard of this macronutrient. Plant foods, on the other hand, are often seen as deficient and lacking in ‘complete’ protein. The truth is quite different, so how does the myth of plant-protein deficiency keep being recycled as fact? Well, let’s start by looking at the facts.

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Why is protein so important?

Protein, according to Julieanna Hever, the Plant-Based dietitian,  in her book ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition’ plays a crucial role in most – if not all – structural and functional mechanisms of the human body. Protein makes up part of every cell in the body, including muscles, organs, hair, nails, skin, teeth, ligaments, cartilage and tendons, and, although not as efficient as carbohydrate, acts as source of energy. The building blocks of protein are a total of 20 amino acids. Your body can produce 11 of these amino acids, and there are 9 amino acids you must get from your diet.

Plant protein

If you consume enough calories from a variety of whole plant foods, you will get enough protein. Even mainly carbohydrate foods such as bananas, potatoes and rice have 5, 8 and 9 percent respectively of their calories as protein. The real plant-food superstars of protein though are beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. For example, lentils have 36 percent of their calories as protein, and leafy green vegetables have almost half their calories from protein. Soybeans and its by-products such as tempeh and soybean curd, or tofu, are high in protein, which does have all essential amino acids.

Don’t you need complete protein?

Because most plant foods have less of one or some of the essential 9 amino acids, it was thought that you would need to combine certain plant foods to make up for this ‘deficiency’. This notion was based on the idea that you need all 9 essential amino acids at every meal. Animal foods have all essential amino acids, and, except for a few examples such as soybeans and quinoa, most plant foods don’t. However the fact is that your body needs amino acids, not foods with ‘complete’ proteins, and a varied plant-based diet has every amino acid you need.

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How much protein do you need?

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. In Australia, the amounts are very similar: The recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein (measured in grams per kilogram of bodyweight) is:

  • 0.75 g/kg for adult women
  • 0.84 g/kg for adult men
  • Around 1 g/kg for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and for men and women over 70 years.

For example, a 75 kg adult male would need 63 g of protein per day. Consider this (brief) list of regular servings of plant foods and their corresponding protein quantities in grams:

  • Quinoa, half-cup cooked: 11.1 g
  • Tofu, raw, firm, half-cup: 19.9 g
  • Barley, pearled, 1 cup cooked: 16.4 g
  • Chickpeas, 1 cup cooked: 14.5 g
  • Lentils, 1 cup cooked: 17.9 g
  • Baked beans, 1 cup: 12.1 g

Can you have too much animal protein?

There are many high-protein, low-carb diets around today, in particular Paleo and its variations. Typically, lots of meat, no grains or starches, and some veggies feature prominently in such diets. But can you get too much meat and protein?

According to dietitian Amanda Benham, the Human Herbivore,  diets such as Paleo and Atkins “…encourage unhealthy eating patterns such as high consumption of animal products (…meat, eggs, cheese etc.), which are loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol and devoid of fibre and other beneficial plant components.”

Dr Neal Barnard and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) say that “a diet that is high in protein can actually contribute to disease and other health problems.” The PCRM advice is that too much animal protein can lead to increased risk of osteoporosis, as high protein intake is known to encourage urinary calcium losses. An excess of animal protein and foods in the diet can also lead to increased cancer risk, impaired kidney function, heart disease and weight-loss sabotage.

Cornell University Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry, Dr T Colin Campbell, and author of The China Study, tells us that animal protein is a potent carcinogen.

According to Dr Campbell, “Casein [the main protein of cow’s milk] is the most relevant chemical carcinogen ever identified.”

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How to get enough healthy plant protein

It is important to get enough protein, however too much animal protein can be harmful to your health. The following guidelines are based on those developed by PCRM:

  • Have a least 5 servings of grains each day, which may include half a cup of hot cereal, 1 ounce of dry cereal, or one slice of wholemeal bread. Each serving contains about 3 grams of protein.
  • Consume three or more servings of vegetables each day. This may include 1 cup of raw vegetables, half a cup of cooked vegetables, or half a cup of vegetable juice (I use my NutriBullet to make vegetable and fruit blended beverages). Each serving contains roughly 2 grams of protein.
  • Try to have 2 to 3 servings of legumes each day, including half a cup of cooked beans, 4 ounces of tofu or tempeh, 8 ounces of soymilk, and 1 ounce of nuts. While protein content can vary significantly, each serving may contain about 4 to 10 grams of protein. Meat analogues and substitutes are also great sources of protein that can be added to your daily diet. (Thanks to PCRM for this checklist).

Still not convinced?

If you’re skeptical about plant foods being able to meet your protein needs, think about the sheer bulk and muscle power of such plant-eaters as gorillas, elephants and rhinos. In the human race, consider the ultra-fit vegan athletes that don’t rely on any animal products for their super-human achievements. Strongman Patrik Baboumian, marathon champion Brendan Brazier and fighter Mac Danzig are elite athletes who swear that a plant-based is the secret behind their success. Patrik Baboumian, an Armenian-German, known as the herbivore strongman with 50-cm biceps, was quoted regarding his change to a vegetarian, then later vegan diet:

”I was amazed by the great gains in lean body-mass and strength I got with the meat-free diet,” says Patrik.

Former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion Brendan Brazier , swears by a whole-food vegan diet. He was also quoted in the article:

“Through good nutrition we can thrive in life without the need for stimulants, sugars and pharmaceuticals, and the Vegetarian, Vegan and Raw Plant Based Whole Food choices are the best,” Brendan says.

American MMA (mixed martial arts) and UFC fighter Mac Danzig has been a vegan since 2004 and follows a high carbohydrate, low fat raw vegan diet. According to the 33-year-old Mac, who has 21 wins under his belt from 33 bouts enjoys a diet rich in nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconuts and “feels amazing”. Maybe it was time you started feeling “amazing” too?

Tom Perry

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Low-Carb Diets, Plant Protein, Vegan Tour of India, Superfoods and Breaking up with Cheese

Green Nutrition News – Top 5 Nutrition News Items

This week our top 5 nutrition news items include information from Dr Greger about the reasons why low-carb diets ultimately fail; how to get your protein from plants instead of animals; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) vegan tour of India; on breaking up with cheese, and Rich Roll’s podcast interview with superfoods and wellness advocate Darin Olien.

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Where Low Carb Diets Fail

Dr Michael Greger, physician, author, nutrition expert and publisher of the Nutrition Facts website, recently appeared on a YouTube channel iHealthTube.com explaining why low-carb diets ultimately fail.

While acknowledging that low-carb diets such as Atkins and Paleo can lead to weight loss in some people, Dr Greger said that any diet can lead to weight loss, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy or sustainable. Dr Greger noted that previous advice to reduce fat did lead to some refined carbohydrate junk foods being marketed as ‘low fat’ to cash in on this health advice. It is these types of processed carbs, often filled with sugar and salt, which should be avoided in favour of healthy natural carbs including fruit and vegetables.

When you are severely carb-depleted you go into a state of ‘ketosis’, which is, as Dr Greger puts it, a state of “sickness”. This can depress your appetite and cause weight loss in the short term (as well as unpleasant side effects like bad breath!). These unhealthy diets can never be sustained, however, particularly once a person goes ‘off’ the diet, and resumes more regular eating patterns.

The key, as Dr Greger advises, is to choose the diet with the greatest chance of longevity, with the lowest rates of disease, and which also helps people achieve and maintain a healthy weight; that is, a healthy plant-based diet.

  chickpea-316594_1280 How to get your protein from plants, not animals

A recent Post Bulletin article shares information from Sue Lofgren, a registered dietician at Olmsted Medical Center in the US, about protein, what it is, where to find it and a sample menu of how to get over 60 grams of protein on a vegetarian diet.

Sue gives the daily recommended allowance of protein for men and women, and notes that all foods except fruit and fat contain protein. The bottom line is that if you eat a variety of foods each day you will most likely get enough protein.

Soy products (tempeh and tofu), beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, grains, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters and vegetables all contain protein. Plant-based proteins except soybeans and some grains (such as quinoa) are sometimes referred to as “incomplete proteins” because they lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids that make up “complete protein”. In practice this is not a problem as, according to Sue, “eating a variety of protein sources throughout the day will ensure you get all nine essential amino acids”.

If you are thinking of using a protein supplement, like a protein powder, Sue recommends speaking first with your healthcare provider. As Sue advises, a balanced diet from healthy natural foods is the best way to get the nutrients and energy your body needs.

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US-based doctor’s group promotes vegan life in India

Recently The Indian Express online reported a story about a tour of India by representatives of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM: a non-profit health organization with 12,000 physicians established in 1985 in the US).

In an email interview with Zeeshan Ali of PCRM is quoted as saying:

“A low-fat vegan diet, combined with a nutrition education program, is clinically proven to boost weight loss, lower blood pressure, improve total cholesterol, restore insulin function, alleviate chronic pain, particularly headaches, migraines, and joint pain. It also boosts your mood and combats chronic fatigue. Plant-based dietary patterns are associated with a reduced risk for certain forms of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”

As far as nutrients such as protein or iron are concerned, Mr Ali says:

“A plant-based vegan diet provides an abundance of micronutrients we often fall short on while ensuring adequate intake of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. We recommend 80 percent of calories come from carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat and 10 percent from protein.

“Choosing colourful, low-fat, plant-based foods often ensures this ratio, or a comparable one that will leave you feeling great. Especially good protein sources include whole-wheat pasta, ancient grains, beans, peas and lentils, and even leafy greens like spinach and broccoli,” he added.

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On breaking up with cheese

Vegan blogger Sara Hohn of Homemade Levity has written about her struggles giving up dairy cheese.

Sara is one of those people who used to make entire meals from cheese, which surely must rank as one of the most addictive animal products. As Sara notes, who can deny that “gooey, salty, fatty, creamy foods are delicious?”

In this article, Sara shares some “whole food substitutes for cheese that can help you achieve the same types of flavors, without the dairy”.

Sara talks about focusing on adding lots of flavor to your plant-based food, including fresh herbs, sauces, dressings and spices, and making more of an effort in the kitchen to come up with tasty alternatives to cheese as a convenience food.

There are significant health issues with cheese highlighted in this article, including its high saturated fat and cholesterol content, and the links between dairy products and an increased risk of cancer and diabetes. Also mentioned is the cruelty of the dairy industry that ruthlessly exploits dairy cows and their offspring.

Several quality cheese substitutes are referred to in this article, which unfortunately for us in Australia are all US-based and unavailable. However, as Sara points out, you can make dairy free cheese from coconut milk, nuts, chickpea flour, even potatoes! She links to several vegan cheese recipes in her article.

If you’re wondering how you can give up, or reduce your reliance on dairy products, I recommend you read our 9 tips for giving up dairy, including cheese.

Have you tried any non-dairy cheeses or vegan cheese recipes? If you have, let us know what you think!

Superfoods for a superlife – in search of optimal longevity and nutrition

Rich Roll, plant-based vegan ultra-athlete, author, speaker, podcaster and blogger, featured Darin Olien on his podcast number 153. On this podcast, Darin shares insights and wisdom with Rich from his extraordinary adventure-based experiences as a widely recognized exotic superfoods hunter, wellness advocate and environmental activist.

To help himself heal from a football injury when he was young, Darin embarked on a twenty year quest to study exotic, indigenous herbs and superfoods across the globe. This included communing with thousands of rural farmers, growers and manufacturers in remote communities across Peru, Bhutan, the Amazon, the Himalayas, the South Pacific, Latin America and Asia. Now Darin sources high-quality, fair-trade superfoods and herbal commodities to market through his company, Darin’s Naturals.

In his work with fitness company Beachbody, Darin was instrumental in the development and ongoing formulation of the wildly successful whole-food supplement, Shakeology.

Darin chronicles his experience in his new book Superlife: The 5 Forces That Will Make You Healthy, Fit and Eternally Awesome – as well as on his website Superlife – where he demystifies health, fitness, nutrition, and longevity into simple daily actions designed to promote life-long wellness.

As Rich Roll observes, the term superfoods is prone to overuse. Are these foods truly “super” or is it all just exaggerated marketing hype? This is a conversation that explores that issue and much more. Recommended listening.

Hope you enjoy this week’s Green Nutrition News! Let me know what you think about any of the topics in the comment section below.

Tom Perry