Gone are the days where we question the quantity of adequate protein in our diets. Protein shakes. Protein cookies. Protein waters. We’ve gone protein mad.
In our chase to fuel our bodies with healthful nutrition, are we potentially compromising our long-term wellbeing?
The past ten years have seen an exponential growth in the western world’s obsession with protein consumption. With fat and sugar being demonised, and our desire for carbohydrates constantly on the decrease, proteins were seemingly idolised and lusted after in this gym-going, weight-watching society. But why are we all so convinced that we need to consume copious amounts of the stuff in order to live a healthful life?
Image credit: Vanessa Espinoza @plantbasemuscle
Our fascination with protein stems from the incorrect early recommendations of dieticians. In the 1890’s, the USDA recommended the consumption of over 110g of protein intake per day, about twice the amount that we truly require, according to today’s government recommendations. Further developments occurred in the early 1990’s, where experts of this time were convinced that the amount of protein consumed was directly equivalent to the health of the individual, particularly when fitness was considered.
And what was considered the best source of protein? Meat, dairy and animal products, of course.
Scientists were sold on the idea that meat consumption was the most effective way to wipe out child malnutrition – music to the ears of the agro-farming industry. In the 1960s, our obsession with protein was to gain further momentum, when the UN published a global protein deficiency report stating the need to develop supplements to help close a so called protein gap in lesser developed countries. Campbell and Campbell (2005) report how the US government began subsidising the production of dried milk powder in order to help supplement those afflicted with poor diets.
But by the 1970’s, the theory of a protein gap was scientifically debunked, as nutritionists and researchers discovered the guidelines for protein consumption to be massively overestimated. The result? A confused world questioning just how much protein they truly need.
Moving forward in time to the present, and not much has changed in terms of people’s attitudes towards protein consumption, despite current nutritional guidelines. A mere glance on social media with a hashtag of #fitfood will reveal a plethora of meat and dairy based protein-dense meals and snacks fuelling people’s bodies. Our generation has become a bevy of protein junkies, maximising their animal protein consumption in the hopes of achieving ultimate health. They are fuelled by fitness brands, who are keen to produce the highest whey protein supplement for their consumers to knock back after a workout, whilst they receive ambivalent, mixed messages from the media telling them we need less of this nutrient, more of that fat – but when it comes to protein, where exactly does the truth lie?
Let’s Talk About Protein
There’s no getting around the fact that we all need to consume protein. Protein consists of long chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our every cell, DNA strand and various hormones. Put simply, we depend on protein to maintain our body’s every function, and without it we would soon run into trouble. This leads many to an assumption: surely the more protein we eat the better, right?
Wrong. Actually, the majority of amino acids we require can be synthesised in the body without dietary intervention, with the exception of 9 essential amino acids which need to be sourced from our food. But would you be surprised if I told you that in reality, we only need to consume a maximum level of 10% of our daily caloric intake from protein, as outlined by the British Nutrition Foundation. This equates to around 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight, or around two palm-sized portions of protein-rich foods every day.
Despite this, the majority of Westerners are eating around 45-55% more protein in their diets than is physically required. What’s worse, the primary source of all this excessive protein intake is from animal products, placing excess strain upon the environment as well as the body’s own health.
Too Much Protein Is Bad News
In light of recent dietary trends, researchers grow interested to discover whether this surge in protein intake is in fact causing more harm than good. Recent reports in the Guardian and The Huffington Post have caused waves of unrest amongst our meat-loving society. And for good reason.
Heart disease and chronic kidney disease are rife amongst the current adult population in western societies, which interestingly correlates with the increased levels of protein from meat, egg and dairy consumption. In fact, there are currently far more negative scientific associations between high protein consumption and health than there are positive. High protein diets, consisting of animal products, are commonly associated with atherosclerosis, kidney disease, liver disorders and worsening of coronary heart disease. But not all proteins were created equal.
Animal product consumption, primarily red and processed meat, is associated with chronic diseases. Animal protein induces an increased level of inflammation in the body, whilst flooding the circulatory system with excess cholesterol, fat, growth hormone factors and additives, which wreak havoc on the homeostatic processes of the body. Time and time again, animal protein consumption is correlated with poor health, whereas plant-based protein sources have been shown to have the opposite effect.
Plant protein sources contain higher levels of fibre, an optimum supply of nutrients and help increase general health. Plant proteins do not cause inflammation, nor do they contribute towards cholesterol levels, heart diseases or result in reduced kidney functions. You only have to review recent scientific research in nutrition, such as that found on Nutritionfacts.org, to discover how healthful a vegan diet is compared to omnivorous consumption.
Myth busting: Protein Quality
The most common rebuttal when choosing plant-based sources of protein over those sourced from meat and dairy products, is the myth that plant proteins are of a lower quality than those from animal sources. Whilst it is true that animal proteins contain a complete range of amino acids (and therefore are inclusive of all 9 essential amino acids), there is no evidence to suggest that consuming a plant-based diet will leave you deficient in any sense of the word. Providing you are getting enough calories, eating a wholefood diet, and consuming protein from a variety of sources, there’s no reason anyone should become protein deficient regardless of dietary choices. Staple sources of dietary protein from plant-based diets include beans, pulses, legumes, tofu and soya products, whole wheat bread, oats, seeds and nuts. When combining these in your daily diet, you’ll effortlessly achieve your recommended daily intake.
Vegan Protein Sources per 100g
- Seitan – 70g
- Pumpkin Seed Butter – 24g
- Peanut Butter – 23g
- Tahini – 22g
- Tempeh – 19g
- Flaxseeds – 18g
- Oats – 17g
- Tofu – 15g
- Lentils – 9g
Over my five or so years of being completely plant-based, I’ve had the honour of conversing with some incredibly strong and inspirational athletes, whom have each adopted a vegan diet and benefited from outstanding energy levels, strength and performance. Talking to competitive powerlifter Vanessa Espinoza, she explains:
“So many people think that you can only get your protein from eating animals and have no idea that there is plant protein. Every fruit and vegetable, nuts, seeds, grain, legumes, tofu contain amino acids, which is what our bodies absorb. Our bodies only need 5 to 10% of our daily caloric intake in the form of protein.”
“The most important tip is to not worry about your protein intake IF you are eating a variety of “Real” plant based healthy foods. It’s more important to count nutrients and if you’re eating nutrient dense foods you will get all the protein you need and more. I know many people transitioning to a vegan lifestyle worry about not having supplements anymore, but there are many great vegan sources of protein in your diet already. The second is getting enough calories in order to build muscle. Again eating “Real” food is the key to a building muscle mass. There is no substitute for real food, food is medicine.”
In a world obsessed by harmful protein consumption, there is absolutely no need to succumb to the trappings of an omnivorous diet in order to survive and thrive. Being vegan, and consuming a wholefood, plant-based diet rich in a variety of grains, beans and legumes will ensure an ample supply of protein whether you strive to deadlift three times your bodyweight, or simply to be healthy.
Take the vegan pledge today, and see for yourself how eating a plant-based diet can enrich the health of your body.