The Protein Myth
One of the most common misconceptions regarding cutting meat and dairy from one's diet centers around consuming an adequate amount of protein. Tell someone you’re going vegan, and chances are high your protein levels will soon become a topic of discussion.
Macro and Micronutrients
Food is made up of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients refers to the three energy-yielding nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and lipids (also known as fats). Micronutrients, on the other hand, refers to the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which are compounds found in plants providing various health benefits.
Protein, just like the other macro and micronutrients, is essential for a healthy functioning body. For some reason though, ever since protein was first discovered in 1839, protein has been seen as a superior nutrient that consuming more is better. It’s also widely believed that protein is exclusive to foods coming from animals.
Animal protein is often referred to as having a greater ‘biological value’ or higher quality of protein compared to plants. Protein from animals has been shown to be utilized by the body more efficiently which increases body growth rates (among other effects). Increased body growth is good, right? Unfortunately, this is a misconception that is only perpetuating bad health.
According to T. Colin Campbell, “The problem with this proposition is that high quality does not necessarily mean better health. Increasing body growth may be useful for farm animal production and growing children faster, but it also means growing cancer cells faster, improving conditions for heart disease and speeding up aging—each of which has been documented. Growing young girls more rapidly means earlier sexual maturation, higher circulating levels of estrogen and, eventually, elevated breast cancer risk.”
Countless research has shown several negative effects to consuming animal protein. Nutritionfacts.org states, “The adverse effects associated with long-term, high protein-high meat diets may include disorders of bone and calcium balance, increased cancer risk, disorders of the liver, and worsening of coronary artery disease.” Not to mention the damage it produces on the kidneys and the release of insulin-like growth factor 1(IGF-1), which is a cancer-promoting growth hormone.
Another problem with animal-based protein is that you are not only getting protein, but also the fat and cholesterol that are naturally in all animal-based foods. Consuming more protein coming from meat and dairy also means consuming more cholesterol and fat that the body does not need. Cholesterol is necessary to help make cell membranes, hormones, and vitamin D, but our liver naturally makes all the cholesterol our bodies need.
Plants on the other hand, contain protein, help prevent and reverse disease, are naturally cholesterol free, and are also naturally low in fat. ALL (yes you heard that right…all) plants contain protein! Plants are also naturally packed full of fiber and plenty of micronutrients (animal proteins on the other hand do not contain micronutrients). Consuming a wide variety of plants is the best way to ensure you are getting a wide variety of nutrients the body needs to work optimally.
People often think that in order to meet protein requirements, we need to consume ‘complete’ proteins, which are often synonymous with animal foods. A ‘complete protein’ contains all the 9 essential amino acids, whereas an ‘incomplete protein’ is lacking one or more of the essential amino acids. Most plants are incomplete proteins. It was once believed that all essential amino acids needed to be eaten together in order to reap the benefits of protein, which made skeptics doubt the validity of eating plants for protein. Fortunately, there are many plants that contain all the essential amino acids like soy, hemp, quinoa, buckwheat and a handful of other plant foods. Also, the myth that all essential amino acids need to be eaten together has since been busted. Consuming a wide variety of plants each day will provide that body with the amino acids needed.
Protein Content in Plant-Based Foods:
As stated before, all plants contain protein. Check out this list to get an idea of what plant foods have the most.
Broccoli: 5 grams per cup
Spinach: 5 grams per cup
Rye Grains: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
Rolled Oats: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
Spirulina: 4 grams per teaspoon
Chia seeds: 10 grams per 2 tablespoons
Flax Seeds: 5 grams per 2 tablespoons
Kale: 5 grams per cup
Lentils: 18 grams per cup
Black Beans: 13 grams per cup
Chickpeas: 13 grams per cup
Tofu: 10 grams per 3 ounces
Tempeh: 10 grams per 2 ounces
Edamame (Soybeans) – 16 grams per cup
Romaine Lettuce: 3 grams per cup
Sunflower Seeds: 10 grams per 1/4 cup
Almonds: 7 grams per 1/4 cup
Pumpkin Seeds: 10 grams per 1/4 cup
Quinoa: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
Data from BUSTED! The Myth About 'Incomplete' Plant-Based Protein - One Green Planet
Rest assured that those who chose to ditch meat and dairy are not frail and protein deficient. There are quite a few plant-based athletes that are at the top of their game and credit their diet choices as a huge factor (check out Game Changers to learn more). Choosing to consume protein via plants rather than animals will not only provide a sufficient amount of protein for the body but also help to prevent and even reverse many of the most common diseases in the world today.