These days you can’t go into a restaurant without someone asking you if ‘ you would like more protein with that’, or walking into a grocery store without seeing the word ‘protein’ plastered on a food package. This word has become the forefront of our society where food is concerned and it seems that no matter where you go, vegan, or non-vegan, this word always comes up where food is present. So why do we need protein? For the most part, it’s a question that never seems to be asked but rather assumed that we need to eat it in order to survive as a human race.
There are many reasons why we need protein, in which I will expand on later, but it’s also important to know that this macronutrient is just as important as the other macronutrients we put into our bodies. To be quite honest, I feel that this whole push behind the importance of protein intake is not so much about our health but rather to make profit for food manufacturers.
So, let’s re-visit the question again, why do need protein?
First of all, we need protein in order to survive. How much? Well, that number will vary depending on who you are talking to. For the record, the WHO (World Health Organization) has our daily intake of protein at about 5% of our total calories. If you go to their web site, do a search on protein and amino acid requirements for human nutrition and scan through the 284-page document, you will not only find this information but get truly educated on protein. But who has time for this right? People who are 100% plant-based eaters, consume on average 10% of their total calorie from protein daily if not a little more.
Protein has several functions of which it is most known for growth and maintenance. Throughout our lives regardless of our age, we are constantly rebuilding new tissue and we need a constant supply of amino acids to do this. When our bodies are healing from injuries or illness, our bodies require a constant regeneration of cells and tissue to bring our strength back and heal our bodies.
It’s also required for keeping our fluid and salt levels in balance. Fluid imbalances can occur when protein concentrations are low, so protein aids to maintain the normal sodium and potassium balance. This function is necessary to sustain life.
Protein is an important building block for important substances such as enzymes, hemoglobin, hormones, and antibodies. If we take a look at insulin, which is the primary protein hormone, it helps regulate our blood sugar levels and another important hormone, thyroid hormone, which controls our metabolic rate.
These reasons mentioned above, although given at a high level as they may be, it is important that vegans or plant-based eaters need to be concerned about their protein intake?
I get asked this question a lot. I have to be honest, I grew up on meat, dairy, eggs, and cheese along with various plants such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Today, I only consume plant-based foods; whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Are Animal-based Proteins Superior to Plant-based Proteins?
Our bodies rely on obtaining required certain amino acids. Proteins consist of twenty different amino acids, eleven of these are naturally synthesized in our bodies, and the remaining nine are essential which must be obtained from the foods that we eat. If you are eating plant-based foods, some contain all. Other plant-based foods contain a mix of these amino acids and lack others. If you’re consuming a variety of plant-based foods every day including whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, you are getting all the essential amino-acids that your body needs, thus putting the argument to rest that you can’t get sufficient amino acids from plant-based foods. And if I can add to this, you are also getting a wide variety of minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients that you cannot obtain through animal-based proteins.
Where the argument gets tricky is not that animal proteins are superior to plant-based proteins, but rather how they get absorbed into our bodies. Animal based proteins are much more readily available for our protein synthesizing reactions (because they contain all essential amino acids) whereas plant-based proteins are limited. When we combine a variety of plant-based foods (whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits & vegetables) the rate becomes equal to animal based proteins. Our amino acid consumption is then met. So, the myth around animal based proteins being superior to plant-based protein is de-bunked.
The issue around the consumption of high animal protein diets is the increase of saturated fat and cholesterol that is contained in these foods. Even if you are taking in ‘leaner’ sources of meat such as chicken or turkey, they are still filled with hormones, antibiotics, bacteria and parasites. Animal based proteins as a group are associated with a faster growth rate which can in turn trigger early menarche in women, higher rates of cancer, and are linked with higher rates of CHD and type II diabetes. We also can’t forget the absence of essential vitamins and minerals that are not found in animal based proteins compared to those found in plant-based proteins.
The Effects of Too Much Protein?
We can have too much of anything in our diet if we constantly consume the same foods every day. If there is no variety in the foods we eat. we miss out on essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and this is why it’s important to focus on the ‘micronutrients’ rather than the ‘macronutrients’. Most people don’t realize that once our protein requirements are met, the rest is just wasted through our bodies. Our bodies only use what is necessary and this goes for all the nutrients we eat. However, when we take in high amounts of protein from animal based sources, it stresses our kidneys, bones, and especially our liver, as these are the organs that have to clean up the mess. Breaking down and eliminating excess protein stresses our bones. The amount of protein we need daily will vary depending on our physical activity level, illness, weight, etc., so it’s important not to over-consume and miss out on other essential nutrients.
Effects of Protein on Exercise Performance
There has been much controversy on the effects of plant-based protein vs. animal based protein on athletes. What most people don’t realize, especially athletes, is that they consume way too much protein either through their diet or supplementation. In today’s society, there is an increase in professional athletes going 100% plant-based with their food. Why? For several reasons including increased performance, a rise in energy levels, and the ability to recover faster by consuming whole foods.
Let’s look at muscle mass and the building of muscle in our bodies. Genetics plays a large role in how big our muscles get along with factoring in hormones, and the frequency at which the muscle is loaded. When we add more weight, the muscle enlarges. You can only do so much with the size of your muscle regardless of much protein you consume. Excess protein will NOT make our muscles any bigger.
The same goes for an endurance athlete. Although carbohydrates are an important macronutrient for athletes who train for long distance events, they also require protein for repair of muscle tissue fibers, but also to help aid in recovery. If they need more protein, they simply increase their caloric intake to balance out their needs. Our bodies are smart, nature simply provides us with everything we need as long as we consume enough calories and a wide variety of whole foods.
No Whey Man! Protein Supplementation
Whey protein is something that you see on the shelves at many nutritional stores. Although the marketing for this product is very successful for some athletes (both recreational & pro), the research in it’s effects shows otherwise. Whey protein is an isolated, pasteurized whey protein. It’s highly acid-forming (plant-based foods are more alkaline forming) which means that it induces inflammation. Inflammation slows down the rate at which our muscles recover from exercise. The faster we recover, the quicker we can get back to our workouts to train again. If we can consume more plant-based foods (which are alkaline forming) post-workout, the rate of recovery is much superior than taking in acid-forming foods such as animal proteins and whey supplementation. Plant-based athletes have a distinctive advantage over those who consume animal based products and whey supplementation, not just in recovery, but they also suffer less from degenerative diseases later in life.
EAT WELL – MOVE WELL – LIVE WELL
Your Compassionate Coach,