In the nutrition world, how much and what types of protein one should consume is highly debated. Some say that high-quality animal meat is needed for optimal health, while others advocate for a plant-based diet.
What is true is that protein is the basic building block of the cells and tissues that we need to keep us strong. However, it is not true that the more protein in your diet, the healthier and stronger you’ll be. In fact, overdosing on protein is one of the reasons that we’ve become so unhealthy in recent decades, and studies have shown that as protein consumption goes up, so do the rates of chronic disease.
The focus for all of us should therefore be on upgrading the proteins we consume (since not all proteins are created equal!) and making better choices on a regular basis. Try experimenting with what works for your body at this time in your life, by paying close attention to how you feel after consuming different types of protein. This way you’ll be able to successfully guide yourself to appropriate protein sources.
If you want to incorporate more plant-based protein into your diet, then good sources include the following:
- Tempeh (20g of protein per half packet)
- Lentils (19g of protein per cup of cooked lentils)
- Chickpeas (14.5g of protein per cup of cooked chickpeas)
- Hemp seeds (10g of protein per 3 tbsp)
- Quinoa (9g of protein per cup of cooked quinoa)
- Tofu (9g of protein per 75g serving)
- Almonds (8g of protein per quarter cup)
- Sunflower seeds (7g of protein per quarter cup)
- Broccoli (6g of protein per cup)
- Chia seeds (6g of protein per 2 tbsp)
- Kale (4.5g of protein per 2 cups)
Do bear in mind however that a vegetarian diet is not necessarily a healthy diet. People who avoid consuming animal products, but have little or no education about cooking or how to eat a balanced diet, are often called junk food vegetarians. Although chips, biscuits and cheese sandwiches on white bread don’t contain meat, they are not nutrient-rich foods! That said, if you’re eating a well-balanced plant-based diet with a wide variety of high-quality foods, such as vegetables, greens, sprouts, legumes, tempeh, beans, nuts and grains, then you will certainly meet your protein needs.
Proteins are long strings of amino acids, the building blocks for the regulation and maintenance of the human body. There are twenty different amino acids you need for good health, but our bodies can only make eleven of them.
The remaining nine are referred to as essential amino acids. Because we can’t make them, it is essential for us to get them from our diet. Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are known as complete proteins, although they are not necessarily better protein sources.
While animal flesh is a complete protein, unlike plant-based forms, it lacks phytonutrients, water, antioxidants, enzymes and fibre.
Quinoa, soya products, buckwheat and hemp seeds are also complete proteins. Other plant proteins are only slightly incomplete, so as long as you’re eating a wide variety, you should be fine. You don’t even have to eat them all at the same meal or even on the same day.
How Much Protein Should I Be Consuming?
A balanced diet should include a daily intake of around 0.36grams of protein for every pound of body weight, so at 130pounds (9st 4lbs or 59kg), you’d need about 47grams of protein daily, with a preference for ones derived from plant sources. This multiplier goes up if you’re an adolescent (to 0.39grams) or young child (0.43grams), or if you’re an athlete trying to build muscle, are pregnant or lactating, or under physical stress (0.45grams).
However, the average daily intake of protein in the UK is more like 100grams, so we are generally getting far more than we need, with the majority of it coming from high-saturated fat animal products. As a general rule, animal protein portions should be limited to the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.
- Too little protein: Common symptoms include sugar and sweet cravings, feeling spacey and jittery, fatigue, weight loss, loss of healthy colour in the facial area, feeling weak, anaemia, change in hair colour and texture, skin inflammation (in severe cases) and pot belly (in severe cases). That said, protein deficiency is virtually non-existent in industrialised countries
- Too much protein: Common symptoms include low energy, constipation, dehydration, lethargy, heavy feeling, weight gain, sweet cravings, stiff joints, foul body odour, halitosis and calcium loss to compensate for the acidic status in the body. The body may also become overly acidic and kidney function can decline since the stress required to process excess proteins causes the kidneys to face increased pressure to filter toxins and waste.
Sources of Protein
Protein comes in many different forms. Below is an overview of the majority of the available sources.
- Grains: grains are a staple in all civilisations around the world. While refined grains like white flour and white rice have had their bran and germ removed and are therefore stripped of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and fibre, whole grains such as brown rice, millet, quinoa, buckwheat and oats still contain these nutrient-rich components. Many people are sensitive to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye.Seitan is a high-protein product made from wheat gluten. It is not a whole food, but is not overly-refined either, especially if it’s homemade. Because this product is pure gluten, it is not for the gluten-sensitive!
- Beans: beans contain a more complete set of amino acids than other plant foods. When first introducing beans into the diet, choose fresh beans that are smaller in size such as split peas, mung and adzuki beans for easier digestion. Digestibility can be further improved by soaking beans overnight, adding spices or vinegar, skimming off the cooking foam, pressure cooking, puréeing, and eating small portions.
- Soya beans: soya beans are the most difficult bean to digest. Common forms of soya beans include edamame (baby soya beans), tofu (soya bean curd) and fermented soya beans in the forms of tempeh, miso and tamari. These are the best ways to consume soya for most people, unless they have problems with fermented foods. Today’s trend to consume soya in various highly processed ways such as commercial soya milk, soya meat and soya ice cream, may not be the best approach. Also, many people are allergic to soya. Soya beans are one of the most genetically engineered crops, so it is important to choose organic whenever possible.
- Nuts: nuts are generally considered a heart-healthy fat, not a protein, and are high in fatty acids, fibre, vitamin E and antioxidants. They are great for people who want to gain weight. Peanuts, which are actually legumes, are far higher in protein than other nuts.
- Seeds: high in nutrients and lower in caloric content than nuts, seeds provide anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits. Seeds contain vitamin E, fibre and are some of the few plant-based sources of omega-3s. Some of the healthiest seeds include chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower.
- Leafy greens: broccoli, spinach, kale, collard greens, bok choy, romaine lettuce and watercress all contain varying amounts of protein. Leafy greens are also the one food highly associated with longevity, because they contain major sources of magnesium, iron and calcium. They are also a rich source of quercetin, a bioflavonoid with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cancer fighting properties. Green leafy vegetables are dense with easily assimilated amino acids as well as other life-extending nutrients.
- Plant milks: made from various plant sources (soya beans, rice, almonds, etc), these are generally highly processed foods, unless they are homemade. They look similar to milk and are often fortified with the same nutrients as commercial cow’s milk. The taste varies greatly and different types work better for different culinary uses.
- Meat: commonly eaten meat includes chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, beef, buffalo, ostrich and game. Try different types to discover what works best for your body.
- Fish: fish are a lean, healthy source of protein and the oily kinds (salmon, tuna, sardines, etc) contain heart and brain-healthy omega-3s. Fish farming is a huge industry, and nearly 85% of the world’s fisheries are fished to capacity or overfished. Beware of mercury poisoning, genetic engineering and added chemicals. Eating fish that are lower on the food chain (like sardines) helps to decrease the risk of mercury and other toxins found in the flesh.
- Dairy: many people have a negative reaction to cow’s milk. Try other dairy foods like buttermilk, yogurt, butter or ghee. Or try other animal species like goat and sheep. Buy organic to avoid hormones and antibiotics. Unpasteurized, raw milk is also an option.
- Eggs: eggs are a quick, practical and inexpensive protein source. When eating eggs, try to have one, rather than two or three. Eat the whole egg to get the total energy of the egg, as opposed to just the egg white.
- Bees: protein from bee pollen and royal jelly digests easily and has many other nutrients. It’s a good option for vegetarians who want to avoid consuming animal flesh.
Plant vs. Animal Proteins
For centuries, many cultures have been eating animal protein, and many people feel that their body needs it. If this is the case, listen to your body and consider the amount and type that you need. High quality (organic, free-range, grass-fed) over quantity is definitely the key here.
Potential concerns surrounding the manufacture and consumption of animal products include antibiotics, factory farming, animal cruelty, irradiation, toxic sludge, e.coli bacteria, mad cow disease, genetic engineering, hormones, cancer, heart disease, obesity and the greater environmental impact.
Composed by Angela S Bryant Nutritionist in conjunction with Appleseeds