Protein. Protein Everywhere.

A few weeks before school started I was having a conversation with friends about packing lunches and snacks, how we love and hate getting back into routine, and we shared some ideas on what we normally pack for our kiddos.  As we made a few suggestions for each other, my friend said “yeah, but what about protein?”.

I’ve been vegan for over three years, and luckily, I have not heard this direct statement as many times as other folks.  My immediate reaction is something like this:

I want to discuss why I think you should RELAX about protein.

First, I understand that you want it.  We absolutely need it.  Proteins are one of the three sources of energy used by the body.  Proteins build and maintain the tissue in your body.  Proteins have many other jobs to keep your body going, but we aren’t going to get technical here.  We all agree, our bodies do need protein. Maybe we just don't need an unending supply - and let me explain why.

Let’s address all those raging thoughts swirling in your head right now.

  1. Why do you feel like you need all the protein you can possibly get your hands on?  What is the motivation to absolutely make sure that protein is front and center of every meal or snack?

The answer to this one is easy - and a bit scary: Because we’ve always done it this way.

Growing up, my dinner plate was the tri-plate.  We had a giant portion of meat, a starch, and some soggy vegetables.  Of course we had that tall glass of cow’s milk and maybe a slice of wonder bread with butter.  And in my case, copious amounts of Lawry's Season Salt. My mother put that shit on everything (barf).  

Every commercial, print advertisement, public school, health class, everywhere you look - they all say the same thing - get your protein.  It’s just always been this way.  Our government issued food guidelines have evolved over the years, but they all maintain that protein comes first (I am, however, thrilled to see that legumes, soy, peas, nuts, and seeds now are included!).

There are so many shouting at us, telling us what to eat, and are shouting so loudly as if we are all going to crumble if we don’t get enough.  Why?  This brings me to my next question.
  1. Have you ever heard of a protein deficiency?

Side note to ponder:
While iron is better absorbed from heme (meat) sources, non-heme (plant) iron is better regulated causing less damage to the body.
So, do you want lots of damaging iron absorbed into your body, or less iron that will actually help your body?  

  1. So, if we are all getting enough protein and there is still worry about getting “enough”, how much protein do you actually need?

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) from the Federal US Drug and Food Administration (FDA) is a general 50 grams for adults and the RDA from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women.  Both organizations agree that these recommendations will vary by age, weight, physical activity and generally from person to person regardless of those factors.  This number is also an average, not a minimum.  

I found this cool tool on the USDA’s website that can help you get an estimate for the daily amount of protein recommended.  I would also remind you that this is an estimate and you may need more or less dependending on your actual activity level (be honest!) and how your body responds.

Based on this calculator, I would need about 51 grams of protein, my 8 year old would need about 24 grams of protein, and my 5 year old would need about 16 grams of protein per day.  

  1. Now you know what the average recommendations are.  Do you know how much protein are you actually getting?

Let’s use a simple example of what your kiddo may consume on a typical Standard American Diet (SAD) and how many grams of protein that includes:
2 Eggs and 2 Slices of Bacon
Eggs: 12g
Bacon: 6g
Turkey Sandwich
Turkey: 12g
Applegate Farms Turkey Slices
Bread: 8g
Nature’s Own Whole Wheat, 2 slices
Yogurt OR Cheese String
Yogurt: 5g
Stonyfield Farms Organic YoKids
Cheese String: 7g
Organicville String Cheese
Cheeseburger and Fries
Chicken Strips and Fries
Cheeseburger: 13g
Fries (small) 4g
Burger King Kid’s Meal (props to BK for not even offering fries in their kid meals!)
2 Count Strips: 22g
Fries (small): 3g
Chick-Fil-A Kid’s Meal, count 28g if your kid eats a regular sandwich.

*I want to note that there are many other aspects of the nutrition we are putting in our bodies (both good and bad) with these foods.  This post is about protein, so we are going to try and stay there.

TOTAL protein for your kiddo: 70 grams.  70.

If you fed your little one any additional vegetables, oatmeal, nuts, nut butter, beans, rice, etc. you can add to that total.  Yes, plants have protein.

Do you remember the USDA’s recommendation for the average intake for an adult male?  56.

PS.  ALL of the animal foods container ZERO fiber.  The bread and fries have about 2-4g each.

Let’s take a peek at another example menu with a plant-based diet and how many grams of protein this includes (this is what a typical Friday would look like at our house, plus a few more snacks and veggies):
Banana Bread with
Walnuts (about 2tbsp)
Bread: 4g
Homemade, See Recipe
Walnuts: 2g
PBJ on Whole Wheat Bread
PB: 9g
Kirkland Organic PB
Bread: 10g
Dave’s Killer Bread, 2 slices
Animal Crackers and Grapes
Crackers: 2g
Trader Joe’s Organic
Grapes: 1g
Vegan Cheese Pizza
Pizza: 6g
Daiya Pizza, ½

TOTAL protein for this kiddo: 34 grams.  This still is in excess of the recommended amount of protein for my 8 and 5 year old.

You can hit the mark (and much more) with no meat, no dairy, and no effort.  

  1. Well, what’s wrong with getting a bunch of protein anyway?  

There are a few reasons why too much protein can be a problem.  

Animal protein comes with some additional items that you may not want on your plate - cholesterol, saturated fat, constipation, stress on your kidneys, and animal suffering. Adding cholesterol and saturated fat to your diet can lead to heart disease - the number one killer in the United States.

Animal protein has also been shown to stimulate cancer growth cells.
"... dietary protein proved to be so powerful in its effect that we could turn on and off cancer growth simply by changing the level consumed... But that's not all. We found that not all proteins had this effect. What protein consistently and strongly promoted cancer? Casein, which makes up 87% of cow's milk protein, and promoted all stages of the cancer process. What type of protein did not promote cancer, even at high levels of intake? The safe proteins were from plants, including wheat and soy. As this picture came into view, it began to challenge and then to shatter some of my most cherished assumptions." - T. Colin Cambell The China Study

What is your family health history?  Being thin does not equate to optimal health.  There are things going on inside your body that are directly related to what you put in it.

Your body can also go into a state of ketosis with too much protein.  During this state, your body runs out of carbs and starts to burn fat for energy.  Your body does do this on occasion, but there are some die-hard ketosis believers that like to make their body run this way for extended periods of time.  I believe this is not good for your body, or sustainable.  Carbs (I'm talking about whole-food, non-processed carbs. Not your white bagel and pretzel crisps.) equal energy.  You I need energy to not be a grumpy bitch.  

However, I think the most relevant and immediate issue I have with it has to do more with what you are edging out, than putting into your body.    

  1. Are you so focused on getting protein that you are sacrificing the opportunity to get other nutrients?

As I mentioned in the table above, when you are getting an abundance of animal protein, you are also getting ZERO fiber.  The RDA of fiber is around 30 grams.  If you are going to track your intake of a nutrient, do this one first.

I also mentioned that the top three nutrient deficiencies are B6, Iron, and Vitamin D.  Not protein.  Coincidentally, sunflower seeds are an excellent source of B6 and happen to be a good source of protein as well.  Crazy, right?

Take a look at what is on your plate.  Are you eating the same foods all the time?  If so, you could be missing out on what your body is craving or what your little ones need to grow.  

You don’t need to be worried about getting in enough protein all the time.  Be worried about getting variety.

So, how do you feel about protein now?

It can be difficult to sort out all the information coming at you and reconcile that with your desire and worry over what is best for you and your family.  I have learned that I have to be responsible for educating myself about the truth of nutrition.  There is a lot of money at play and hidden agendas when it comes to our food sources.  You must ask questions, you must keep learning.

I don’t have anyone paying me to promote vegetables.  What I do have is a body I would very much like to keep in good shape.  My family has a history of disease.  Diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, stroke, cancer, and general crazy (doesn’t every family?!).  I want to do everything in my power to stick around and enjoy my life without a special case full of pills on the kitchen table.  I want to teach my kiddos the importance of learning to take care of their bodies.

This is my motivation to share the information that I learn.  I hope this motivates you to keep learning and sharing as well.

There are so many more discussion points on this topic.  Please keep reading and learning as much as you can!  These are just a few places to start.

The current "food pyramid" as I used to know it is now MyPlate.  
Read here about the protein recommendations.
Dr. Garth Davis is a bariatric surgeon in Houston, TX.  He has written a book on Protein and our obsession with it.
You can listen to an interview with him on the Rich Roll Podcast.
Here is a short video about Dr. Davis.

Dr. T. Colin Cambell conducted the China Study (and was also raised on a dairy farm). He has written several books, including Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition & The China Study
One of my favorite fitness gurus, and just general motivators is Chalene Johnson.  She is the creator of Turbo Jam and PIYO among other things.  Listen to her podcast here for an interesting discussion on Protein.
PCRM (The Physicsians Committee for Responsible Medicine) is a group created to educate the public, industry and policy makers to create a better future for people and animals.  This article discusses the "protein myth".

This documentary is one of the first pieces of information that led me to keep asking questions about nutrition.

NY Times opinion piece on protein.

I don't agree with everything the Dr. Mercola has to say, but we do agree on this!

Popular Posts