Protein is an often misunderstood component of our diets. Vegetarians and vegans often hear the questions, “How do you get enough protein?” and “Isn’t protein from meat better than plant based sources?” Many athletes and bodybuilders regularly load up on tons of protein, especially in the form of supplements and powders. Is all the whey protein really necessary? Do we really need to eat complete protein at every meal? What is the real truth behind all of this?
Before we get to the myths let’s consider what proteins are and why they are essential to health. Protein is one of the three macronutrients needed by our bodies. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Proteins are made up of amino acids. When our bodies eat protein-containing foods, they break down the proteins into the amino acids and use them to create the types of molecules we need to perform the task at hand. Nine of the amino acids are essential, because our bodies cannot make them on their own. This means we must get them from our diets.
Proteins are extremely important to our health. They are the essential building blocks of our blood, tissue and organs. They are important building blocks for our metabolism and are a major component of enzymes that trigger many chemical reactions within the body. Proteins are key molecules in our immune system which protects our bodies from foreign invaders. In addition they preserve muscle mass and are important for growth and development of the body. We simply could not live without this crucial macronutrient. Maybe this is why there is so much importance placed on getting enough.
Now that we have this basic understanding on to the five myths:
- Canadians are not getting enough protein
Recommendations for protein according to Health Canada is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day for most active adults. A person who weighs 125 pounds needs 45g of protein in a day (125lbs/2.2lbs per kilo x 0.8g). Pregnant and breastfeeding women need about 10 more grams of protein than they did before they were pregnant. Nursing women need 20 grams more protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production. Children require different amounts of protein for growth depending on their age so be sure to check Health Canada regulations for this. By the numbers below you can see that it is quite easy to get enough protein and most Canadians are eating substantially more than necessary:
- A small 3-ounce piece of meat has about 21 grams of protein (size of the palm of your hand)
- A typical 8-ounce piece of meat could have over 50 grams of protein.
- One 8-ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein.
- One cup of milk has 8 grams of protein.
- One cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein.
- Protein from animal sources is best
Protein from animals is definitely a source of complete protein but can be high in unhealthy fat and cholesterol, and eating excessive amounts of animal protein has been linked to some types of cancer and poor heart health. Plant-based proteins on the other hand contain fiber, complex carbohydrates, come from a wide range of sources and are cholesterol and saturated fat free. In addition if that wasn’t enough they are more environmentally friendly too. Even if you are not vegetarian or vegan we could all benefit from getting this important nutrient from plants more often.
- It is essential to eat complimentary proteins at each meal
Incomplete protein sources do not contain all of the essential amino acids needed for good health. Vegetarian and vegan diets often promote eating complimentary protein foods together in one meal to ensure you are getting complete protein however it is only necessary to eat them the same day. Our bodies have limited ability to store amino acids for later use.
- If you work out you need to drink protein shakes
Serious athletes do need more protein but not as much as you may think! Recommendations for those wanting to build muscle are up to 1.0 grams per pound of body weight. For example a man weighing 180lbs who wants to build muscle would need up to 180 grams of protein versus 65 grams for an average active male at the same weight. There are exceptional considerations for professional athletes of course. Whey protein supplements usually contain 16-26grams of protein per serving and are fairly pricey. You can just as easily get this extra protein from food so no need for protein shakes per se but they are convenient.
- Vegetarian and Vegan diets do not supply enough protein.
Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids our bodies need to thrive. Meats are complete proteins, but so too are quinoa, hemp seeds, and soy products, like miso, tofu and tempeh. Many other vegetables and legumes also contain amino acids, including peas, lima beans, lentils, kale, artichoke, collard greens, spinach, Brussel sprouts, squash, cauliflower plus more. It may require a bit more planning but rest assured you can get enough protein from plants.