Where Will I Get My Protein?
On January 1, 2020, as we welcomed in the New Year, no one could have imagined how Covid-19 would radically change our world.
With breathless speed, fear and uncertainty gripped the world as we watched, for the first time in our lifetime, governments enact sweeping quarantines and stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of Covid-19. Businesses closed their doors, global supply chains failed and people stockpiled toilet paper – just in case.
However, nobody anticipated the panic that would ensue when meat packing plants began to close their doors due to Covid-19 outbreaks. JBS, Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield combined to close more than 20 slaughterhouses due to outbreaks at their plants and deaths in their workforces. Headlines warned of meat shortages, and almost instantly, shelves were emptied as people stockpiled their freezers leaving many to wonder what they would eat and if our nation was on a pathway to protein deficiency. In a swift response, President Trump issued an executive order using the Defense Production Act to mandate meat processing plants remain open, which ignited a heated debate between meat availability for the health of the population and worker safety.
However, the message that plant-based proteins can supply all of our protein needs has been absent from the national debate; highlighting the underlying universal belief that meat is the only reasonable source of protein.
What is protein and why is it so important?
Protein is essential to every cell and organ system in the body.
The word "protein" comes from the Greek word "protos" which means “of prime importance." For generations, we were taught that protein is critical to a strong, healthy body and that a well-balanced diet that includes meat/animal products, will supply all of our protein needs. On the surface this seems to make sense to the majority of the population. However, most people have never stopped to ask themselves fundamental questions like:
What is a balanced diet?
Are there sources of protein other than animal products?
Is plant protein sufficient to meet all of my body’s needs?
What does my body actually require for optimal health and vitality?
To answer those critical nutritional questions, we need to explore protein, its composition, sources and how to provide your body all the protein it needs to maintain healthy tissues and bodily systems.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients, along with fats and carbohydrates. It is the main building block of the human body including bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, hair, nails, immune cells, enzymes and even the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in our blood. In fact, about 17% of our body is made up of protein.
Protein is made up of 20 small building blocks, much like beads on a string, called amino acids.
These amino acids combine to create unique proteins that make up muscle, enzymes, hormones and skin. The combinations of amino acids help to direct the three-dimensional structure and function of each unique protein. Of the 20 total amino acids, there are 9 essential amino acids that your body cannot produce and must instead come from the foods that you eat. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by the body and there are conditional amino acids that are only essential if you are ill or under stress. The debate around essential amino acids is at the crux of the “meat is the superior source of protein" argument. That’s because according to its advocates, meat contains "sufficient amounts" of all 9 of the essential amino acids while plant sources are deficient in at least one of the 9. However, this faulty position assumes that meat is the only source of essential amino acids and the body will somehow fail to grow or repair if sufficient amounts of all of the essential amino acids are not consumed as a complete protein at every meal.
So, how much protein do you need to be healthy and what are the best sources?
According to the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), the average person requires 0.8 grams/kilogram of body weight. Athletes have a higher need of up to 1.4 – 1.8 grams per kilogram based upon their level of activity. Recent research also suggests that people over the age of 65 should shoot for protein intake in the range of 1.0 – 1.3 grams/kg to maintain muscle mass. Most adult women under the age of 65 require approximately 46 grams of protein per day whereas adult men under the age of 65 often need about 56 grams per day.
At first glance, this may seem like a lot of protein, but in fact most Americans consume too much protein with many reaching over 100 grams per day. The reality is that most people are not protein deficient and are actually consuming excessive protein!
Research has found that the average person today consumes between 90 – 135 grams of protein per day.
Fueling this debate is the belief that more protein is better because it helps maintain normal body weight and is beneficial for health. But, excess protein (4 calories/gram) above and beyond the daily calorie and structural needs is simply seen by the body as excess calories, that in most cases will be stored as fat. The extra fat associated with many animal products is harmful, leading to increased inflammation and cancer risk and even reduces the effectiveness and health of the immune system.
And, here’s an eye-opening fact…
Consuming too much animal protein can even contribute to osteoporosis, renal disease, liver dysfunction and increased risk for cancer and coronary artery disease.
Excessive animal protein, including dairy products, creates an acidic environment in our bodies and in order to neutralize the excess acid, the body pulls calcium from the bones to buffer the acid load. Then the acid and calcium are filtered by the kidneys and later concentrated and excreted in the urine. Foods containing protein from animal derived sources also come packaged with a host of injurious components including inflammatory molecules like Neu5Gc, heme iron, endotoxins and saturated fat.
Is it possible to get enough protein and all of the essential amino acids from a well-balanced, whole food, plant-based diet?
Your body is innately intelligent and can acquire all of the essential amino acids it needs from a wide variety of foods you eat each day without the need for combining specific foods. In fact, research has shown that people who eat a well-balanced, whole food, plant-based diet meet or actually exceed the recommended daily requirement for protein, including all of the essential amino acids. There are many plant-based foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids in varying quantities, including most vegetables, quinoa, buckwheat and soy to name just a few. Furthermore, extensive research has demonstrated that sufficient amounts of all 9 essential amino acids can be supplied through a whole food, plant-based diet filled with foods like whole grains, tubers, beans/lentils, leafy greens, mushrooms and other vegetables.
It is important to remember that all protein originates from plants.
Whether it is grass, algae, leaves, grains or even fruit, all protein on planet earth comes from plants. Animals are a secondary source of protein, a “middleman or middlecreature”, that efficiently consolidate plant sources of protein into muscle and other tissues. Herbivores like cattle, elephants and gorillas consume plants, leaves, or grass (40% protein) that is converted into muscle. If someone eats a steak, they are consuming protein that originated from a seed, soil, sun, water and air. Just like the cattle, elephants and gorillas, humans consuming a balanced, whole food, plant-based diet, from a variety of plant-based foods, will get all of the protein they need to maintain a healthy, strong body.
The most important next question to ask is, “If both an animal-based western diet and a whole food, plant-based diet can supply you with enough protein to meet the body’s needs, are there other important considerations regarding the source of my protein?” Or in other words…
“How do you want your protein packaged?”
If you choose plant-based protein, you’ll get a power packed source of protein that contains…
• A rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to reduce inflammation and optimize cellular functions, metabolism and recovery.
• Phytochemicals to promote healing, repair tissue, protect DNA, reduce inflammation, prevent cancer, support the microbiome and enhance the immune system’s ability to fight infections.
• Abundant fiber to avoid constipation, breakdown cholesterol and estrogen, protect against cancer and feed the microbiome.
That last point is the most important because fiber can only be found in plants.
While research suggests 25 – 35 grams of daily fiber is sufficient, the average person consumes only 15 – 16 grams of disease-preventing fiber each day. All of these numbers are well below the better amount of 70 – 100 grams of fiber consumed per day commonly seen in the longest living populations around the world.
But, if you choose animal protein, you’ll get your protein packaged with…
• Saturated fat, heme iron, Neu5Gc, heterocyclic amines and other molecules that cause inflammation and contribute to increased cancer and heart disease risk and the formation of type 2 diabetes.
• High levels of dietary cholesterol and very few vitamins or antioxidants.
• No fiber or phytochemicals to protect against diseases that leads to a disrupted microbiome and the production of inflammatory molecules, like TMAO, that damage arteries and joints.
Finally, if we are considering the sources of our protein, it is imperative that we also ask ourselves how they are produced. What is the real cost of producing a pound of protein from plants vs. animals?
A landmark study, the largest one ever completed, looked at more than 38,700 farms in 119 countries and found that 80% of the land is used to produce livestock but produced only 18% of the calories and 37% of the protein. In general, it takes about ten times as much land, water and energy to produce an animal-based diet compared to a plant-based diet. Approximately 2 football fields of land (often carved out of pristine forests) will feed 1 person eating an animal-based Western diet every year. However, those same 2 football fields could feed 14 people each year on a plant-based diet. Bite by bite, a whole food plant-based diet, containing all the necessary protein for optimal health, preserves and protects vital resources for future generations.
The answer is clear.
Protein from plants like whole grains, beans/lentils, leafy greens, mushrooms and vegetables is the optimal choice. It is comprehensively the healthiest, most regenerative and economical way to meet the nutritional needs of the global population – and it just so happens to be one of the most delicious ways to enhance your immune system.
1. Mariotti, François, and Christopher D. Gardner. "Dietary Protein and Amino Acids in Vegetarian Diets—A Review." Nutrients 11.11 (2019): 2661.
2. Tuso, Philip J., et al. "Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets." The Permanente Journal 17.2 (2013): 61.
3. Fulgoni, V.L., 3rd. Current protein intake in America: Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2008, 87, 1554S–1557S.
4. Mariotti, F. Plant protein, animal protein, and protein quality. In Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention; Mariotti, F., Ed.; Academic Press: Cambridge, MA, USA, 2017; pp. 621–642.
5. FAO/WHO/UNU. Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO/UNU Expert Consultation (2002: Geneva, Switzerland). World Health Organization; WHO Technical Report Series, No 935; WHO: Geneva, Switzerland, 2007
6. Gardner, C.D.; Hartle, J.C.; Garrett, R.D.; Offringa, L.C.; Wasserman, A.S. Maximizing the intersection of human health and the health of the environment with regard to the amount and type of protein produced and consumed in the United States. Nutr. Rev. 2019, 77, 197–215.
7. Schmidt, J.A.; Rinaldi, S.; Scalbert, A.; Ferrari, P.; Achaintre, D.; Gunter, M.J.; Appleby, P.N.; Key, T.J.; Travis, R.C. Plasma concentrations and intakes of amino acids in male meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans: A cross-sectional analysis in the EPIC-Oxford cohort. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 2016, 70, 306–312.
8. Rand, W.M.; Pellett, P.L.; Young, V.R. Meta-Analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2003, 77, 109–127.
9. Van Vliet, S.; Burd, N.A.; van Loon, L.J. The skeletal muscle anabolic response to plant- versus animal-based protein consumption. J. Nutr. 2015, 145, 1981–1991.
10. Song, M.; Fung, T.T.; Hu, F.B.; Willett, W.C.; Longo, V.D.; Chan, A.T.; Giovannucci, E.L. Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality. JAMA Intern. Med. 2016
11. Tharrey, M.; Mariotti, F.; Mashchak, A.; Barbillon, P.; Delattre, M.; Fraser, G.E. Patterns of plant and animal protein intake are strongly associated with cardiovascular mortality: The adventist health study-2 cohort. Int. J. Epidemiol. 2018.
12. Rand, W.M.; Pellett, P.L.; Young, V.R. Meta-Analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2003, 77, 109–127.
13. Boye, J.; Wijesinha-Bettoni, R.; Burlingame, B. Protein quality evaluation twenty years after the introduction of the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score method. Br. J. Nutr. 2012, 108, S183–S211.
14. Lottenberg, Ana Maria, et al. “Influence of Diet on Endothelial Dysfunction.”
Endothelium and Cardiovascular Diseases. Academic Press, 2018. 341-362.
15. Tuso, Phillip, Scott R. Stoll, and William W. Li. “A plant-based diet, atherogenesis, and coronary artery disease prevention.” The Permanente Journal 19.1 (2015):62.
16. Lopez-Garcia, Esther, et al. “Major dietary patterns are related to plasma concentrations of markers of inflammation and endothelial dysfunction.” Am J Clin Nutr 80.4 (2004): 1029–1035
17. Fung, Thomas C., Christine A. Olson, and Elaine Y. Hsiao. “Interactions between the microbiota, immune and nervous systems in health and disease.” Nature neuroscience 20.2 (2017): 145.
18. Qi, Jiaqian, et al. “Circulating trimethylamine N‐oxide and the risk of cardiovascular diseases: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of 11 prospective cohort studies.” Journal of cellular and molecular medicine 22.1 (2018): 185-194.
19. Yang, Wei, et al. “Is heme iron intake associated with risk of coronary heart disease? A meta-analysis of prospective studies.” Eur J Nutr 53.2 (2014): 395–400.
20. Padler-Karavani, vered, et al. “Diversity in specificity, abundance, and composition of anti-Neu5Gc antibodies in normal humans: potential implications for disease.” Glycobiology 18.10 (2008): 818–830.
21. Hung, H.C., Joshipura, K.J., Jiang, R., et al. “Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of major chronic disease.” J Natl Cancer Inst 96.21 (2004): 1577–1584.
22. Boden, Guenther, et al. “Effects of acute changes of plasma free fatty acids on intramyocellular fat content and insulin resistance in healthy subjects.” Diabetes 50.7 (2001): 1612–1617.
23. Poore, Joseph, and Thomas Nemecek. "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers." Science 360.6392 (2018): 987-992.