by Stacey Ellis
As a plant-based chef and vegan food educator (let’s say “vegucator” for short), I help people find their way towards a lifelong delicious and satisfying plant-based diet. It’s a career I love, and I’ve never felt a greater sense of purpose and urgency as I do in this work.
That’s right. I’m in a big ol’ hurry about it.
We all should be.
Downer alert: experts are now claiming that three out of five Americans will die from diseases related to our standard American diet (with cancer, heart disease and stroke leading the way), and that the next generation of children are not projected to live as long as their parents – unless we make serious shifts in the way Americans typically eat. We’re also in a race to reverse the effects of global warming, known to be the cause of every major environmental disaster we grapple with today. Oy!
In the presentations I give on plant-based eating, there are a number of questions that regularly come up:
Why am I always hungry when I try to go vegetarian?
Are fake meat substitutes okay to eat?
And the number one thing on their minds: What about protein?
Let’s dig in.
We do need protein to form the amino acids necessary for muscle growth. Muscles hold us upright and allow us to do all kinds of useful things like picking up heavy objects, holding challenging yoga poses for impossibly long lengths of time, and running marathons.
Protein is everywhere: It’s found in nearly every natural food imaginable… seeds, nuts, grains, and yes, fruits and vegetables. The advantage of getting protein from plant sources is the abundance of good-for-you micronutrients and phytochemicals you won’t find in animal proteins – things like fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc. Another benefit is the absence of saturated fat, known to contribute to heart disease. Learn more about plant-based proteins here.
A little goes a long way: We don’t need as much protein as most people think we do — only fifty-six grams per day for men and forty-six for women (USDA Recommended Daily Allowance). Studies show that most Americans consume 100-130 grams per day, way more than we actually need. Consider the standard American breakfast: two eggs, a couple pieces of bacon, toast, and a little milk in your coffee can get you up to about 30 grams. Throw in a chicken salad for lunch, a six-ounce steak for dinner, a protein bar as a snack, fruits and vegetables, and it’s easy to see how you could get to 100 grams or more every day.
It’s important to remember that the RDA is not a minimum requirement; it’s the optimal requirement. Just because protein is good for us doesn’t mean more is better. Our bodies also recycle protein. Unless we happen to be calorie deficient to the actual point of starvation (as in the serious medical condition caused by chronic calorie deficiency), we’re all good! We have a constant supply of amino acids at our disposal whenever we need them.
Less is more: Too much protein is actually bad for you, contributing to excess body weight and inflammation. Animal protein is tough on your gut, and undigested food hanging around in there for long periods of time can lead to inflammation and even colon cancer.
The healthiest people on the planet (with the highest rates of longevity) eat the least amount of protein. Conversely, Americans eat the highest amount of protein – mostly from animal products – and we’re the sickest country in the world. Not even high-performing athletes need much more protein than the rest of us for proper fitness and muscle development.
Watch out for phonies: Experts agree we should avoid isolated proteins in powdered and processed foods (whey, pea, soy, and wheat are common in heavily processed foods). Protein, when extracted from the whole food, becomes… an imposter (that’s technical talk) and is not good for you.
I’m a chef, not a nutritionist. My job is to make good food taste great, and my goal is to help people see how plant-based foods improve health, well-being, and longevity. I’m an avid consumer of information about food, especially plants, and I’ve learned a lot about why plant-based diets are optimal for not only the biggest, strongest, longest-living land mammals on Earth, but also for humans. My opinions are informed by current scientific schools of thought on how vital fruits and vegetables are to a healthy diet. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this podcast interview with Dr. Davis on No Meat Athlete for a much more elegant explanation on the greatest misconceptions around protein.