Recently, my daughter asked if I'd take a look at how much protein she was getting as a plant-based eater, since she was having a hard time losing a few quarantine pounds. This can be a real concern for plant-based and vegan eaters - especially those new to the WFPB (Whole-food, Plant-based) lifestyle. I get it. I was there once upon a time.
After reassuring her that I'd take a deep dive into her numbers, based on sample meals, it occurred to me that I'd best begin by delving into my own numbers first. To this end, I totaled up the protein for a few average days. This is simplified given that my husband and I prefer the same breakfast, day in and day out. When the weather is cooler, it's my economical, yet deeply satisfying hot cereal blend, that I make (in batch) in the Instant Pot. This makes mornings a cinch - just pour on plant milk, microwave and eat. During warmer weather, it's my whole-grain cold breakfast cereal melange that I load into bowls the night before. Each morning, put 'em out on the table, pour on the plant milk and dive in.
As you might have noticed by the title of this website, I'm into life simplified. Let's cut unnecessary drama and save that energy for when it truly matters.
Back to the protein discussion.
A neighbor asked me just the other day "but, where do you get your protein?". I said basically, "the same place that 400 lb Mountain Gorilla - who can really mess you up - does. Plants." She laughed and said, "I'd never thought of it like that, but you're right." There's so much misinformation surrounding the whole issue of protein that it can be tough to wade through. Marketing makes it even harder - the internet and television are awash with exhortations to "buy OUR product to get MORE protein!" Athletes are good targets. So are senior citizens like me.
I'm not saying that protein mixes and drinks are bad, but they're certainly expensive, questionably 'tasty', and you won't be getting the holistic benefits of simply eating - and enjoying - real, whole foods. Plus, protein products, similarly to vitamin supplements, subscribe to a silly, reductionist 'logic' that health and nutrition can be found in fragments of foods. Preferably those fragments that can be shoved into a pill, capsule, bottle or can that will sport an attractive label and baseless advertising claims. It's tough to put baseless claims on an orange or chickpeas.
Then, there's the known issue of 'drinking' your calories. It's too easy to knock back a lot of calories from a glass or cup without thinking. Chewing gives our bodies time to savor and allows our gut time to issue critical guidance ("hey! You're full now. Stop eating!").
The difference between what people are getting vs. what they actually need can be mind-blowing! The World Health Organization says that a healthy person should aim for 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a 140-pound person, the U.S. RDA translates to about 50 grams of protein a day; if that person consumes 2,000 calories in a day, 50 grams of protein is exactly 10 percent of total calories.
Multiple studies have shown that even vegetarians and vegans are getting far more protein than they actually need to be healthy. My guess is that we try harder to get additional plant protein 'just in case'. I think that this is what I've been doing. And, I was getting it wrong. Protein deficiency occurs almost exclusively only in people with a calorie deficiency. In other words, protein (like any nutrient) should not be viewed in isolation - eat a varied diet, with enough calories, and you'll have all the protein you need. Even on a strictly whole-food, plant-based, vegan diet.
“You should not worry about how much protein you’re getting any more than you should worry about the perfect number of breaths you take in a day.” Drs. Pulde and Lederman, Forks Over Knives Plan
In The Game Changers documentary, mixed martial arts fighter, James Wilks set out on a globe-trotting mission to debunk what he calls “the world’s most dangerous myth: that animal foods are necessary for protein, strength, and optimal health.”
The perception that eating more protein - particularly animal protein - to lose or maintain a lower weight is pervasive. A quick internet search will provide hundreds of sites willing to tell dieters to add protein - and mostly animal protein - to their diets for weight loss. This is what the Atkins Diet was all about. I'm old enough to not only remember that but tried it. Really, who wanted to argue with eating more bacon? But, they just don't work for the long term, and can contribute to some dangerous health outcomes. Duh!
In fact, “Animal protein is a major cause of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and cancer,” says Michelle McMacken, MD, director of the Adult Weight Management Program at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue in New York City. “Contrary to popular perception … excess protein does not make us stronger or leaner. Excess protein is stored as fat or turned into waste.”
But, here's an interesting question: Can WFPB/vegan eaters consume too much protein? And, is that a bad thing? Hmmmmm.
Maybe. More research needs to be done about the long-term effects of eating lots of plant protein. According to Garth Davis, MD (and author of Proteinaholic) "it appears that it’s leucine, specifically, and maybe some other [amino acids] like methionine. It happens that meat protein is higher in leucine and methionine than plant protein is. But if you’re going to keep pushing plant protein enough, you’re going to get enough leucine where you get that same effect”.
Then, let's talk about protein and the environment. The World Resources Institute has put together a handy 'scorecard' which illustrates how resource-intensive common protein sources are ... in addition to how expensive they are per gram. You'll find additional information about food and sustainability at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health so that you can make intelligent, and healthy choices.
Because retail prices vary widely, they took an average, and the $ symbol values are shown below:
Less than 2.5 cents per gram of protein: $
2.5 to 4 cents per gram of protein: $$
More than 4 cents per gram of protein: $$$
Although nuts are expensive, we use fewer ... probably about an ounce or two per day for most people, as a snack. More, if you're using nuts to make things like plant-based, homemade mayonnaise, or nut 'milks'. Plus, when eaten in their natural state, nuts come in wonderful packages that include fiber, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has a lot of great, evidence-based information about protein consumption:
Get your protein from plants when possible. Eating legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other plant-based sources of protein is a win for your health and the health of the planet. If most of your protein comes from plants, make sure that you mix up your sources so no “essential” components of protein are missing. The good news is that the plant kingdom offers plenty of options to mix and match. Here are some examples for each category:
Legumes: lentils, beans (adzuki, black, fava, chickpeas/garbanzo, kidney, lima, mung, pinto etc.), peas (green, snow, snap, split, etc.), edamame/soybeans (and products made from soy: tofu, tempeh, etc.), peanuts.
Nuts and Seeds: almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, hemp seeds, squash and pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds.
Whole Grains: kamut, teff, wheat, quinoa, rice, wild rice, millet, oats, buckwheat,
Other: while many vegetables and fruits contain some level of protein, it’s generally in smaller amounts than the other plant-based foods. Some examples with higher protein quantities include corn, broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and artichokes.
This is where my own 'numbers' come in to play. I was simply getting more protein than I needed (and by extension, my husband, too) on a daily basis. I could dial it back, but that took a lot of the 'worry' out of meal planning! Wow, I don't need to be so endlessly obsessed with getting X grams of protein in every single meal. I can feel okay relaxing about it. As Drs. Pulde and Lederman write in The Forks Over Knives Plan, “You should not worry about how much protein you’re getting any more than you should worry about the perfect number of breaths you take in a day.”
What do my protein numbers look like? Here's what I came up with:
TOTAL GRAMS PROTEIN FOR ONE DAY: 94.5 +/-
My protein requirement (older adults) 1.2 per KG of weight (49.8) = 59.76 g
Coffee (2 cups) with Oatly ‘creamer’ - ½ cup - 1.5g
Breakfast calories: 25.7 grams protein
5 grain cooked cereal 136g = 3.5g
with: Sliced almonds (10g = 2.1 g), pumpkin seeds (10g= 3g), Gogi berries (10g=1.4g) raisins (15g= .5g), flax seed (5 g= 1g), Chia (5g= 1g)
Soy milk - about 7 ounces = 8.2 g
Whole wheat toast (5g)
Plant-based Frankfurter Lunch: 35 grams protein
Field Roast frankfurter 20g
365 whole wheat hotdog bun 8g
1 tbsp mustard .6
Cabbage slaw 100 grams = 3.2 g with my vegan mayo
One tangerine .8g
1 ounce pecans 2.6g protein
1 pitted date .5g
2 dried figs .7g
Vegetable Soup Lunch: 15.9
Homemade vegetable soup - 2 cups = 4.2 grams
With usual fruit, figs, dates, nuts
Bean soup lunch: 2 cups = 26g protein = 37.7 grams
With usual fruit, figs, dates, nuts
Lentil soup Lunch: 2 cups = 9.7g soup and total = 20.9 grams
With usual fruit, figs, dates, nuts
Afternoon Café Cortado with 2 ounces oat milk = .7 g
Snacks: 5 grams
3 cups air-popped popcorn 3 grams
1 square Lindt Touch of Sea Salt chocolate 2 grams
Stir fry with brown rice: 26.5 grams protein
Brown rice: 14 grams
Steamed peas (10): 1 gram
Sweet peppers (1 cup/150 grams): 1.5 grams
Onions 50 g = .6 g
Seitan (2 ounces): 10 grams
Black Bean Burger Dinner: 20.5 grams protein
Morningstar Farms Spicy Black Bean Veggie Burger: 9 grams per patty
365 Whole Wheat Hamburger bun: 6 grams
Lettuce, Romaine: 1.4 grams
Yellow onion slice: 0.3 grams
Tomato slices (2): 0.4 grams
Pickle slices: 0.2 grams
Cole slaw 100 grams = 3.2 g with my vegan mayo
Turkey Cutlet Dinner: 26.8 grams protein
Gardein Meatless Lightly breaded Turk'y Cutlet: 19 grams
Creamy Chikin Gravy (about 1/3 cup serving): 3.3 grams
Baked sweet potato (with peel): 2 grams
Green salad with shredded carrot, red onion, cucumber (with a splash of white Balsamic viniagrette): 2.2 grams
2 Slices of fresh Navel orange: 0.3 grams
Ratatouille Dinner: 19.43 grams protein
A serving of Ratatouille (about 1-1/2 cups): 3.28 grams
Whole wheat Garofalo Pappardelle (100 grams) pasta: 14 grams
Mixed green salad with baby spinach leaves: 1.6 grams
Maple Miso Viniagrette: 0.55 grams
As you can see, I could easily cut back by about 10 percent +/- and still be on the high side of my protein requirements. Oh, and if you're worrying about your weight - I weigh somewhere between 109-ish and 110-ish. I'm 5' 3" and well over 60. Ahem. I've been this weight for most of this last year - quarantine and all. Not even trying. Oh, and I eat plenty of 'carbs' ... bread, pasta, and such. Mostly whole-grain.
BTW: If you want to accurately calculate the nutritional information for your own meals, I suggest that you A) buy a digital kitchen scale that will allow you to measure in metric (grams) which is much easier to figure, and B) use the easy nutritionvalue.org website.
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