THE PROTEIN MYTH
When I transitioned to a whole foods plant based lifestyle (WFPB), my biggest concern was how I was going to get enough protein in my diet. This is also probably the question that vegans and vegetarians get asked the most, "But where do you get protein from if you don't eat meat?"
I am a fitness enthusiast and workout in the gym 6 days a week doing a mixture of strength training and HIIT workouts. I run four days a week and cycle once a week. When you are as active as I am and dubbed a 'gym bunny', you are fed the "protein to build and repair muscle" ethos and are constantly told that you need more protein in your diet, the more the better! Of course being the OCD personality that I am, I proceeded to do copious amounts of research into this topic. What I found surprised me...
Protein, like fat and carbohydrates is one of the three macronutrients required in our diets to maintain healthy body function. Our bodies use protein to build and repair tissues, especially muscle, make enzymes, hormones and anti-bodies, build bone, cartilage, skin, blood, hair and nails. Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids in total and out of those nine of them are deemed essential because these are the ones that our body cannot synthesise on its own, we have to get them from the food we eat. When we consume food containing protein, our body breaks it down into amino acids and then reassembles them into the different types of proteins that it needs. Meat contains all the essential amino acids and is therefore considered a complete protein. The argument against a WFPB diet is often the perception that you cannot get all the essential amino acids or the correct amount of protein that your body needs from plant sources. NOT TRUE.
The idea that you can be protein deficient on a WFPB diet, or any other varied diet is a myth.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
According to Doctor James Loomis as long as you are eating a variety of foods, you are definitely getting enough protein. The daily recommended intake of protein is 0.8g per kilogram of body weight, athletes tend to need a little more and their requirements will range somewhere between 1.2g – 1.5g per kilogram of body weight. For a woman my size, that translates to 46 grams of protein a day, and for the average sized man that is 56 grams per day. Now I want you to think about that 200g steak you ate for lunch, which contained about 100g of protein. That is double your DRI of protein for the whole day, eaten in one meal. I’ll just let that sink in…
Research has shown that meat eaters consume almost double the recommended daily protein tat they require. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Is There Such a Thing As Too Much Protein?
Absolutely! As with anything in your diet, too much is never good. Excess dietary protein cannot be used efficiently by the body and can adversely affect your bones, kidneys, and liver. Moreover, high protein diets that contain large amounts of animal protein (meat and dairy) have been linked to an increased risk for coronary heart disease and cancer due to an increased intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. In fact, Doctors like Doctor Garth Davis are now finding that all the chronic lifestyle diseases we suffer from today - high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, type II diabetes etc. are linked to diets high in saturated animal fats and increased animal protein intake. Davis has written a book 'Proteinaholic' where he explores how our unhealthy obsession with animal protein is making us sick and literally killing us. One only needs to take a look at the diets of people in blue zones, areas of the world - including Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda and California, where people live the longest and have the lowest rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Blue zone diets are primarily plant based with 95% of food intake consisting of vegetables, fruit, grains and legumes. Food for thought...
What about Protein Shakes and Supplements?
The popularity of protein supplements and shakes was borne out of the gym and fitness industry promoting their use with the message that the more protein you consume, the better; we are sold the idea that you need protein to grow muscles and to loose weight. Another myth. In the last six months I have been on an intensive training regime in the gym, without using a single protein supplement or shake, lo-and behold, I have achieved better muscle tone and definition than ever before (6 pack coming..watch this space). My husband and I embarked on a 'no cheese, milk or dairy' changeover complementing our vegetarian diet and he is not taking any protein supplements either, the muscle growth and definition he has achieved has been completely natural, through training and following a WFPB diet.
Protein shakes are the fitness industry's money maker. They have been cleverly marketed to make you believe you need them to lose weight, gain muscle and be leaner.
I am certainly not here to convince everyone I know to adopt a WFPB, I can only share what my experiences have been and the research that I have done.
The results and the health benefits I have reaped speak for themselves loud and clear. I do not count calories, I eat bread (shock horror!) and pasta as well as treats in moderation and yet I am in the best shape I have ever been - WITHOUT EVER HAVING TO DIET.
If you're an avid meat lover, my suggestion would be to simply cut down on the amount of meat you eat and eat more vegetables, beans and legumes. Your health can only benefit from this change and you will feel the difference.
Whether you choose to eat less meat and animal protein really comes down to how much you value your health and longevity. You definitely don't have to become a vegan, but maybe consider giving 'meatless Mondays' a try for a while and see how you feel....