The Protein Craze
In our protein-obsessed culture, people spend enormous amounts of time thinking about how to consume as much of this nutrient as possible from animal sources. We’ve been conditioned to associate protein with muscle development, animals, and overall health but we need to step back and open our minds to both how much we need and where to get it. A generation ago, protein was associated with spinach (Where is Popeye of spinach fame when we need him?) but the emphasis is currently on getting protein from animal products. Why is that?
Every time I read or hear a nutritionist or a registered dietician talk about protein they almost always talk about meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs in the same sentence which makes me want to scream because they continue to promulgate the myth that we should get our protein from animal products. As do restaurants when they write “pick your protein” on the menu and offer “chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs” – as if plants don’t have protein. And, then they talk about grass-fed or organic…what do they think these animals eat in the winter (answer: mostly hay). The absence of grain or corn in an animal’s diet does not magically make the cholesterol, saturated fat, and other undesirable attributes disappear, and that’s important to remember.
Plants are loaded with protein. In fact, all protein originates from plants (that’s very important to remember). 1 cup of green peas has 8 grams of protein. 1 large stalk (about 10 ounces) of broccoli has about 8 grams of protein. 2 cups of fresh raw kale have about 5 grams of protein. 1 cup of cooked spinach has 5 grams of protein while 4 cups of fresh raw spinach (spinach salad, anyone?) has 4 grams of protein. 1/4 cup of walnuts or pumpkin seeds has 3 grams of protein.
1/2 cup of dry oats has 13 grams of protein. 1 cup of cooked lentils has 26 grams of protein and 1/2 cup of cooked chick peas has 7 grams of protein. So, why aren’t these foods being offered or promoted as protein sources? Maybe because the kale, spinach, oats. lentil and walnut lobbyists are not as well funded as the meat, poultry, pork, and dairy industries.
There is no doubt protein is essential to our health but the emphasis is overstated (when was the last time you met someone who was protein deficient?) with animal products overemphasized. All amino acids – the building blocks of protein – originate from plants. Plant proteins have all nine of the essential amino acids (and they don’t all have to be consumed together as a “complete protein” despite what many dieticians and nutritionists say).
Humans don’t make the essential amino acids (and neither do animals so they get their amino acids by consuming plants or by eating animals that eat plants – we’ve just been conditioned to eat the animals that have eaten the plants to get protein). So, we can either choose to get the essential amino acids from where they originate (plants) or from animal sources, which also tend to have cholesterol (plants don’t have cholesterol) and high levels of saturated fat and casein that are strongly correlated with heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and more.
According to Nutrition Facts (www.nutritionfacts.org), we need approximately 0.35 – 0.45 grams of protein a day per pound of weight. So, if a person weighs 125 pounds, the total protein intake should be 44 – 56 grams a day. Contrary to popular belief, when people take in too much animal protein, it doesn’t turn to muscle; the excess is either used for energy or stored as fat.
Other important information on protein includes:
- Consuming animal protein triggers the release of the cancer promoting growth hormone IGF-1. (See Protein Intake & IGF-1 Production).
- Red meat consumption is linked to higher levels of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease (atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke), and Type 2 diabetes (see www.harvardmagazine.com and Why is Meat a Risk Factor for Diabetes? at www.nutritionfacts.org or watch the Netflix movie What The Health – see a preview by clicking here).
- Breast milk is the perfect food for growing babies. Of all mammal milks, human breast milk has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) concentrations of protein. Just knowing this tells us what mother nature and evolution have already figured out: how to meet the nutritional needs during the greatest growth spurt of our species does not require a lot of protein. Breast milk is designed to grow an average 7 pound, 20-inch baby to a 20 pound, 32 inch toddler in a year. Cow milk is designed to take a 60 pound calf to about 750 pounds in less than a year. Picture a human suckling on a cow utter and realize how ridiculous it is for humans to be drinking cow milk.
- Instead of protein, we should be talking about fiber and the importance of getting sufficient fiber (which happens to be plentiful in vegetables, fruits, and grains) every single day. Listen to the 5-minute video: “Is the Fiber Theory Wrong?” and decide for yourself. The consumption of fiber reduces our risk of heart disease and colon cancer but most Americans consume less than 15 grams per day (we should be consuming between 25-35 grams per day). Americans tend to be fiber deficient – not protein deficient.
- Cold cuts, hot dogs, and bacon (processed meats) have been classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization (along with tobacco). So, why are we eating these foods and feeding them to our children? Good question and if anyone knows the answer, please let me know because I can’t figure out why these “foods” are even sold in grocery stores.