There is a prevailing theme in modern western culture that one needs to consume a lot of protein in order to be healthy. This message persists through commercials, food labels, and fitness “experts,” among other sources. Furthermore, protein is typically associated with animal products alone. Meat and protein are essentially synonymous in our culture. Surrounded by this message, many of us have come to believe that we must devour meat, chug whey protein shakes and drink milk in order to recover after workouts and build muscle. Yet, we often believe such notions without taking a step back to ask, what is protein? How much should I consume? What sources are best?
Let’s start by examining what exactly protein is. Proteins are essentially strands of amino acids that the human body synthesizes. There are 21 amino acids needed for the human body to create protein and most of these are actually created by our bodies. The remaining nine are known as essential amino acids because they must be ingested through the food we eat. So which foods contain these essential amino acids? It will come as a surprise to most people that they are found in copious amounts in the plant kingdom! In fact, meat and dairy products only contain amino acids because these animals have eaten plants. It is true, however, that most plants do not contain all nine essential amino acids. But, by simply eating a variety of grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes our bodies brilliantly assembles proteins out of the variety of amino acids consumed.
Yet many people will still worry that they cannot get enough protein from these plant-based sources alone. After all, isn’t more protein better? Not necessarily. No scientific study has ever shown that excess protein consumption, beyond the advised 10 percent of daily calories, has beneficial effects on muscle growth and repair. In fact, this excess protein is actually converted into an inefficient energy source and stored as fat, while also putting undue stress on the kidneys. Furthermore, a long-term diet high in animal protein is linked to the onset of cancer and heart disease. It makes a lot of sense then to stick to a protein intake of the advised 10 percent of daily calories. To be more exact, this breaks down to 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 1 gram per kilogram of body weight for athletes. In reality, the typical American consumes twice this amount of protein every day! If you calculate your protein consumption you will probably find that you are consuming too much protein on a daily basis as well (not to mention, most of this intake probably comes from animal-based sources). For example, a 160-pound athlete has a recommended daily intake of 72.5 grams of protein. Though this number might sound high it is actually almost impossible to go through a typical day and not reach this level, even when abstaining from animal products. The following data proves this point:
- 1 cup of black beans contains 15.2 grams of protein
- 1 cup of lentils contains 17.9 grams of protein
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter contains 8 grams of protein
- 1 cup of oatmeal contains 6 grams of protein
- 1 cup of spinach contains 5.4 grams of protein
- 1 cup of broccoli contains 4.6 grams of protein
The above list is just a glimpse of the copious amount of protein found in plant-based foods. Indeed, your body will respond happily to a giant salad after a long workout instead of the typical protein shake and T-bone steak that contain artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fats. Evidently, much of what our culture teaches about protein is nothing more than a dangerous myth.