"How much protein vs. carbs should we be eating?" "If I have a vegetarian meal, won't I be lacking in protein?" I get asked these questions A LOT, and I would say it's one of the most controversial topics amount nutritionists and health experts. So let me give you both sides of the coin, and also explain the necessity for animal protein (or lack thereof) vs. plant-based protein.
Let me start off by saying that eating sufficient protein is key for optimal nutrition, especially to maintain balanced blood sugar levels and hormones.
I strongly emphasize the importance of getting sufficient healthy proteins, fats and fiber in our daily diet, and ideally in every meal, for blood sugar stabilization and a faster metabolism, both of which aid in weight loss. Also, including these 3 elements in each meal helps avoid the onset of sugar cravings (which so many of us suffer from!)
And of course, many trainers/athletes can tell you, it's important to eat plenty of protein in order to build muscle mass in your body, which translates to burning more fat calories.
On the flip side, most people overestimate the amount of protein we need.
It’s become a widespread myth that we need to eat enormous amounts of protein to be strong, when in fact, overdosing on protein is leading to tons of health issues (particularly in industrialized countries). Excess animal protein and fat clog our cells, blood and colon.
Just to give you a few numbers, the USDA recommends 0.36 grams of protein for every lb of body weight, so a 130 lb woman needs 47 grams of protein per day. The average American adult consumes 100-120 grams of protein every day! Not to mention that a huge chunk of that comes from high-fat animal products. And I’d like to add that many modern integrative doctors argue that we need even less protein than the USDA recommends (I’ve read bout 20-35 grams per day on average). So clearly Americans (including Latin Americans!) are eating more protein than needed.
The biggest issue I see is when people want to lose weight, and steer towards the popular high-protein, low carb diets, without fully understanding the impact this can have on their overall and longer-term health. While these diets work for some people in the short term to lose weight (there is a good explanation on how and why they work, but I’ll save that for another day!), I really don’t recommend these diets as a way of living. They tend to focus on foods that lack fiber and nutrients, and under-emphasize the importance of eating enough nutrient-dense healthy carbs, namely vegetables and fruits. This can lead to digestive and hormonal problems, such as constipation, heavier menstrual bleeding, and longer term more serious issues such as osteoporosis.
So we must exercise balance when it comes to protein (like in everything in life!), and instead of focusing on the grams of protein, it’s important to focus on the QUALITY of the proteins we consume, and to make better choices on a regular basis. While I think many people benefit from small amounts of animal protein (I know I do), its key to emphasize that it’s not actually necessary for us to eat animal protein. And it has been shown that we benefit from reducing the amount of animal protein we eat, and simultaneously, increasing the amount of plant-based foods we eat. Let me explain why.
You’re heard me talk about acid vs. alkaline. The digestion of meat leaves a large amount of acidic residues in our bodies. This acidic residue contributes to faster aging of our skin, and creates an environment in our bodies more susceptible to disease. Also, digesting excess animal protein leads to putrefaction in our gut, which gives way to overgrowth of bad bacteria in our intestines. Hence it’s important to limit the animal protein we consume on a daily/weekly basis, and balance it with plenty of plant-based foods, especially alkaline veggies.
And then of course there is all the horrendous research on animal cruelty, damage to the environment from industrialized factory farming of animals, and more!
My suggestions for eating animal protein are to buy organic, hormone-free meat that is grass-fed (vs. grain fed), and free-range when it comes to poultry & their eggs. Also, I suggest limiting animal protein to a decent portion size (4-6 oz.) once a day, and always eating it in combination with lots of low-carb veggies such as green leafy vegetables. In particular, aim for eating more fish and seafood over land animals, as they tend to be leaner, higher in healthy fats (omega-3s) and easier to digest. Just look out for the source, and beware of toxicity. Aim for wild fish vs. farm-raised, and limit consumption of high-mercury fish (such as tuna) to maximum once per week.
Now on to the role of Plant Proteins...
It’s important to realize that plant-based proteins are an EXCELLENT source of protein for humans, and many people underestimate their role in our diet.
Our body doesn’t use protein per se, it uses amino acids, and as a quick reminder, chains of amino acids form proteins. Our body breaks down these chains from the foods we eat, and then recreates these amino acids into the protein chains we need to build and repair our cells and tissues. The human body contains 22 different amino acids, and of these, there are 9 that we need to get from our diet alone. These 9 are called the "essential" amino acids, and surprisingly enough, there are several plant-based foods that give us all 9 of these essential amino acids (aka "complete proteins”). Some examples include quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds and most soy products. Not only that, our body combines the amino acids once they’re consumed, so we don’t need to eat foods with all 9 amino acids in each meal; our body breaks down, combines and re-organizes these amino acids to form the proteins we need. If you think about it, cows (and other vegetarian mammals) build their large muscles from the amino acids in the grass they eat!
What are the best sources of plant-based proteins? There are so many, but here are some of my favorites (and I've included the approx. grams of protein per serving):
Lentils (18g of protein per 1 cup cooked serving)
Tempeh (16g per ½ cup serving)
Chlorella (16g per oz serving)
Hemp seeds (15g per 3 tbsp serving)
Chickpeas/garbanzos (15g per 1 cup cooked serving)
Spirulina (12g per 1oz serving)
Green peas (9g per 1 cup cooked serving)
Quinoa (7g per 1 cup cooked serving)
Buckwheat (6g per 1 cup cooked serving)
Kale (6g per 2 cups raw serving/ 4g per 2 cups cooked)
Almonds (6g per oz serving)
Sunflower seeds (6g per oz serving)
Cashews (5g per oz serving)
Pumpkin seeds (5g per oz serving)
Broccoli (5g per 1 cup cooked serving)
Walnuts (4.5g per oz serving)
Chia seeds (4g per 2 tbsp serving)
So clearly if you’re eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet, with a wide variety of vegetables, greens, sprouts, legumes, nuts, grains, etc, then you will certainly meet your protein needs. Plus, when you compare in calorie terms, for the same amount of calories, you can get WAY more protein from plant sources than animal protein.
So, my suggestion? Start eating more plant-based foods, and stop worrying about grams of protein. Experiment and try eating a wider variety; now you’ve learned there are so many awesome sources filled with those essential amino acids. Just aim to have some source of protein, healthy fat and fiber in each meal to keep your metabolism strong and hormones balanced (which can be as simple as a small kale & avocado salad!). When it comes to animal protein, try cutting it down to once a day, aim for sea above land animals, and most importantly, limit farm-raised, non-organic animal protein sources.
If you need some delicious vegetarian recipes (with tons of easy-to-digest protein), let me know, I love to share!
Love and Protein,