The Importance of Protein
By Michael Gill
If you’ve read a few of my articles, you know that I look at everything related to nutrition through a lens of evolution and naturalism. The reminder that we are products of the natural world and would do well to emulate our ancestors is something applicable to almost anything in the world of health and wellness. In this article I will apply those principles to dietary protein.
High protein diets are all the rage right now, and have been so for years. Many involve cutting out broad swaths of food, especially from the carbohydrate group. The question is do they mirror the way our system evolved? More importantly, are they healthy?
Protein is crucial to be sure, but what most people don’t know is that you don’t actually need to eat protein for your body to make protein. Protein is a series of 20 amino acids in a specific ratio. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down, then builds proteins as they are needed out of that pool of amino acids. This is an important point to understand; that your body builds proteins to suit. It does so based on need and the amino acids at its disposal. Eleven of those amino acids can easily be produced by the body. What your body needs from the outside world to produce protein is the nine amino acids that it can’t produce. These are called essential amino acids. While all nine are present in any food with protein, they are also present in many foods that don’t have protein.
As an example, let’s look the amount of protein a person will get from eating beef versus eating a potato. There are 22g of protein in a 200 calorie serving of lean ground beef (15% fat) and 5g of protein in a 200 calorie serving of baked potatoes (with no butter). This isn’t surprising, is it? What is surprising though is that the body can build more protein from the potato than from the beef. How is this? It is because potatoes are high in the nine essential amino acids, but low in some of the others (making their protein content low). They are also lower in calories by weight, so 200 calories of potato is more food than 200 calories of beef. I’m not advocating an all potato diet here, just making a point that things aren’t as straightforward as they seem for protein.
Not all plants are rich in the nine essential amino acids, in fact, most aren’t. Still, every plant has a different amino acid profile, and by varying your diet, you can easily get enough protein without any concern about protein. Where people get into trouble is lack of variety. Without variety, those holes in the amino profile may not be filled with plant material alone. Lack of variety also leads to deficiencies in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.), which is a much bigger problem for Americans than lack of protein. In fact, the average American eats nearly three times the amount of protein that is recommended. This is in contrast to vitamins and minerals, which most American diets are deficient in. Magnesium is a glaring example, with 75% of Americans getting less than the RDA (which is low to begin with). With Magnesium being a strong natural anti-inflammatory, is it surprising then that so many Americans suffer from inflammation based conditions?
In my clinical practice, I have yet to recommend a vegetarian diet to any client. However, I recommend a plant-based diet to almost every one. While the two are often used interchangeably, I use the term “plant-based” literally; a diet where plants are the centerpiece and anything else is an accent or a treat. I even use the Thrive Diet (a vegan, whole food diet) as a starting point. Why? Because while most Americans aren’t likely to adopt all of the principles necessary to have a healthy vegan diet, almost all of us can stand to eat more whole foods, especially vegetables. While everybody has their own unique chemistry, the great majority of us will have no problem meeting protein needs with variety and a plant-based diet. Furthermore, by utilizing plants as a protein source, a person is far more likely to get enough micronutrients from a plant-heavy diet than from a meat heavy diet.
There are some nutrients that are more easily obtained from meat, which is a big reason why I don’t recommend a vegan diet unless a person really knows what they’re getting themselves into. Fish and seafood in particular have a high nutritional value, especially in areas that are difficult to fill with plants alone. Still, diets overly high in protein acidify the body and are hard on the kidneys. Diets high in animal protein have been linked to osteoporosis, colon cancer and asthma.
So, if you’re a heavy meat eater, you may want to consider switching some of that meat for fish and plants. Regardless of that decision, know that while there are many things that are worthy of concern in an average (or above average) American diet, but getting enough protein is not one of them.
Michael Gill is a practicing Nutritional Therapist and Massage Therapist. He has a black belt in Poekoelan Tjiminde Poekoelan, and loves to teach.