Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Protein gets too much Press

I can't think of any aspect of our diets that we receive dumber messages about than protein. There is misinformation about protein in the news every damn day. Apparently, none of us are getting enough protein, and not getting enough protein is simultaneously causing you too be too fat and too skinny and we are all just one cheeseburger away from dying of protein deficiency. And since the best sources of protein are eggs, dairy, and steak, there's no way that a vegetarian diet could possibly be healthy.

Do I sound a little cranky? Well, maybe, but after you read this blog you might be feeling a little cranky with all the protein propaganda too. I guess it's easy to see why people feel so jazzed about protein. Even the name sounds undeniably positive. We've been completely baffled by carbs for a decade, and the problems with fat are in the title, so I can see why people might assume that protein is going to save us from our malnourished obesity crisis. But I think we're forgetting that protein is just one macronutrient, and is something that we can't overdose on, any more than we can overdose on butter-drenched white garlic bread.

Let's start with the basics of what comprises protein. We all know that calories come in the form of either carbohydrates, fat, or protein, and many of us know that the standard recommendation is to get 55% of calories from carbs, 30% from fat, and 15% from protein. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of your muscles, and plays a crucial role in all biological processes in the body. Basically, I'm not saying protein is bad. You need it.

Now, you may have heard people talking about complete protein and accusing vegetarians of not consuming it. There are 20 different amino acids (proteins), 8 of which are labelled essential, which means that they are necessary to our survival, but not produced by the body, so we've gotta get them from food. I'm never going to reference the individual proteins again, and both of us are pretty likely to forget this as soon as we move to the next paragraph, but for your information, the 8 essential amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, valine, threonin, methionin, phenylalanine, tryptophan, lysine, and in children, histidine. Sources of complete protein are foods that contain sufficient amounts of all 8 amino acids. Comprendez-vous?

Meat does not have different protein, it just has complete protein. Animal sources of protein tend to be complete. Plant sources tend to be low in one or two amino acids (with some exceptions listed later on), so one can see how the myth of the protein-deficient vegetarian diet got started. Eggs are considered to be the ideal protein against which all other sources of protein are measured and milk comes in second place, so Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians really need not worry about getting proper protein. But vegans can rest easy too, because the lack of complete protein in individual plant foods does not mean that vegans lack complete protein in their actual diets.

So where did the idea that vegans need to worry about protein come from? In 1971, a woman named Frances Moore Lappe wrote Diet for a Small Planet, in which she recommended that to achieve complete protein, vegetarians combine different sources of proteins, also known as complementing proteins, or protein combining. The idea of combining, say, rice and beans, or peanut butter and wholemeal toast, became very popular in vegetarian diets. Ten years later, Lappe published an anniversary edition, retracting her position on protein combining, saying that "I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought....if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein." Today's nutritional expects back Lappe up; protein combining is just not necessary as long as you are eating a healthy diet with good variety. Despite the fact that protein combining was debunked in the eighties, I've heard tell of the myth still floating around in medical textbooks today.

So what are good sources of protein for vegans? Soy is the classic vegan protein source, which is no surprise to anyone. Soy protein is equal in quality to eggs, dairy, or meat. But if you don't like soy, you don't need to eat it just because you are a vegetarian. We won't kick you out of the club. There are several other complete sources, including amaranth, buckwheat, hempseed, quinoa, and spirulina. Other good sources of protein are nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and grains. In fact, all plants contain protein. Unless you've ejected all forms of food other than cassava and fruit from your diet, you're getting enough protein.

And lets think about it: how many people do you know who have protein deficiency? Have you ever met one? Unless you spend your time working with starving Africans (and kudos to you if you do), you're pretty unlikely to come across it. On the other hand, have you ever met someone with cancer or heart disease? Read on.

With all the positive news around protein, I think that we can too easily forget that getting too much protein is entirely possible. In fact, statistics abound that the average American eats between 50% and 175% more protein than they need. I think we can stop feeling smug and superior to the Americans for a second and admit that in Canada and the UK, we're not doing much better. Excessive protein consumption can cause osteoporosis and kidney failure. Getting too much protein and not enough carbs can cause a state known as ketosis. Low-carbs diets "work" because the induce a constant state of ketosis, causing people to lose weight. However ketosis also increases insulin resistance, which is a major risk factor for increased blood triglyceride levels, increased blood pressure, depression, and the development of coronary artery disease. Ketosis can actually cause weight GAIN as well as weight loss. It also causes glucose intolerance, which may be a pre-curser to diabetes, and can cause hypertension, mild dehydration, dizziness, headaches, confusion, nausea, fatigue, sleep problems, and kidney problems. Awesome. Too much protein is also linked to not getting enough fiber, which can cause constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

I've had athletes assure me that they NEED animal protein in order to able to compete. Complete bollocks. Not only can athletes manage just fine with plant protein, too much protein and not enough carbs can result ransack your glycogen stores, resulting in crappy athletic performance. Athletes do not necessarily require more protein in their diets. As your caloric intake increases when you take on significant extra activity (which it should), you will naturally eat more protein. Vegan athletes exist. Google it.

So how much protein do you need?

You may find slightly different numbers depending on where you look. The government standard number is 15% of your caloric intake, which for the average diet is going to be about 45 grams for women and 55 grams for men. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness tells us that people who train for more than 12 hours a week for 5 years need 1.37 grams of protein per kilo of body weight, as opposed to sedentary people, who only require .73 grams per kilo. Does anyone actually train for 12 hours a week, and keep it up for five years? Amazing.

Truthfully, I never really worry about getting enough protein. I might think about getting enough vitamins and micronutrients, but in the developed world, we are not running out of sources of protein. People are different, so you might find you like to eat a lot of beans, lentils, and tofu, or a only a little, but the need to sit around with a calculator worrying about your protein intake has bene entirely manufactured.

By whom, you ask? Hmmm...what industries have a whole lot of control over the media, and stand to gain financially from you thinking that meat and cheese are healthy diet foods? Interesting.

Vital Vittles

Savoury Quinoa and Roasted Rooties

I thought for this blog's recipe I would feature one of the plant sources of complete protein, and what better source than the trendy, kooky, and quirky grain we call quinoa (keen-wah). This salad is my favourite way to prepare quinoa. Any combination of roasted vegetables you like would probably work fine, these are just my favourites.

1 cup quinoa
1.5 cups vegetable stock
2 carrots, sliced
1 small sweet potato, chopped into cubes
1 small turnip, chopped into cubes
2 cups mushrooms, quartered
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (or more if you like)

1. Turn the oven to 200 degrees C. Toss the vegetables with the olive oil and vinegar, and roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until tender, flipping half way through.

2. Put quinoa and stock into a small saucepan, and bring to boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook on a low heat until done. This will take about 15-20 minutes.

3. Once the veggies are ready, combine the quinoa and vegetables in a big bowl, and serve. Can be eaten hot or cold.

Simple as that.


  1. Question regarding amino acids completeness of baby spinach vs mature leaf spinach. According to, they say that regular spinach is complete with all amino acids. Baby spinach is not on the website. I have read in other places that it is not a complete protein. Do you have any conclusive info on this?

  2. Is there a way I can get complete protein with just fruits and veggies?

  3. Well, first of all, I hope that my above post makes it clear that the idea of a particular food as a complete protein is irrelevant and out of date. You don't need any one food to be what's traditionally called complete protein. As long as you eat a varied diet with a lot of different plant foods, you will be consuming all the different amino acids that you need.
    But regarding spinach, yes, it does contain the 8 amino acids regarded as essential, so therefore could be considered a complete protein.

  4. Can you get complete protein from just fruits and veggies? Yes, you can, but I would take very carefully with a registered dietician before you decide to live off fruits and vegetables alone. I'm not really comfortable with advising someone that it's okay to cut out beans, lentils, grains, nuts, and seeds. For one thing, you would need to consume huge quantities of fruits and vegetables just to meet your energy requirements. And consuming huge quantities of fruits and vegetables is obviously a good thing, but you may not be able to physically eat that much food to make sure you're getting enough calories.

  5. I must be immune to this protein-based propaganda blitz. I never hear it, although I've been hearing OF it for decades (from books such as Fit for Life, e.g.). Although I will concede the beef lobby is pretty pathetic... I just don't get wind of their pro-protein message.

    I have heard (although rarely) people like Tony Robbins (who I think has changed his tune) who says that you need really scant amounts of protein--something in the neighborhood of 30g per day. Now, I can only speak for myself, from my own experience, but if I don't get about twice that much I find myself getting sick quite a bit more often.

    I am glad the author of this blog acknowledges the value of protein. It is a vital nutrient on the cellular level. The "laboratory of our own bodies" usually tells us the truth about what's good for us and what's not.