Protein, protein, protein…If you’re a vegetarian, this is the first question you get. For vegans, it’s the second question after “A what? A vegan? Is that like a vegetarian?” In this day and age where “high protein” and “low carb” are two of the biggest buzzwords on the American diet scene, everyone is concerned about protein. But Americans have been led to believe that protein only comes from three sources: meat, dairy, and eggs. And, we have also been led to believe that more protein we take in, the better.
Wrong on both counts.
Before I go into where protein comes from, it’s important to understand how much protein is actually necessary, in order to put the rest of this into perspective. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) bases its Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of nutrients (aka the stuff on the nutrition labels of all our food) based on the Dietary Recommended Intakes (DRIs) compiled by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences. These recommendations are based on age, gender, weight, and pregnancy/lactation status: growing kids need different amounts based on size and developmental stage; men need a little more protein than women; the bigger you are, the more protein you require; pregnant and lactating women require enough protein for them plus baby, etc.
So how much protein do we require? Go ahead. Guess. What is the average number of grams of protein that the average adult needs in a day according to the USDA’s RDA?
Answer: An average of about 50 grams of protein per day.
To be specific, the recommendation for average adults is that you need 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram that you weigh (or 0.36 grams of protein for every pound that you weigh) – you can do the math for yourself. This recommendation is roughly the same in the United States and United Kingdom, although some say that this is more than necessary. In comparison, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 0.45 grams of protein for every kilogram that you weigh (or 0.2 grams of protein for every pound that you weigh), bringing that 50 grams down to about 28 grams of protein per day.
(It’s worth noting that the calculation isn’t necessarily based on how much you currently weigh, but on your ideal weight. So, being 100 pounds overweight doesn’t really mean that you need an extra 20 grams of protein.)
Okay, so how much is 50 grams of protein? And where do you get your protein? To put it in perspective, here is some nutritional information courtesy of http://www.nutritiondata.com.
Meat and vegetable meat substitutes:
- One 4 oz serving of broiled salmon: 28 grams of protein
- One 4 oz serving of roasted, skinless chicken breast: 36 grams of protein
- One 4 oz. serving of tofu: 8 grams of protein
- One 4 oz serving of steak: 28 grams of protein
- One 4 oz serving of seitan: 31 grams of protein
- One MorningStar Farms® Hickory Vegan BBQ Riblet: 18 grams of protein
- One MorningStar Farms® Grillers® Vegan Veggie Burger: 12 grams of protein
Dairy and eggs:
- One cup of skim milk: 8 grams of protein
- One cup of soy milk: 6 grams of protein
- One large egg: 6 grams of protein
- One cup of cottage cheese: 23 grams of protein
- Two 1 oz slices of cheddar cheese: 14 grams of protein
- One large cooked sweet potato: 4 grams of protein
- One cup of cooked broccoli: 3 grams of protein
- One cup of edamame: 12 grams of protein
Legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains:
- One 1 oz slice of whole wheat bread: 4 grams of protein
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter: 8 grams of protein
- One-half cup of almonds: 16 grams of protein
- One cup of cooked kidney beans: 12 grams of protein
- One cup of cooked brown rice: 5 grams of protein
- One cup of cooked lentils: 18 grams of protein
As you can see, it doesn’t take long to add up to 50 grams. (My vegan menu today has already included 42 grams of protein, and it’s not even dinnertime yet!)
And, as you can also see, it’s not hard to go way over the recommendations, either, especially if you choose to consume animal products. Is more protein better? Not necessarily. While it is important to consume adequate protein, most people in developed countries get enough protein in their regular daily diet. However, when you routinely eat more than the recommended amount of protein, you start to run into problems. There are a number of problems associated with excess protein intake, including kidney and liver problems, calcium deficiency, osteoporosis, Vitamin B6 deficiency, and dehydration. Also, when excess protein comes primarily from animal sources, particularly red meat, it can contribute to heart disease and various types of cancers, such as colon, breast, and prostate cancers.
Whew. It’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it? So, what do you do? My suggestion: pay attention to what you eat and how much you eat. Learn what a reasonable portion is, and then go with it. Limit (or even eliminate) your intake of animal products, and make legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains your friends! Good, healthy, well-rounded sources of protein are good building blocks for a healthy diet.
Just remember: Everything you eat is a choice, so make good choices for yourself and your family!