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I originally wrote this article for Sprouted Magazine in 2015.
The Magazine is no longer accessible but the information provided in this article is still very pertinent to today!
“But, where do you get your protein?” It’s a question everyone asks a vegan or vegetarian. And the answer, for those who don’t know, “The same place you do, food!” But why is this question one we’re constantly asked? Protein seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. Walking into a grocery store is proof, as most of the products are now advertised and labeled as containing more and thus, being more healthy than a lower protein version of the same product.
Remember the old food pyramid; the starch-based pyramid poster that was plastered in our schoolhouse classrooms and cafeterias that features meat and dairy as the third building blocks of nutrition? It’s ingrained in our minds from a very young age that protein is healthy and animals provide protein. In keeping with the advertisements, most American households serve animal products as the main dish in every meal.
We’re forever being taught that animal proteins and animal products contain the most nutrients for our bodies. So when someone says they’re vegan, the thought is that they are not getting enough nutrition. But what is with the recent push for more protein?
One article from the Washington Post, explains that consumers are “enticed by the promise that it can help you lose weight, get stronger, and avoid age-related muscle loss.” The article goes on to report that 71% of consumers want more protein in their diets, despite reports from The World Health Organization’s April 2000 issue of the Journal of Nutrition that Americans and Western Europeans consume 1 ½ to 2 times the recommended daily allowance, or RDA, of protein on a regular basis. When do we stop and realize that too much of a good thing is bad?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that an adult should consume .8 g of protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight per day. So, how does that add up? According to the CDC, the average weight of American men in 2010 was 195 ½ pounds and for women, 166.2 pounds. A healthy weight for a man who is 5’11” tall is around 170. For a woman who is 5’7”, healthy weight is around 150. Based on the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation, the average man should be consuming between 60-70 g of protein and the average woman 50-60 g.
Average weight has been on a constant rise since the 1960s, and perhaps one of the reasons is because of this misguided need for more protein. Despite claims that protein can help you lose weight, if you eat more protein than you can use, the excess is converted into extra calories for the body burn or store. Consuming too much protein on a regular basis can also lead to kidney problems like kidney stones and disease. Additionally, protein from animal sources comes with high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol. Both of which lead to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Another problem with excessive consumption is significant calcium loss. According to this National Institute of Health article, diets that are high in protein cause the body’s pH level to become increasingly more acidic, causing the body’s natural reaction of leeching calcium from bones and teeth in order to correct the imbalanced pH levels. Once calcium leaves the bones and teeth, it doesn’t go back.
It is very common to hear gym buffs claim, and even insist, that they require more protein due to their active lifestyles. This is a common misconception, however. Protein does not build muscle; it promotes protein-synthesis. John Ivy, Ph.D. says, “… You don’t need exorbitant amounts [of protein] to do this”. Translation: More protein does not mean more muscle!
With all the “NOW with MORE protein” products on the market, it’s clear that Americans are overly concerned with protein. Whether this phenomenon is a result of marketing or misinformation, please put down the extra protein and consider the facts. For example, there are many famous athletes and Olympians who have thrived on a vegan diet. Gold medal track star, Carl Lewis for example. Did you ever hear about people worrying about how much protein he was consuming? Or where he was getting it from?
Fact: Every body needs protein as a part of a complete, balanced diet. Too much of it, however, can harm the body more than help it. I think I’ve made it clear that the world can finally (please!) stop asking vegans the tired question: “Where do you get your protein?”