Protein is a nutrient found in nearly all plant foods, yet this is a surprise to many people. After years of being bombarded with advertising that links protein to animal products, many people think they need these foods for survival. It’s a simple myth with deadly consequences that is, thankfully, easy to dispel.
Basic food nutrition facts reveal that protein is literally everywhere! Protein is one of the five basic macronutrients that people require to be healthy (fat, carbohydrates, fiber, and water being the other four). Macronutrients are what our bodies require in the largest amounts from our food, so shouldn’t they be the foundation of any health or nutrition education? Yet nutrition education has largely excluded any discussion of macronutrients in favor of promoting food groups which suggest that dairy products are essential for health. An unbiased introduction to nutrition science should start with the foundation—what is in food?
Protein is Everywhere!
Protein is an essential building block of life that is found not only in animal foods, but in most plant foods too! Basic nutrition facts bust the myth that says people require large amounts of protein from animal sources. If you look up the nutrition facts for any fruit or vegetable you will likely find that it contains all macronutrients. Looking at how many grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates are in a food allows us to calculate it’s macronutrient ratio. Since all calories come from these three macronutrients, we can determine what percentage of calories comes each. For example, arugula delivers 53% of its calories as carbohydrates, 22% as fat, and 25% as protein. (Arugula also contains water and fiber but since these don’t deliver calories we leave them out of the macronutrient ratio equation.)
Looking up basic nutrition facts we see that no matter what foods we eat, if they are whole foods, they will have at least some protein. The question then becomes how much protein do people really need? Many people today who are concerned with not getting enough are likely fretting for nothing. The latest nutrition research reveals less may be better when it comes today’s most popular nutrient.
Is the Real Danger Not Enough, or Too Much?
Nutrition science suggests the real danger to humans is not a lack of protein, the real hazard to your health comes from consuming an excess of it. In 2013 a team of Greek researchers analyzed 32 studies relating to high-proitein/high-meat diets. They reported the results of their review in the journal ISRN Nutrition writing,
“The adverse effects associated with long-term high protein/high meat intake in humans were (a) disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis, (b) disorders of renal function, (c) increased cancer risk, (d) disorders of liver function, and (e) precipitated progression of coronary artery disease.”
The researchers suggested that more research be conducted but their summary of the available science lends support to a strong warning against consuming too much protein. In conclusion they write,
“The findings of the present study suggest that there is currently no reasonable scientific basis in the literature to recommend protein consumption above the current RDA (high protein diet) for healthy adults due to its potential disease risks.”
Too-Much Protein Can Cause Disease
Here’s a small sample of the scientific research that has found correlations suggesting that too much protein could put you at risk for developing numerous diseases.
Cancer: In The China Study, Dr. Colin T. Campbell shares convincing research that links consumption of protein from milk to growth of cancer. Dr. Campbell and his team were essentially able to turn on and off tumor growth by adjusting levels of animal protein in the diet. Campbell now recommends a diet of whole plant foods to obtain a healthy level of protein for a human being.
Osteoperosis: In 2005 the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine published a review of the science on dairy consumption and bone health. Their review concludes that milk consumption, “does not improve bone integrity.” A Harvard Nurse’s Health Study followed 72,000 women for 18 years and concluded that milk consumption offered no protection against bone fractures.
Kidney Trouble: In 2003 research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found high-protein diets associated with kidney problems. For eleven year researchers had followed over 1,600 women age 42-68 and found that 489 had a mild kidney problem. The women were asked about other factors such as weight, height, blood pressure, cholesterol level, smoking, drinking, diseases, and other health influences. They also collected blood samples. For the women who had a mild kidney problem, a high-protein diet made their problem worse. Researchers believe that eating too much protein places extra strain on the kidneys who have to deal with processing the wastes from protein that can’t be broken down by the body
Heart Disease: In 2009 results of a study were published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology that linked high-protein diets with increased rate of heart disease events. The researchers analyzed urine samples of 8,461 people to determine the content of protein in their diet. They then did 2 to 3 follow up screenings over 6.4 years and found that high-protein diets were associated with an increased rate of cardiovascular events.
What’s The Right Amount of Protein?
If too much protein is linked to ill health, what is the right amount? A popular opinion of human nutrition is that each person is unique, requiring a greater or lesser amount of protein than the next person. This may be true to the extent that someone who is an athlete or bodybuilder may want to consume more protein, but on average we could safely say there should be an average optimal protein level for all humans. Just as koalas thrive on eucalyptus leaves and bees on honey, what exactly is it we humans thrive on?
We can start the “how much protein is the right amount?” question at the beginning of human life—with breastmilk. Human breastmilk is known by common sense, and backed by a multitude of professionals, to be the most perfect food for human babies. Human breastmilk is roughly 13% protein, 13% fat, and 74% carbohydrates. Nutrition experts who endorse the whole foods plant based diet generally recommend the average human adult get 10% of their calories from fat, 10% from protein, and 80% from carbohydrates. Dr. Douglas Graham wrote the book 80-10-10 which is boldly titled with this recommended macronutrient ratio.
Many people are interested in consuming high-protein foods and want to know
what plants pack the most. The seed is the part of the plant that is generally high in protein. Edible seeds including grains, nuts, beans, and legumes are all good sources. Other vegetables and fruits contain protein too, but you may wonder — is it enough?
Consuming a variety of plant parts, including seeds and nuts sprinkled on salads and smoothies, should guarantee you’ll get enough protein and all the other nutrients the human body needs in just the right amounts. ###
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Sources: 1. Anals of Internal Medicine, The Effect of Dietary Protein... 2. ISRN: Nutrition, Adverse Effects Associated with Protein... 2. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, High Protein... 3. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Protecting Your...
Note (1): Some nutritionists include only protein, carbohydrates, and fat as macronutrients but fiber and water are also needed in large quantities measured by grams (as compared to milligrams for micronutrients). Fiber is technically a nutrient that is undigestible and is classified as a type of carbohydrate. Including fiber as a macronutrient helps emphasize the importance of consuming large quantities of this nutrient along with the other four. Insufficient fiber consumption is associated with an array of health problems.