Our Protein Needs: A Case Study
Updated: Sep 4, 2019
A friend of mine from High School, we’ll call him Jimmy, just liked my Ian Cramer Facebook page and has been very inquisitive. His question was about macronutrients and obtaining them via a plant-based and/or vegan diet. He was explaining his current calorie needs:
“Roughly 2600 calories. This would put me in a slight caloric deficit. How hard would that be to do vegan? Crazy hard? 194g protein(30%)// 323g carbs(25%) 57g fat (20%)”
Very good questions and common questions. Let me give my answer and general philosophy to the greater community.
On a whole foods, plant-based diet that is not calorie deficient, there is no need to count calories, ever. Even for athletes, who arguably, have a greater calorie need, there is no need. With the example above, despite the claimed calorie deficit, 2600 is still sufficient to build muscle, provide ample energy and provide nutrition. Carbs, Proteins and Fat will automatically and effortlessly sort themselves out if you stick to whole plants, ad libitum.
How much protein do we really need? This has been studied extensively in nutrition science in the past 100+ years and very clear requirements have been established. The ‘rule of thumb’ amount to remember is .8 grams of protein per kg. body weight. Let’s assume Jimmy weighs 180lbs = 81kg. This would put his daily need at about 65 grams per day, more than 3 times less than what he thinks he needs. But even if we were extremely liberal in our numbers, and put the needs at 1.5g/kg (the absolute highest number I’ve ever seen within literature while teaching nutrition at a University and learning about nutrition over the last 6+ years) that would still put his needs at 121g/day, still well below 194g. One more detail to consider is even the .8g/kg is liberal. The EAR, or Estimated Average Requirement was established at .5-.6g/kg. Considering a bell curve, The EAR is the amount that would be sufficient for the majority of the population, 51%. But Health officials wanted to make sure the greater population was getting enough, so they raised the EAR 2 standard deviations, which brought our average protein needs to .8g/kg, which accounts for 98% of the population, the vast majority.
Keep in Mind: Protein promotes growth of tissues, ALL tissues. A good thing if you’re trying to build muscle, but a bad thing if you’re trying to avoid cancer growth. Remember, cancer cells are OUR cells. We all have cancer cells in our body right now (Initiation Stage). But our immune system along with a diet packed with antioxidant rich plants eliminate these random cancer cells before they metastasize and cause organ failure (Promotion Phase). So, if we can’t avoid the initiation phase, wouldn’t we want to avoid the promotion phase? Can we avoid the promotion phase? Turns out, we can, very easily. A diet high in protein, animal protein in particular, works remarkably well at promoting the growth of tissues, including cancer tissues. If we keep protein ingestion at levels that are sufficient for health but not excessive, we can take preventative steps at reducing our chances of developing cancers (Prostate, Liver, Kidney, Pancreatic, Lung, Colon. Throat, Esophageal etc).
Getting back to the question, is it possible to eat that much protein? I have a can of beans in front of me: 3.5 servings at 7g per serving = ~25g per can = ~7.5 cans to meet the 194gram need. Hope you buy soft toilet paper. Even an isolated soy protein from Bob’s Red Mill is 17g per 1/4 cup serving, putting your need at a little under 2 cups. Yuck. But there is very little nutrition in isolated food products, and never something I would recommend. Honestly, It would be VERY difficult to meet those specific needs on a plant-based diet. But, if you haven’t recognized by this point, I feel the daily needs of Jimmy, highlighted above, are unbalanced.
If some protein is good, is more better? The answer is no. Excess protein, even plant-proteins, put excess strain on the kidneys and urinary system leading to kidney stones, gout and excessive calcium excretion, which is a leading cause of osteoporosis in this country.
We must ask ourselves the question “Does increased protein create health”? I contend that it doesn’t. More and more athletes are switching to diets higher in natural, unadulterated plant-products because it works at increasing their athletic performance, myself included for the last 7 years. Excessive protein creates sickness, especially when eaten in the ‘packages’ is comes in today, i.e meat, dairy and animal products. The body of evidence is very clear, eating diets containing excess cholesterol and saturated fats (the ‘baggage’ found in animal products) is a leading cause of heart disease and sclerosis in our vessels. Why eat ‘Insert Animal Product HERE” for protein when it comes with baggage that will harm you, baggage that we don’t need? When instead you could simply add a half cup of beans, lentils, or a couple cups of greens or broccoli, get all of the phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that come along with those plant-foods AND avoid the negative baggage present in animal foods. It’s a win-win-win-win (that’s 4 wins!!). Your arteries and heart don’t get clogged with plaque, you get more micronutrients, you’re not killing animals needlessly and you’re making your carbon footprint a heck of a lot smaller. If you want to get started, Simply get into the habit of phasing out animal products and phasing in more plant foods.
Without getting on my soapbox too much, after eating Standard American for the first 22 years of my life and now being immersed in this lifestyle for 7 years, Eating more plant-based is just all around better, in all ways, Period. It doesn’t mean I am better than you. It’s not a status symbol and it's not a competition and it's not elitist. (The only way I see this as a competition is challenge yourself to live longer than your parents). It’s simply a way of living that enables me AND YOU to live the healthiest life possible, while respecting other humans and animals that inhabit the same planet as you. We’re all part of the same community. Check out my Blog on "What is a Whole-Foods Plant Based Lifestyle" to get a big picture of how and why I eat this way.
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