Where do you get your protein?
If you are a person like me who follows a plant-based eating programme, you will encounter this question with alarming frequency. Even if I never utter the "V" word at all around a dinner table, people will notice the absence of certain things from my plate and start in with the questions: "Are you a vegetarian or that other thing, what's that called?" "Can you still eat fish?" "How long have you been depriving yourself?" But it never takes long till we get to the favourite of them all: "Where do you get your protein?"
Being the polite fellow that I am, I never resort to inflammatory replies. I simply confirm what all informed people know, namely that all protein comes from the Protein Fairy, of course. The Protein Fairy makes her bucolic rounds through all the rural parts of the world, sprinkling her pixie dust protein on all the animals sleeping blissfully in the fields. Tragically, the Protein Fairy is deathly afraid of scarecrows, so she avoids all the corn, wheat and other vegetable fields, thus depriving them of her magic powder. And that, boys and girls, is where protein comes from. (See also under sarcasm.)
In all seriousness, I tend to offer a bland reply to this question, confirming people's opinions that I eat a couple of bushel baskets of beans every day just to keep up or I must eat a ton of that slimy tofu stuff. Sadly, what these people are showing is their lack of understanding of basic nutrition and what I am showing is that I don't care enough, generally, to correct them. But that all changes when it comes to my loyal readers, who I am always happy to keep informed. So let's take a closer look at protein, because whether they know it or not, my inquisitors are asking an important question. But we'll come back to that later.
Protein is the least important of the three macronutrients, counting also fat and carbohydrate (some people refer to fibre and water as the fourth and fifth non-caloric macronutrients required to sustain human life). Around 10% is where the RDI starts for protein. Brown rice and potatoes are both 8% protein, as an example. You could get enough protein if you ate nothing but potatoes (see also "Potato Dependency in Ireland" prior to the famine), simply by eating 25% more total calories per day. Not that this is advisable - it is just an example by way of illustration of how our beliefs are often unfounded.
Maybe we should start with, "Where does protein come from?" All the protein in the world comes from the action of sunlight on chlorophyll, also known as photosynthesis: "photosynthesis is the source of energy for nearly all life on earth, either directly, through primary production, or indirectly, as the ultimate source of the energy in their food." So, to rephrase in light of today's focus, all protein starts out in plants. How else to explain that some of the largest mammals on earth - including some of the fiercest, such as the rhino, elephant, hippo and gorilla - can build their massive bodies eating nothing but plants?
You can even break this down further by saying that protein is just a collection of twenty-one different amino acids, nine of which are essential (must come from dietary sources, as they can't be synthesized in our bodies). Amino acids are what plants are actually storing. Some contain higher amounts of some of the nine, some others. But all nine are widely available in a delicious array of vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and even (in smaller quantities) in fruits.
Okay, you might be saying at this point. I get it, Mark. You're trying to say that protein is protein--it's just a bunch of amino acids that are widely available and easily obtained. It doesn't matter where you get your protein... Wrong! My point is, or soon will be, that plant protein is better than animal protein. Stay with me for one last detour, dear reader. The end is in sight.
When it comes to protein sources, it is anything but a toss-up. Study after study has proven this point. For instance, the intake of animal protein--even independent of saturated fat consumption--has been associated with heart disease, our number one killer. This was in a study out of Harvard that found that total protein consumption was not a factor, however higher intake of animal protein was associated with increased risk of heart disease in otherwise healthy men. In addition, they found a significant inverse association between vegetable protein intake and heart disease, meaning the plant proteins were actually protective.
Another study, this one from a cohort of male employees of the Chicago Western Electric Company in the 1950's, found this: "After 7 years of follow-up, animal protein intake was associated with being overweight and obese, but vegetable protein was the opposite — inversely associated with being overweight. This would be a no-brainer except that they found this independent of calories, fat, and carbohydrate. The findings were highly significant." Here's the kicker: "The researchers theorized that the different amino acid composition of the animal vs. vegetable protein could account for the difference."
Whatever the reason for these findings, our bodies are pretty good at telling us which kind of protein is working for them and which kind not. Thinking back to those large mammals I mentioned before, maybe the fact that we share a common evolutionary ancestor with a herbivorous gorilla should tell us something (more on that in a future post). For now, science is showing us the way. In his "Essentials of Healthy Eating: A Guide," Walter Willet, the chair of Harvard University's nutrition department, lays this out in no uncertain terms: "Pick the best protein packages by emphasizing plant sources of protein rather than animal sources."
What else is there to say?
So the short answer (too late!) to this question for me is that I eat a wide variety of whole plant foods and I just don't think about it. Ever. Except when I get these inevitable queries and astonished looks from dinner companions. So what do you think? Is it incumbent upon me to be more forthcoming when asked this question? Or should I turn it around on the person and say, good question, where do you get your protein? Is your protein packaged in saturated fat and cholesterol? Or is it packaged in dietary fibre and micronutrients? Does your protein come with an increased risk of heart disease and obesity? Or would it serve to protect you from both? Food for thought, perhaps.
And, speaking of food, I wouldn't leave you high and dry with no recipe for this week's MM meal. This week's recipe is a traditional favourite with a few plant-friendly twists. The addition of veggie sausage adds both flavour and, you guessed it, protein to the mix. Hope you enjoy it and good health in the coming week. Choose your protein wisely.