Why is everyone asking me about protein?

Since I have started telling people about becoming a wannabe vegan, I have noticed that the first question out of most people’s mouths is, “How do you get enough protein?” I am perplexed by this question because I never considered protein to be the end-all and be-all of what I choose to eat. I think maybe it is because I tend to ignore all of the meat and dairy commercials that tout themselves as the perfect food because they contain so much protein. That, along with the fact that I am healthy and energetic tells me that a vegan diet is giving my body what it needs.

But, in the interest of being well informed I decided to do a little investigation into protein. I was hoping it would give me a clear response to that common question that will inspire others to learn more about protein too and how they can make sure they are making a balanced and informed decision about what they eat. I also hoped to provide you with a response you may wish to use when you are asked that question in the future.

A Collagen Protein

So, let’s start with the basics. Protein is a catch-all term to describe the combination of amino acids in our bodies that create tissue. The amino acids are ‘building blocks’ that combine to produce different things like organs, skin, muscle and nails. Each one is unique but all are essential to good health. Our bodies can produce some of these amino acids on its own but some must be obtained through our diet. These are known as ‘essential amino acids’ and we need about 50 grams a day.

To be more accurate, the recommended daily intake of protein is 0.8 grams for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight or about 10% of your total calories. This is for normal, healthy people who do not have special circumstances to consider, like pregnant women, athletes, etc. Do the calculation for yourself to be sure what you need and then adjust if necessary.

Most sources I reviewed said that it is quite easy to get the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein through a varied diet of veggies, legumes and grains. Some vegan sources of exceptional amounts of protein are tempeh, seitan, soybeans, lentils, spinach and kale. Flax seed, hemp seed and spirulina are also good sources of protein that are easily worked into any diet by using them in smoothies or salad dressings. But I was still curious why everyone was making such a big deal about the whole thing. Is being protein deficient a real cause for concern?

According to the experts, it is VERY rare to be protein deficient in the US since we have numerous sources of healthy food and protein. (An exception would be someone purposely depriving themselves of all food because of an eating disorder.) If you are concerned that it may be an issue, common signs that you may not be getting enough protein are apathy, swollen legs, distended belly and flaky skin. These are caused by your body using its muscle mass as its source of protein which can start a vicious cycle of malnutrition.

Yummy Lentil Soup

But I think what more people should be worried about is getting too MUCH protein. If more than 30% of your total calories are protein you could be doing more harm than good. Your body cannot store excess protein so it must metabolize it. In order to do this, it must take calcium and water from your body. This stresses your kidneys and can cause calcium deficiency and dehydration. Unfortunately, getting too much protein is very easy to do when you are following the Standard American Diet (SAD). This combined with the fact that most meat sources also have high amounts of saturated fat make them a less than ideal food choice for someone trying to be healthy.

So, when someone asks you, “Aren’t you concerned about getting enough protein?” you can say, “No, not really. Vegetables are a great source and I make sure to eat a balanced diet that includes beans, nuts and seeds – all of which contain a lot of protein – so I’m not worried at all.” and before the pause is too long, add in, “Aren’t you worried about getting too much protein?” and see where that takes the conversation.

Let me know how using this response works out for you and if you have any other suggestions in the comments section below, on facebook or via twitter.

If you would like to calculate exactly how much protein you need, please go to The Protein Calculator.

If you would like to see a listing of foods and their protein content, you can download the USDA listing (in pdf format). If you go to the USDA website, there are a multitude of other nutritional resources and information.

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