Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Protein Myth

Welcome to this week's edition of  Needs vs Wants Wednesday, where I dare to reevaluate what society deems to be needs. What really is necessary for a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, and what can be eliminated without much stress? Find out here, weekly, on Needs vs Wants Wednesday
This week on the stand- Protein.

Most people I know routinely serve meat or poultry between one and three times a day. To go without their daily dose of animal flesh is preposterous to them as going without toilet paper. Or maybe even more. "We need protein" is the common answer I get when I question the rationale behind this habit.

Don't mince my words- protein is vital to our existence. Protein is the building blocks of cells, the catalyst for different cellular reaction, and has a multitude of other functions. (You can read more about protein's functions here.) Low protein diets are extremely unhealthy and dangerous for your body, as was evidenced by a close family member who nearly died because of her minimal protein diet.
Protein- definitely high up there on the list of absolute needs.

There are some definite myths about protein that abound. The goal of this post is not to prove that protein is not a need, but rather to dispel the unfounded rumors and misinformation regarding this topic.

Protein Myths

1. The only real protein is animal flesh. This is the most common of the protein myths. Because of this misconception, for the rest of this post, when I write "real protein", it will refer to protein of the animal variety- chicken, turkey, duck, beef, pork, venison, etc.
2. Only "real protein" has enough iron to fill my nutritional requirements. Another myth, soon to be dispelled.
3. "Fake proteins" don't fill you up. Only "real protein" is filling. Misconception, numero tres.
4. "Real men need real meat- beans simply don't satisfy my husband's craving for meat."  Less easy to disprove, because I don't know all the husbands in the world, but I can tell you what works for all the men meat lovers I know.

"Real" Protein

The average Westerner eats much more protein than his body demands. Adults, even men, and even lactating women, need no more than 65 grams of protein daily. (Check here for a list of protein requirements for your age and sex.) No human being needs to have sausage for breakfast, a whole chicken quarter with lunch, and a steak for dinner.
Assuming that those were the only things this person ate in one day, that would be 84 grams of protein, already much more than is required. And of course, many other things eaten along with these animal products are most likely also chock full of protein, upping your intake of protein even more.

What people don't realize is that while animal flesh may be a good source of protein, it is also the highest in price, higher still if you have any special dietary requirements like Halal, grass fed, organic, hormone free, or Kosher.
Another relatively unknown fact is that meat consumption has huge environmental impact, and that cutting out excess meat and other animal products is the greener, more environmentally friendly thing to do, according to a recent UN report.
For these two reasons alone, money and environmental concerns, it pays to consider adding at least one or more days of vegan or vegetarian meals each week. In our home, we usually have entirely vegetarian (and often vegan) meals 5 days a week.
(My father the heart doctor, would also say that the American Heart Association recommends following a strict vegan diet, especially for people with a history of heart disease, but I'm not so sure I buy that... but that's for another time.)

If someone cuts "real protein" out of their diet, can they truly get enough protein from other sources to fulfill their nutritional requirements?
Absolutely yes!
Protein abounds in the world around. Even your humble tomato and cabbage both contain protein. You'd be surprised just how many foods contain protein.

Remember- you only need 65 grams of protein if you're a lactating woman, 63 grams if you're a male over the age of 25, 50 grams if you're a woman over 25, and 24 grams if you're a 5 year old kid. Even if one food has 2 grams of protein, when you add up all the different sources of protein throughout a day, you've well reached the limit.

Here's a bunch of pictures with nutritional information (from caloriecount.about.com). Note how much protein is found in different foods.You may find it enlightening.

Chicken breast vs Seitan. Which has more protein?

Chicken breast, but not by so much.

How about some other known proteins?

You'll note that all these non meat sources have quite a decent amount of protein.

Peanut butter?

A bunch of protein in just 2 tablespoons!

What people also don't realize is that grains and starches also frequently contain quite a decent amount of protein. The grain with the highest protein content is quinoa.

Did you see that? 24 grams of protein per cup of quinoa! That's nearly the same amount of protein as a piece of chicken.

Other grains, even white rice! also have sizable amounts of protein.

I've just begun to touch the tip of the iceberg.

Lets take a typical meal of mine for a day-
Breakfast is loaded eggnog made with 2 eggs and 2 cups of milk, as well as flax seeds and whole sesame seeds. I eat an apple with that.
Lunch is a baked potato (ok, make that two because I'm usually hungry) with yogurt and some swiss chard.
Supper will be white flour! macaroni with a tuna cheese sauce with carrots.

In terms of protein, thats 39 grams in breakfast alone, another 18 in lunch, and another 25 for supper. That's 82 grams of protein without even trying!

So no, you don't need to eat meat to get "real protein".

"Real Protein" and Iron

If you'll notice above, most of those foods contain iron. Beans are a high source of iron, as are green leafy vegetables and whole grains, with quinoa topping them all at 43% of your daily value in just one cup of quinoa.
Fenugreek is also a really great source of iron at 21% of your recommended daily intake of iron in just one tablespoon! I have a great recipe for a dip made from fenugreek that is so tasty that I can down my recommended value of iron in one sitting!
Worried about the absorption of iron from non animal sources? Stay away from dairy when eating iron rich foods, as dairy products inhibit the absorption of the iron.
Conversely, vitamin C really helps with the absorption of iron, so eat your beans with tomatoes, have your green leafies with a glass of orange juice, and dip your french fries in fenugreek dip.

"Fake Protien isn't Filling"

It isn't protein that makes you full. Its the fat content that usually comes along with the animal proteins that satiates you. Add healthy fats to your bean meals and you'll be satisfied instantaneously. Read more in my previous post about how adding fats to your diet helps you lose weight and makes your bean meals more filling.


Ah, those pesky ones. The ones that want meat, meat, and more meat. Stick around for tomorrow when I'll teach you how to make different types of seitan from start to finish, seitan so perfect that your carnivore husband will be begging for more and won't believe you that it is not really meat.
Trust me, I tried it out. On my husband. My father in law. Friends. Neighbors. A mom who said her kids refuse to eat anything but chicken breast but devoured the seitan.
It's foolproof. No one would even fathom that it might be anything other than meat.

But its not just seitan. I can teach you how to make mock meat loaf with lentils and walnuts, meat loaf that tastes so absolutely authentic that it fools everyone. Lentil, walnut and oat hamburgers that taste exactly like the real thing, and when crumbled, work as a perfect ground meat substitute.

Yes, even a carnivore can be satisfied with vegetarian meals, so long as you've got the correct recipes.

In short:

Protein? Absolute need.
Meat? Definitely NOT a need. Absolute luxury in most cases.

How many days a week do you serve meat or poultry? At least once a day? Do you ever have vegetarian meals? What are you thoughts? Is having chicken for supper every night (or even almost every night) a must in your household? Are you willing to try to go for one vegetarian (or even vegan!) meal per week? I dare you!

As with everything, remember that I'm not a professional nutritionist, simply someone well read on this topic. Consult a registered dietician or doctor for more professional, personalized information.

Linking up with Works For Me Wednesday Foodie Friday  Food on Friday Vegetarian Foodie Friday and Frugal Fridays and the Festival of Frugality

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