This is the question I am getting on a regular basis. And, in fact, it was one of the reasons I did not want to start eating a plant based whole food diet. I was worried that I would not be able to get enough protein. So, I started researching what enough protein actually means.
I am not sure where the idea that we need such an exorbitant amount of protein came from, but even the USDA guidelines do not list requirements at the high rate we have been told over the years.
According to the USDA: “Daily protein requirements in grams are reported in two ways: estimated average requirement, or EAR, and recommended dietary allowance, or RDA. The EAR is the amount needed to meet the protein requirements of half of all healthy people, whereas the RDA is the amount needed to maintain the health of 97 to 98 percent of individuals in groups according to age and gender. The daily EAR for adults is 0.66 grams of protein for every 2 pounds of weight. The RDA for adult men and women is 0.8 grams of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight. The RDA is usually reported as a single value, which makes it the easiest to use. The RDA for women is 46 grams daily; men need 56 grams of protein daily.”
46 grams of protein is a lot more reasonable than the numbers I have been quoted by nutritionists and health coaches over the years. I have been told that I need anywhere from 120 to 180 grams of protein by people in the health industry. So, why does the advice given by nutrition specialists vary from that of the standard USDA numbers?
The USDA continues to provide more information, stating that each person’s protein requirements will be different based on personal circumstances such as if the person is pregnant, participating in sports, or recovering from surgery/illness. However, the amount still does not exceed 100 grams of protein.
Also, several nutritionists and health coaches are selling products to help you reach these high protein levels. If the number provided is one reasonably achieved through normal eating habits, what market would there be for these specific products?
For the past few weeks, I have been tracking my food intake to determine the amount of protein I naturally take in. On average, eating a plant based whole foods diet, I take in 45-50 grams of protein without supplements. I am getting this amount of protein through whole grains, beans, quinoa, rice, and vegetables.
Now, there are days where I am lifting or running an excessive amount of mileage. On those days, I can add a scoop of unflavored pea protein to a green smoothie, and I add the extra 20 grams of protein recommended for the amount of activity I am completing.
The concern that started to surface for me changed from, “Can I get enough protein eating a whole food, plant based diet?” to “What is the risk of consistently consuming high levels of protein?” This brought about a whole new understanding of the food I eat.
Now, if you are anything like me, you are still feeling skeptical. That’s okay. I stopped eating animal products as an experiment to see if I could physically feel a difference in my recovery as I increased my running mileage from marathon training to ultramarathon training. The difference is remarkable. I am leaning out, and getting more muscle definition, and my recovery time is the lowest ever. I can run long runs two days in a row, and not feel any soreness, muscle aching, or pain. I went from taping my knees constantly, to throwing my kinesthetic tape in the junk drawer. Physically, I feel amazing…and I am eating the USDA recommended level of protein, versus the high level I was previously told I need.
If you are interested in reading more, I highly recommend Proteinaholic by Dr. Garth Davis as well as The China Study by Thomas Campbell (MD) and and T. Colin Campbell (PhD). Several studies have found an increase in common diseases, which directly correlate with high levels of animal protein. This would explain the increase in heart disease, cancer and illness as there has been additional emphasis placed on consuming high levels of protein.
Not in the mood to read? Check out these awesome films, currently available on Netflix: Forks Over Knives and Vegucated. Several additional documentaries are also available if you really want to start thinking about your food.