Protein used to sit only in the minds of body builders and weight lifters. It was often an overlooked macronutrient by the general population - in favour of fat/carb debates.
However when Paleo started pushing its way into popular culture, they had an uphill battle convincing people fat was okay. Afterall it had been ingrained for generations that fat = bad.
An easier concept was to convince the population that they needed more protein.
I believe this is part of the reason, one of the more common questions I get presented with today is;
“How do I make sure my family is getting enough protein?”
Another reasons I'm finding people are interested in this question - is that they're very interested in eating a more plant based diet. However getting enough protein is one of their top 3 concerns (alongside getting the kids to eat veggies, and convincing their partner to be meat free!)
This question is asked off the back of an awesome desire to move towards a healthier more environmentally conscious way of eating. So of course I'm going to address it for you guys!
Well first, let’s discuss why you might be concerned about getting protein.
Protein is found in every single tissue of our body.
When we typically think of protein, it is for the building and repair of tissue. However protein is also used in muscular contraction, immune function, the synthesis of enzymes, a source of energy, weight management, as well as drug, vitamin, and mineral transportation throughout our entire body.
Protein is comprised of amino acids. Some of these amino acids our body produces itself. Others we can only get from the food we eat. We call the later, essential amino acids.
So with protein being that important, I can completely understand why families are concerned about getting enough.
Now there are two things we need to cover as we go through this.
How much protein is enough
What type of protein is important
There are a number of studies looking at how much protein we actually use before we store the rest. Most of these studies are concerned with muscle growth (think body building). So remember – they’re focused on higher end athletic performance.
These show that 10% of calories coming from protein is all that is needed for essential functions. A further 20% then helps in the growth of muscle.
What this means is that the maximum we need is around 30 – 35% of our calories to come from protein.
At an individual level our needs vary depending on our age or life factors.
For example an infant or someone dealing with a significant injury or illness may need around 1.2-2g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
During your teen years you need around 0.85g protein / kg. An endurance athlete may need closer to 1.2 – 1.4g/kg, whilst a strength based athlete may be as much as 1.6 – 1.8g/kg.
Most normal adults would use around 0.6-0.8g/kg.
Let’s look at two cases – a 75kg adult who works out at the gym moderately and a 3 year old pre-schooler.
Now the adult would require somewhere between 0.8 – 1g protein per kilo of their body weight. This would mean, on the higher side, they need 75g of protein each day to restock their amino acids and grow their muscles.
A typical day might look like;
- A bowl of porridge with fruit, nuts, seeds and honey. Plus an almond and peanut butter smoothie (35g protein)
- One Amaranth Salad Burger with avocado and soy cheese (25g protein)
- Snack of 1 box raisins and 20g dark chocolate (3g protein)
- Lentil and Quinoa bowl with roast veggies and nut marinade (20g protein)
All up this is 83g of protein. I’ve deliberately made it plant based to prove how easy it is to reach this level, and I’ve been super conservative on serving sizes.
For the child, we will assume they weigh around 14.5kg. This would mean they need around 14.5g of protein each day.
This is what my 3 year old would eat during the day;
- ½ cup porridge made with 1 cup milk, sliced banana, and blueberries (5g protein)
- 1 coconut yoghurt with sliced peach (1g protein)
- Soy cheese and tomato toasty + cup of coconut almond milk (10g protein)
- Homemade muesli bar – using banana, dates, chocolate chips, oats, and avocado oil + cup of coconut almond milk (3g protein)
- Amaranth and chickpea “meat” balls with tomato pasta (6g protein)
That equates to 25g protein which is well over the daily needs. Again I have deliberately used a plant based – no animal protein – diet to demonstrate the ease of getting plenty of protein.
If I wanted to boost it even more I'd add peanut or some other nut butter to a smoothie, sandwich, or baking.
Now the second part of this equation is that whilst the total protein is important – it is almost MORE important to understand the type of protein being eaten.
A common theme coming through in nutrition today is a shift away from focusing purely on fat, carbohydrate, and protein, towards understanding the complexity of the different types of each of these macronutrients.
This is a good thing in many ways. It stops people getting fixated on low carb or low fat, instead helping people see that low fat or low carb does not necessarily mean healthy. It is the type of fat or carbohydrate you eat that makes a difference.
And in a way protein is not much different. Proteins which contain all the essential amino acids (ones our body cannot make itself) are called ‘complete proteins’. These are preferential. You can also have a group of incomplete proteins to make your diet ‘complete’.
So this is what I was getting to in point two. It is not just about total protein, it is also about the type of protein which is being eaten.
Now I cannot hide the fact that animal sources of protein are the most common complete proteins in many people’s diet. So it you eat meat, you should get a complete protein diet without problem.
The issue for me is that the health, environment, and ethical argument against consuming animal protein is too great – and this was enough to convince my family to move plant based.
I know many other families who have either done the same, or want to but this protein dilemma is one of a few which holds them back (understandably).
So what are complete forms of plant based protein, alternatively which incomplete proteins work together to make a complete package?
Our plant based complete proteins include;
- Buckwheat (which is not wheat don’t be fooled!)
Examples of plant based incomplete proteins which together make a complete protein!
- Brown rice and beans
- Hummus and Pita bread
- Spirulina with nuts
- Peanut butter Sandwiches