I am of a certain age where I can tell you that never have I seen so many long- held beliefs challenged on every level. I grew up on meat, potatoes, and vegetable dinners, eggs for breakfast and cold cut sandwiches for lunch. My mother’s idea of serving a vegetable was opening a can of peas or beans. Her mother’s idea was to go into the garden in her backyard and pluck the veggie from its moorings. And the sacred cow (pardon the pun) of our protein was meat and dairy.
Nature has a way of evening the score and when it did, I immersed myself in the study of nutrition. Not the nutrition I learned in nursing school, but the latest research that debunked much of what I had learned backed then, and challenges my taste buds now.
Think you know about protein? 
I thought I did. Not.
First, what the heck is protein?
Twenty-one amino acids compose a protein molecule. So what’s an amino acid? Merriam Webster’s definition seemed the most user friendly: “Definition of amino acid: an amphoteric organic acid containing the amino group NH2; especially any of the various amino acids having the amino group in the alpha position that are the chief components of proteins and are synthesized by living cells or are obtained as essential components of the diet.”
Got that? Me neither, but I got the part about amino acids being created by living cells OR obtained as essential components from food.
The body makes 12 of the 21 amino acids we need. We must get the 9 other amino acids from food. My mother got them from meat, but research shows we can get those 9 from other food sources. Also, it’s a myth that we need to combine foods in a certain way to accomplish this. In fact, beans, among other foods like seeds and nuts, are great sources of protein all by themselves.
I just learned today, while listening to Food Revolution’s 2022 Summit, that those folks troubled by beans causing gas can eliminate the problem by soaking beans overnight. In the morning, drain and re-rinse them. If you eat beans from the can, drain off the liquid (called aqua-faba) and thoroughly rinse the beans.
So what does protein do?
Most of us know we need protein to build, repair, and maintain tissue. It also helps the immune system, but fiber is the real hero there. The “good” bacteria thrive on fiber, and there is no fiber in meat. It may be fibrous (stringy) but that’s not the kind of fiber we’re talking about. As far as building muscles, excess protein won’t do it. Only exercise.
There goes your dream of chowing down on a T-Bone steak for stronger muscles. Instead, get out and run or lift weights. (With my enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for exercise, it is any wonder I can’t open a jar of pickles without help?)
How much is too much or too little?
First, most people in industrialized nations are not protein deficient. In fact, a person “eating well on the standard American diet” may consume too much protein. How much do we really need?
Here’s a chart developed by Kris Carr https://kriscarr.com/
- Find your “P” value.
Kids ages 4 to 13 = 0.43
Adolescents ages 14 to 18 = 0.39
Adults ages 19 to 64 (moderately active) = 0.36
Seniors ages 65+ and special needs = 0.44 to 0.522.
- To calculate your needs, multiply your lean body weight (in pounds) by your “P” value to find out how many grams are recommended for you each day. (If you are significantly overweight, you may adjust the formula down to base it on what you might consider a healthy body weight.)
*=Based on the available research, these suggestions are intended for general health, disease prevention, and longevity. But for specific contexts, such as power athletes and weightlifters, there is also research showing that higher protein intakes may be advisable in some instances. Also, we are each biochemically and metabolically unique, so listen to your body, use your own best judgment and, wherever applicable, consult with your healthcare professional for guidance.
If you feel you need to boost your protein intake, eat hemp, flax, chia seeds or seeds ground into powder. Here’s an unsettling bit of research about those manufactured protein powders (even the plant based, organic ones). There was not one of the 134 brands tested that did not have detectable levels of at least one heavy metal, and more than ½ were positive for BPA.
Vegans who eat mostly vegan junk food can be protein deficient. This vegan needs to be sure to down the veggies before diving into the fake cheeses and tortilla chips that I’ve grown to love.
If we either overeat meat, or eat junk food instead, we may get too much or too little protein. The body cannot store excess protein, but will change it to fat or eliminate it through the kidneys. Too much protein can contribute to osteoporosis, kidney stones, renal disease, cancers, disorders of liver function, and coronary artery disease.
Goldilocks Solution: Not too much and not too little
So, what if I try this and get my protein only through vegetable, beans, seeds, grains, and nuts? What will happen if I don’t get enough that way and really need to add meat to my diet?
This study, Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans? https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/3/526S/4689992 by Pramil N Singh, Joan Sabate′, Gary E Fraser (9, 2003), is reassuring in its “Conclusion: Current prospective cohort data from adults in North America and Europe raise the possibility that a lifestyle pattern that includes a very low meat intake is associated with greater longevity.”
At least that’s one bright spot for our grocery bills in these days of inflation!
 I based this blog on an article that is a partial adaptation from Ocean Robbins’ forthcoming book, 31-Day Food Revolution: Heal Your Body, Feel Great, & Transform Your World (Grand Central Life & Style, February 5, 2019).