“Do you want the grilled or the baked chicken?”
I paused for a second to carefully choose my protein and how it was cooked. “Gri..”
“The grilled chicken costs more because it’s a larger portion.”
I love chicken. So much so that I consistently eat about 1.5-2 lbs each week for lunch alone. So when our server told me I could add chicken to my black bean salad, I immediately jumped at the chance.
I was at lunch with a colleague and some clients of mine, when the topic of animal protein came up.
“I saw an article the other day that was talking about protein. So, how little animal protein could you eat to survive? Can I cut it out altogether? How much animal protein can our bodies even process anyway??”
I paused for a minute to think about the question, and politely asked my colleague if I could take this one. He obliged, and I turned that conversation into this full article. Stick around – it’s good.
What follows is a breakdown of animal protein needs versus lifestyle versus other factors like likes, dislikes, and other considerations. I’ll cover sources of plant-based protein within this article, but the main point here – and the one my client was specifically asking about – is animal protein and our consumption thereof.
Two important points:
- This will not be a discussion regarding the ethics of buying or consuming animal protein.
- I’m not pushing a particular type of diet. I’m exploring the differences and similarities of certain dietary lifestyles. I’ll leave it up to you to make a decision regarding your own dietary protein intake.
Why is protein important?
I won’t play evolutionary biologist and tell you how our ancient ancestors lived, but from what I’ve read they consumed animal proteins as part of their diet. I recognize that there are evolutionary and ethical implications to animal protein consumption, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide where animal protein fits into your diet and lifestyle. Today we’ll focus on why protein is important in your diet, regardless of the source.
Protein exists in every cell in your body. Protein assists with tissue repair, including repair of bones, ligaments, and cartilage. It’s involved with enzyme and hormone secretion and is important for your immune system.
If you want to “look good naked,” protein helps repair muscle tissue and build new muscle when you exercise. Protein increases metabolism and can help you burn fat and lose weight; and because protein is satiating, it helps you feel fuller for longer and help “crowd out” or replace otherwise less-nutritious foods.
The building blocks of protein are amino acids, and there are nine essential amino acids that we cannot synthesize in our bodies and must attain through diet. You can meet your essential amino acids needs through both animal and plant-based protein sources.
Dietary protein comes from both complete proteins, which provide all nine essential amino acids, and incomplete proteins, which do not. Animal proteins like beef, poultry, fish, dairy products, and plant proteins like soybeans and quinoa represent complete proteins. Most all other plant sources of protein are incomplete. Vegans and vegetarians should eat a wide variety of plant protein sources to ensure they’re meeting their essential amino acid needs.
The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of protein is about 0.36 g/lb of bodyweight for a sedentary individual. If I were sedentary, my 180-pound frame would equate to 64 grams of protein per day. In a matter of a few eggs, yogurt, chicken with lunch, and legumes with dinner, I could easily meet those needs. In fact, most Americans eat about 100 grams per day of protein or almost double the RDA for a 140-pound person.
In terms of how much animal protein one needs, the answer is “It depends.” It depends on your needs, activity level, age, sex, and personal preferences. With regard to animal protein intake then, I figure we all reside inside a bell curve, like this one:
Impressive art, isn’t it? Side story – I quit making art the day I saw my wife’s. You wanna see real art, talk to her.
- This mock-up is for demonstration purposes only.
- Its focus is on animal protein sources (I’ll talk plant-based sources throughout).
- It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list of diet regimens.
- If you’re a statistician and you’re mad about my use of a bell curve, go run regressions in SPSS and blow off steam.
- There are exceptions to every rule – you’ll easily find vegan athletes and sedentary zombies, and everything in between. Please don’t get hung up on the exceptions.
Let’s take one end of the spectrum first and move our way across. Lemme slide left, then slide right, on the protein intake dance floor.
I’ll put vegans on the left side, representing the least – or none at all – animal protein intake side of the bell curve.
My client asked: Can you survive on little or no animal protein?
Yes, vegans do it all the time. The tenets of veganism are that you consume no meat, dairy, or eggs of any animal whatsoever. For sedentary vegans, a well-balanced whole-food diet can supply adequate protein.
However, as vegans become more active or start strength training, it would be a good idea for them to bump up their protein intake. Because of the increased demand on muscle tissue, active vegans will likely need to increase their caloric intake (to sustain their activity levels), include a wide variety of whole food sources, and increase their plant protein intake to meet the demands of physical stress. A plant-based protein supplement (e.g. pea, rice, hemp) can be used if a vegan is falling short on their protein needs.
I’m not a Registered Dietician and won’t pretend to be one. If you’re a vegan and want to make sure you’re optimizing the amount and sources of protein in your diet, please consult a local RD.
Some good sources of plant-based protein and amino acids are:
- Seitan (made from gluten)
- Beans and Rice
- Ezekiel bread
- Soy milk, protein powder
…and many others.
As we move towards “a little more animal protein,” we get vegetarians, some of who eat eggs, cheese, and/or fish. Like vegans, most of their diet is vegetables and fruits, with minimal animal protein intake otherwise.
Like vegans, most sedentary vegetarians can consume an adequate amount of protein in a well-balanced diet. If they begin strength training or doing other vigorous physical activities, it would be a good idea to increase both calories and protein to help with tissue repair, new muscle growth, recovery, and satiating a likely increased hunger from physical activity. Depending on how much physical activity a vegetarian engages in, a plant-based protein supplement may be necessary.
Good protein sources for the vegetarian:
- Same plant sources as vegans
- Whey, soy, egg, plant, hemp, or pea powdered protein mix
- Fish, like tuna, cod, salmon, etc.
The plant-based diet emphasizes the consumption of fruits and veggies over animal protein sources but does not exclude them, either. If you were to load up your dinner plate, maybe 75%+ of your plate would be covered in veggies and fruits of different types, tastes, and textures.
The “plant-based diet” has come to mean different things to different people, from 100% fruits and veggies to a more vegetarian-style, to our purposes here – a blend of mostly plants with some or minimal animal protein. For this article – and the bell curve – understand that the plant-based diet can be as inclusive or exclusive of animal proteins as you personally prefer.
An important take-home point: animal protein is not is a “better” source of protein than plant. Animal protein does tend to be more protein dense – and complete – compared with plant protein, though. If your goal is to consume an adequate amount of protein per day, including animal protein sources simply makes this goal easier to achieve.
Aside: a popular internet meme compared protein in steak vs. protein in broccoli, stating “plants have all the protein you need…”
The problem here is that 100 calories of broccoli is about 10 oz, or 3.5 cups of broccoli (~3.5 cupped handfuls). You’d have to eat 3.5 handfuls of broccoli to get 11.1 grams of protein. In comparison, a 5 oz steak (about the size of your palm) has 35 g of protein (and 380ish calories). Your call here – the point is to demonstrate protein density per serving (and the absurdity of internet memes).
For most of us, most of the time, the plant-based diet works great for both sedentary and active individuals because it ensures a healthy dose of all macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein), micronutrients, vitamins, and fiber.
Your dietary protein needs will vary depending on your physical activity, age, and personal preferences. Recreational athletes and active people might include a larger portion of animal protein sources, while sedentary individuals may need less.
For most of us, most of the time, the plant-based diet is a great place to be and should focus on leafy greens; lots of veggies of bright and different colors, textures, and tastes; and protein from chicken, fish, beef, and plant-based sources.
Because of the high demand on muscles and bones through hard training, it’s important that athletes eat adequate protein to improve muscle protein synthesis, aid recovery, and repair muscle damage. In fact, the research indicates that athletes can consume about 1 g/lb of protein per day (maybe a little more). Using myself as an example, that would be about 180 g of protein each day. Big difference from 64 g (if I were sedentary) to 180 g, right?
I should point out, however, that even though my bell curve suggests athletes eat more animal protein, it’s important I distinguish the difference between their absolute protein intake (from all sources) from their relative protein intake.
Take for example an NFL linebacker who weighs 250 lbs and is training in the offseason to get bigger and stronger. While he may be eating about 250 g of protein per day to build new muscle, his total caloric intake is probably in the neighborhood of 4500 calories per day. So his absolute protein intake of 250 g/day may seem high, but his relative protein intake represents only ~22% of his total calories for the day (not much more than most of us).
The rest of his calories will come from fat and carbs (his carb intake might be a whopping 550 g or more each day).
Now that I feel small, let’s see what 180 grams of protein looks like on an average day for me:
3 large eggs with ¼ cup cheddar cheese
½ cup oatmeal
~30 g protein
1 scoop protein mix
~25 g protein
6 oz grilled chicken
½ cup lentils
Mixed veggies (broccoli, carrots, brussels sprouts)
~50 g protein
1 cup Greek Yogurt
½ cup raw almonds
~30 g protein
1 cup quinoa
1 cup black beans
¼ lb turkey burger
~45 g protein
Total: ~180 g protein on the day
Zombies, AKA “How much is too much?”
Most research indicates that a diet high in both animal and plant-based protein is perfectly healthy. Barring a clinical reason – like liver or kidney issues – you can enjoy protein from all types of sources every day and be fine.
In other words, unless you’re a flesh-seeking zombie and instead prefer a variety of plant and animal foods every day, it’s unlikely you’re going to eat too much protein.
The upper limit of our ability to digest and synthesize protein from all sources seems to be in the area of 1.5-2.0 g/lb of bodyweight (or 225-300 g for a 150 lb person). This type of consumption would have to be chronic before it would cause any potential damage. For reference, a 40 oz steak – a piece of meat so big it eclipses the average dinner plate – has 280 g of protein.
Even though it sounds like a challenge to meat-lovers like myself, even I physical limits. Eyes bigger than my stomach, indeed.
Granted, there are associations with higher protein intake and certain cancer risk. These studies are usually correlation and not causation, meaning that while cancer risk and animal protein consumption are related, we’re not sure increased animal protein directly causes cancer. More research and longitudinal studies are needed to better answer this question.
To ease your fears, your diet should focus on mostly vegetables and fruits, which contain micronutrients, phytochemicals, and plenty of fiber that can offer protective benefits against cancer.
What about protein and fat loss?
The simple answer here has less to do with how much protein you ingest and more to do with your total caloric intake: eat less than your body expends, and you’ll lose weight. Eat more than your body expends, and you’ll gain weight.
I will not argue this fact – while metabolism is complicated by variables including age, activity level, sex, hormones, and muscle mass, energy intake in terms of calories matters the most for fat loss.
That being said, protein intake (either plant-based or animal) can be beneficial to your fat loss goals. Assuming your calories are controlled and under your body’s needs, you can manipulate your protein intake to your advantage:
- Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, helping you feel fuller after a high-protein meal, crowding out additional calorie intake through less-than-optimal food sources.
- Protein is the most thermogenic, meaning your body burns more calories in an effort to break it down (although it should be noted that the metabolic increase is actually quite small).
- Protein spares muscle mass: while lifting weights in a caloric deficit, it’s important to eat enough protein to spare the muscle you’ve built while you burn off fat.
Of course, your protein choices and intake amount will vary depending on your goals, preferences, needs, schedule, budget, and a myriad of other things. How you go about that will be highly individual.
Bringing it home
What we’ve learned is that yes, you can, in fact, live well without the consumption of animal protein sources.
When my client asked, “How little can I eat and how much do I need?” I gave her the exact description as the bell curve above.
You can survive and thrive without consuming animal proteins at all. Given what we’ve learned about protein and its importance in our diet and lifestyle, it’s vital for both vegans and vegetarians to explore a variety of plant-based high protein sources, especially as they increase physical activity.
Most of us, most of the time fall into the “plant-based” diet region of the bell curve – or rather, where we probably ought to be. It’s true that many Americans over-consume highly processed, nutrient poor, and calorically dense foods, leading to more people becoming overweight or obese and incurring health consequences like hypertension, dyslipidemia, Type II diabetes, and heart disease.
If you are someone who tends to eat both plants and animals, taking the approach of the plant-based diet might help increase your dietary intake of fruits and veggies, which does two things:
- More fruits and veggies mean more vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which all have positive health outcomes.
- More fruits and veggies displace processed and refined foods, including refined meats, also leading to positive health outcomes.
If you’re someone who is active or looking to become healthier through both diet and exercise, the plant-based approach would be a good place to start. If you’re an athlete you can and should consume more protein from all sources to aid in repairing and building muscle and joint tissue. Where you get your sources is up to you and your personal preferences.
If you’re a zombie, well, sorry. You’re already dead. That being the case, maybe you don’t have to worry about the possible side-effects of a high protein diet? Good on you!
Precision Nutrition: The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, 3rd Edition