Of all the nutrients the human body requires to function, protein seems to get the most press. Importance is heaped upon it in colossal doses similar to the U.S. Presidential Election. I’m not going to go into whether or not that attention might be misplaced in this post (and probably ever because I’d rather discuss just about every other topic on the planet before politics), but I will talk about why the emphasis we place on protein’s importance in our diet is vastly overstated.
What Does the Word Protein Actually Mean?
First of all, I’d like to address some lexicon issues. People usually refer to proteins from foods as if they were single entities. This is very far from the truth. A protein in our body is a combinations of amino acids that are found in food, of which there are 20. Of these, 11 are non-essential, which means that our body produces them on its own, and 9 are essential, which means that we require them from outside sources. Now what I’m going to say right now is probably the most important part of this article :
You Can’t Eat Protein!
That’s right. You can’t eat protein. It’s not possible. That’s because all of the different proteins found in our body are the product of different combinations of amino acids that are encoded in our DNA. This process by which amino acids are amalgamated to form proteins takes place within the body. The word protein is basically a reductionist marketing buzz-word that the health industry has used to sell a whole host of products and diet plans. And its effectiveness can’t be denied; imagine if someone tried to sell you an amino acid powder? This amino acid powder contains all 9 essential amino acids – in spades! Just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
So if You Can’t Eat it, How Do You Get Enough Protein Bro?
It’s quite simple. The body stores amino acids as they come in and combines them into proteins as it needs them.
It is unnecessary to get sufficient quantities of all 9 essential amino acids in every meal. As long as you’re getting enough of all 9 throughout the day, and perhaps even longer (the science behind this is still being discovered), your body will synthesize enough proteins to perform the important functions that they are required for. A lot has been made of combining certain foods to insure you get enough of each of the 9 amino acids in every meal, but that myth was made popular decades ago and has since been disproved.(i)
There’s a lot of differing opinions on exact numerical protein requirements based on caloric intake, body weight and other precise statistics that ignore the bigger picture; which is that the body is an ecosystem that doesn’t predictably utilize exact quantities of any energy input, like a machine does. Every human ecosystem is constantly changing, every single human has a completely unique ecosystem, and it is impossible to measure the exact nutritional profile of every single food we eat.
The nutritional data of foods that we see online or on packaging are based off of averages. Every single apple that you eat will be slightly different from the next one because of inconsistent, immeasurable (well you probably could measure them, but then you’d spend your whole life in science labs and looking at spreadsheets) factors like the time between picking and eating, the environmental conditions of the orchard, the quality of the soil and water, the health of the specific tree it came from, the conditions it was stored in on its journey from the farm to your plate, etc.
If you are the kind of person that wants to hear some numbers about how much protein you need based off of certain factors like body weight, then this article(ii) by Matt Ruscigno(iii), a Registered Dietician with an undergraduate degree in Nutritional Science and a Masters in Public Health, will probably satisfy your curiosity.
What are the Important Functions that Proteins Perform?
Proteins are commonly referred to as the building blocks of life. This is a pretty accurate analogy. They play a significant role in the building, maintenance and recovery of the muscles, skin, hair, nails, connective tissues and a whole bunch of other body parts. Proteins also help create digestive enzymes, entities that most raw foodies will probably mention in the first couple of sentences if you ask them what the benefits of a raw food diet is. Perhaps most importantly, hemoglobins, which carry oxygen throughout the body, are a type of protein called Metalloproteins(iv).
The human body requires a number of different nutrients to survive. Of these, being deprived of oxygen will make a human body go kaput the fastest. People have survived without water, the second most important nutrient, for days and perhaps even weeks and months, but find one person who has survived without oxygen for more than a few minutes and you will have stumbled upon a superhero or a mutant or some other crazy *#!% like that.
So yes, proteins are not only incredibly important, but absolutely necessary. The issue being addressed here is that many of us (including myself) have been conditioned to believe that we require much more amino acids from our food than we truly do, and that a lot of the foods that have been touted as effective sources of protein are detrimental to our health and our environment.
So How Much Amino Acids do we Actually Need to Get from our Food?
Well like I brought up before, this isn’t an exact science. It may never be. But allow me to present you with this little fact that might make you think twice about what you currently believe. According to wikipedia, human breast milk is only 0.8-0.9% amino acids(v). Ponder upon that for a minute.
Still wrapping your mind around that? At no point in our lives do we grow faster than when we are babies. In the first year of our lives, we triple our weight and grow 50% taller(vi). And this impressive growth only requires an amino acid, or protein, consumption of 1% of our diet (if we are entirely breast-fed, which is the natural way for babies to be nourished).
Now I’m not saying that we only require 1% amino acids in our diet during our entire lives. Most experts say that number falls between 5 and 20 percent. But, at least to me, it makes a compelling foundation for the argument that we require closer to 5% than 20%.
My Photoshop skills aren’t nearly good enough for this to be doctored.
If We Only Require a Small Percentage of Amino Acids in our Diet and We Don’t Need to Consume all 9 Essential Amino Acids at Once, Doesn’t That Mean That Plants are More than Sufficient to Satisfy our Amino Acid Requirements?
You’re Damn Skippy! Most of the world derives the majority of their amino acids from plants already. It’s mainly the West that has got it backwards. This is demonstrated by the fact that our overall protein consumption is so much higher, due to our high meat consumption. North Americans consume 110 grams of protein per day on average, compared to 58 by Africans and 59 by Asians(vii).
This may be me mostly attributed to the fact that Africa and Asia are made up of more lower income countries, and therefore can’t afford to eat as much meat as the higher income countries of North America. The people of developing countries consume 58 grams of protein per day on average, compared to 104 grams by people from developed countries(viii). If you look at a standard plate of food consumed by a Balinese person, the portion of meat is much smaller than that of a Western person. Many of these same Balinese people work labor intensive jobs with long hours and are as strong as oxen. You do the math.
If you want more evidence that we can derive our entire protein requirement from plant sources, here are a couple lists of specific foods with high amino acid content.
And here is a really cool tool that allows you to sort foods by the content of specific amino acids, so you can balance your consumption of the 9 essential ones in your diet.
In Conclusion – Where Do You Keep Your Protein Bro?
The next time someone asks you where you get your protein from, perhaps you might ask them where they store all of theirs.
I generally don’t like to end an article on a down note, nor do I encourage the use of fear in order to change people, but it pains me to see people I love following diets that include large amounts of protein, which is often time in the form of powders full of isolates that aren’t easily assimilated into the body. So if someone you know is probably consuming too much protein and is open to learning why they don’t need so much, I hope this article can provide them enough compelling positive information about plant proteins for them to transition to a sustainable, healthy, plant based diet.
However, if they are the kind of person that wants to know why eating too much protein can be bad for you, here are a few articles about some of the health problems that can be caused by excess protein consumption.