As long as I have been a plant-based eater, (vegetarian since 1994), then raw vegan, (since 2006), and now mostly raw vegan, and as for long as I have been a Health Coach, (almost 10 years), questions about protein have circled through my life.
Lately, since I have been more seriously engaged in strength and conditioning exercising, including weight lifting, the subject of protein has invited me to take another look at it and some of the questions it generates.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most asked questions about protein and see what we find.
What is Protein and Why is It Important?
Among the three macronutrients necessary in substantial quantities for normal growth and development – protein, fat, and carbohydrate – protein is the one most responsible for the building and maintaining muscle mass and bones.
It is composed of several amino acids, which form enzymes, which, in turn, activate the metabolic systems that keep all our bodily functions moving and on track.
How Much Protein Do We Need to Eat?
The recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is the amount that scientists determine will meet the needs of practically all healthy people based on human research using mixed rather than raw vegan diets. It is not an “one size fits all” matter at all
There can be substantial differences in protein requirements from one individual to another, but they seem to defy classification. The research on age, diet, and gender, and climate differences is limited enough to prevent making sound recommendations. However, because our metabolic races and therefore caloric requirements drop a little with age, we need to get a little more of our calories from protein as we age.
Do Plant-Based Eaters Need More or Less Protein than the RDA Amounts?
There are arguments for both.
Those experts that encourage more protein for plant-based eaters lean on four arguments
- Some research has shown the protein in many plant foods, such as cooked beans and grains, is significantly harder to digest compared to animal protein.
- The amino acid lysine can be low in vegetarian diets. Insufficient lysine limits the body’s ability to manufacture proteins that require lysine as a building block.
- Cooking at moderate temperatures improves protein digestibility. The protein digestibility of some raw plant foods is lower than the digestibility of that same protein when the food is boiled or steamed.
- Raw foods contain enzyme inhibitors. These plant protectors prevent plants from being digested by the enzymes of outside organisms. They are destroyed by cooking, allowing the digestive process to proceed.
Proponents of plant-based protein argue thus:
- Much of the research promoting higher protein needs for plant-based eaters is done on cooked grains, beans, and legumes. Little research exists on the digestibility of fruits, vegetables nuts, and seeds that make up a big part of non-meat diets.
- Research does exist, however, on sprouting, and has shown that soaking and sprouting these foods for 12 hours, then sprouting them for two days increases the protein digestibility by about 25%. Sprouting also destroys enzyme inhibitors, so the full benefits of their powers to improve metabolism can be realized.
- Regarding lysine, there are a two notables.
- – Sprouting can improve protein quality. While most grains are low in lysine, the process of sprouting increases their lysine content significantly. Reserve protein that is in storage for just this occasion is broken down into amino acids, and some conversion to lysine occurs.
- – Cooking itself lowers the lysine content of foods. Lysine is lost even at mild cooking temperatures,. Fried and browned foods lose more protein digestibility than foods that are boiled or steamed. Additionally, some seeds, vegetables, nuts, and fruits contain more lysine per gram of protein than grains and can provide adequate amounts of lysine, even when the recommended protein intakes are just met.
Does a Plant Food Diet Provide Enough Protein?
Even some elite athletes in diverse fields meet their high energy needs with somewhat larger quantities of food with raw vegan, and other plant-based diets.
Insufficient protein is not a good thing, for sure, but hard to come by in the USA. It can result in hair loss, skin problems, and poor wound healing and can be detrimental to bone health. Other symptoms of protein deficiency are muscle wasting, weakness, and fatigue.
The calories from protein in most green vegetables and legumes range from 20-40% and in nuts and seeds from 9-17%. Fruits are at the low end of the spectrum, with just 2-10% of the calories from protein
What about Protein and Bone Health?
For several decades scientists have been perplexed by the effects that extremely low- or high-protein intakes can have on bone health. Too little protein fails to provide the building blocks that are fundamental to our bone structure, studies show that very high-protein diets increase our acid load, which can contribute to bone loss. Thus, very high-protein diets are detrimental.
Although the research may seem contradictory in places , the truth is that we require the recommended protein intakes, which supply our vast array of protein needs, including the amino acids for building bones. We also need a diet rich in vegetables and fruit that reduces the burden on our kidneys. A well-planned plant-based diet can fill the bill with enough protein, but not too much.
. For adults, the daily RDA is 0.8 grams (0.028 oz) per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of body weight. This figure is an estimate, safe enough to cover differences in the digestibility of foods and variations from one individual to another and is suitable for more than 95% of the population. It’s not a bad starting place from which to begin monitoring. Then, listen to your body for what incremental adjustments that may benefit you in your age, or stage or activity of life.