Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Primer on Protein

(Dan's breakfast this morning with a lot of protein, 1 cup oatmeal and 1/4 cup of almonds)

If I had a dollar for every question I get about protein I would be a very happy woman. Americans are obsessed with protein (particularly animal based) and they all seem to think they need much more than is actually required. I will point out the obvious that the average American eats more protein than is recommended and they are bigger than they should be. Is that a coincidence, maybe and then again maybe not? Either way excess anything isn’t good for you and excess amino acids are converted and stored as fat. Since there is so much confusion around protein I thought I would cover the basics.

All protein (plant or animal) is made up of amino acids. These amino acids are connected by peptide bonds. There are three types of amino acids: essential, nonessential, and conditionally essential. Essential amino acids are ones that we must consume because we can’t make them or can’t make enough of them. Nonessential amino acids can be made in sufficient quantities. Conditionally essential amino acids are those that can’t be synthesized which is common in infants or those with phenylketonuria (PKU). When protein is digested it is broken down into amino acids which are then absorbed and circulated in the body where they are needed and the excess is stored.

(A recent protein packed meal of chickpes in a tomato peanut sauce with mushrooms over quinoa)

We have all heard the term complete and incomplete protein. Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids the body requires and are generally animal sources. However quinoa also contains all the essential amino acids which is wonderful for vegans. Additionally with a well planned and varied vegan diet it is easy to get all the essential amino acids.

(Protein on the go?  Almost all restaurants have a hummus platter.)

I want to stress that it is possible to eat a vegan diet that doesn’t provide the correct mix of amino acids. If you are vegan and you don’t know anything about amino acids and which ones are in which foods either start eating quinoa or better yet learn more about amino acids. As healthy as a vegan diet can be you can also run into trouble if you are eating a lot of processed food. Your body is literally made from the food that you eat so it makes sense to know what you need for optimum health.

What are the essential amino acids and where do you find them?

Phenylalanine – soy foods, almonds, avocados, lima beans, peanuts, and seeds
Valine – soy, almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds, chickpeas, lentils, and mushrooms
Threonine - beans, nuts, and seed
Tryptophan - chocolate, oats, bananas, dried dates, and peanuts
Isoleucine - lentils, seeds, soy, wheat, almonds
Methionine - whole grains
Leucine - sesame seeds, peanuts, lentils
Lysine - green beans, lentils, soybean, spinach and amaranth

(Spring rolls in a spicy peanut dipping sauce.)

Please notice when you look at this list how many time peanuts show up. While many people want you to think that almond butter is fabulous and better than peanut butter it does not have as many essential amino acids and that is good to keep in mind. Also notice you need some whole grains in your diet since they are the only source of methionine. Fortunately we also don’t have a large need for this essential amino acid so you don’t need whole grains every day. I hope this list helps you see the benefit of eating a varied plant-based whole food diet.

Why should you avoid animal protein after all it is a complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids)? When animal protein is broken down in the body the by-products of this metabolism is hard on the kidneys. The metabolism of protein results in ammonia (which is toxic) that your liver then converts to urea which in excess can lead to gout. The urea is filtered out by the kidneys and is excreted in the urine. If you have ever known anyone with kidney disease one of the first things they are told is to follow a low protein diet because of the impact on the kidneys.

Additionally protein comes with other nasty things that you don’t want like saturated fat, all the toxins the animal ate which are stored in their fat (which you don’t eliminate by trimming the fat or taking the skin off your chicken breast). Also when you eat animal protein you are increasing your production of a hormone called IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor one) and that something that you don’t want.

Why is IGF-1 bad? IGF-1 stimulates the growth of normal cells but is also stimulates the growth of malignant cells (cancer). Some have speculated that IGF-1 causes all cancers to proliferate more quickly and it seems to be particularly dangerous for those with hormone sensitive cancers like prostate and breast. Please don’t forget that IGF-1 is also stimulated when you eat soy protein isolates which is why I seem to mention that so often.

How much protein do any of us need? According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) the Recommended Dietary Allowance for adult women is 0.8 mg/kg/day. For example if you are a 140lb woman (that = 64kg) it means you need approximately 51 grams of protein per day. This amount of protein is extremely easy to obtain from a plant based diet. According to Dr. T. Colin Campbell of “The China Study” (the current selection on our book club blog) the amount of protein established in the RDA is higher than necessary. However let’s look at the protein grams contained in a day on a whole food plant-based diet.

If you have a breakfast of 1/3 cup regular rolled oats (4 grams), ½ cup soymilk (3.5grams) topped with 1 tablespoon ground flax (2 grams) and 1 tablespoon walnuts (1 gram) that equals 10.5 grams of protein.

After the gym you had a snack of a banana (2 grams) with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (8 grams). This is another 10 grams of protein.

Let’s say your lunch consisted of ½ cup hummus (6 grams), 2 carrots (1 gram), 2 celery sticks (0 grams) and a 1 cup bowl of minestrone soup (about 5 grams). This meal equals 12 grams of protein.

Dinner could be a big salad (you know I love those) with ½ cup beans (8 grams), ½ cup broccoli (1 gram), ½ cup cold cooked quinoa (4 grams), 2 cups leafy greens like lettuce (2 grams) and topped an ounce of pumpkin seeds (9 grams). This is another 24 grams.

When you add up the grams of protein from breakfast lunch and dinner you had 56.5 grams of protein with no effort. I hope this shows you had easy it is to get enough protein in a healthy vegan diet.

Since I suspect many of you now have protein questions please let me know what they are and I will answer your questions as quickly as possible.

Happy Thoughts:

• I can’t believe that another week has flown by. How did it get to be Thursday already? Today Dan worked from home because the Baltimore Gran Prix has traffic all messed up downtown so it was easier to log in from home. It was very nice to have my hubby home for lunch.

• Both Dan and I went for a nice 3 mile walk this morning. He went early (7am) and I went later once I was actually completely awake. It makes me very happy that Dan is starting to embrace being active. Now I just need to get him back the gym. Baby steps right? ;-)

• Tomorrow Dan will be working at home again because of the Gran Prix. I knew I liked sports for some reason. It will be fantastic to have my hubby at home two days in a row. Maybe I can convince him to go see Ian and have lunch or dinner on the patio. Wouldn’t that be a great way to start the long weekend?

• The weather today was absolutely magnificent. With temperatures in the low 80’s and a nice breeze I had the windows open all day. The felines have been hanging out the windows all day letting their fuzz blow. I think the fur children like having the windows open as much as I do.

• I have been rereading Kris Carr’s book “Crazy Sexy Diet” and am trying to work up to her 21-day cleanse. Have any of you done it before? If you did I would love to hear your thoughts on it? If you haven’t done it and are interested in doing it with me (online of course), let me know. This might be the incentive I need to stop thinking about it and actually doing it.

Signing Out:

I have been trying to curtail my online time to when Dan is either at work on busy doing other things so I need to log out soon. Do any of find that you spend too much time on the computer or is it just me?

As usual I have no idea what I am going to make for dinner tonight. Last night we had green smoothies since I was busy. Something tells me that I should probably cook something this evening. ;-)

Talk with you soon I hope. I hope you have a great evening.


  1. Oh I get yelled at all the time to eat more protein ESPECIALLY now that I am pregnant.

  2. I get this question all the time, too! I was just putting together a chart comparing amino acids in 100 calories or meat vrs 100 calories of greens, there are more amino acids in greens that in meat and it is a much healthier, safer way to get your protein. Thanks for addressing this issue!

  3. Good info, Ali! I have been doubting my protein intake and this clarified many things for me. Thanks!

  4. By the way what is the just of the cleanse? I might be interested!

  5. Protein and Calcium; I'm sick of hearing people question me about them. If your so darn concerned with proper nutrient then LEARN something about it and you won't have to ask me these things.

    We have an acquaintance who has both a brother and a father currently in the hospital for heart failure.Hubby tried to tell her about the benefits of a plant based diet and heart health. She all but laughed at him. It's so frustrating to watch people kill themselves with what they have been told is good nutrition.

  6. Thanks for this post, Ali. Very informative. I enjoyed reading it.

  7. I just want to make sure that people understand--it isn't necessary to "combine" proteins to make a "complete" protein in the same meal. That idea is old and antiquated! Even the ADA has come out to say that a varied vegan diet is healthy and that it isn't necessary to combine proteins. As long as you are eating a variety of amino acids throughout the day, your body can do the rest :-)

    I might be interested in doing the cleanse with you...what does it involve?


  8. I think excess protein is not stored, but excreted via the kidneys using calcium either from the blood stream or if there's not enough there then pulled from the bones. This is why excess dietary protein is associated with osteoporosis and kidney stones.

  9. Carissa,

    I am sorry to hear that people are yelling at you about not getting enough protein. The scary thing about that is those people are probably getting too much. I hope your pregnancy is an easy one. :-)


  10. Mary,

    I think we all get the protein question and it gets old for me as I am sure it does for everyone. That sounds like a great chart to put together. Fantastic idea! :-)


  11. Steph,

    So glad I could help on the protein issue. :-)

    I will email you more info on the cleanse. It is very similar to how we eat so I am sure you would fine it an easy one to do, as I think I will. *fingers crossed*


  12. Imperfections,

    I agree with you completely. It is extremely frustrating when people think they know (though they haven't done their research) and want to argue about it.

    What is happening to the people you mentioned is extremely sad. I have seem very similar things as well and I get upset though there is nothing we can do to help them if they aren't open to the information. *sigh*


  13. Aimee,

    Thank you for letting me know that you enjoyed this. Sometimes I just need to get my inner nutrition geek on. LOL


  14. Courtney,

    Thank you for bringing up an important point that I didn't cover. I was not to trying to imply that all the essential amino acids needed to be covered in every meal just that they needed to be consumed at some point. When I wrote about quinoa I was thinking of the vegan bloggers I see who eat faux meat, faux dairy and vegan baked goods along with few beans and veggies. Those are the vegans I was concerned weren't getting all their required essential amino acids.

    Given how you eat I am fairly sure you would like the cleanse. It is so similar to our usual food consumption it should be easy. I will email you details. :-)

    talk to you soon,

  15. Elisabeth,

    Protein is an energy-yielding macronutrient. Your body uses some amino acids for glucose synthesis, energy (ATP) production and the synthesis of fats for energy storage. Excess amino acids are converted to fat in times of glucose and energy sufficiency. However excessed protein also causes other problems which you mentioned. ("Nutrition Sciences From Fundamentals to Food" - second edition, McGuire and Beerman, pages 197 and case you wanted to read the details).


  16. is there a recipe somewhere for that chickpeas in tomato peanut sauce???? I so need to try it

  17. K and the grrl Friday,

    That specific recipe is not on the blog. However the curried tomato sauce is and all I did was add peanut butter to taste. Here is the link for the tomato sauce.



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