Protein. The golden child of BBQ enthusiasts, weight lifting fiends, and concerned mothers of vegetarians alike. The face of weight loss regimes like The Atkins Diet, or the currently in vogue Ketogenic diet. The emphasis on protein intake has skyrocketed in recent years, no doubt, due to the inexpensive and widely available animal protein of the modern era. But we are not limited to cooked meat to get more protein into our day to day life. It is now possible to eat a healthy snack between meals that contains a relatively large amount of protein, whereas not but a few generations ago, having a large amount of protein in a day could only occur occasionally.
With the vast and creative landscape of the food industry, finding a healthy snack that is appealing is way easier than it used to be. Foraging something to eat from the cupboard that is high in protein hasn’t always been easy. Unless one wanted to rely on a classic like beef jerky, the options could be pretty barren. Gone are the days of cardboard-adjacent protein bars. Now is the era of healthy snack options like falafel flavored Chickpeas, which are crunchy and flavorful, Cheese Petites, which put Cheez-It's to shame, and Chicken Chips, which are surprising at first but have an airy texture with an pleasing salty flavor.
As protein has become cheaper and almost expendable, people have been able to vastly increase their daily intake of protein and have reported on the benefits and side effects of such, to varying degrees of quality. Also, as dietary science has advanced, protein’s impact on human health has become better defined.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Does the average person need much protein? Was your mom right about you harming your health by not eating meat with every meal?
Of course, protein is extremely important. It’s in every cell of the human body. It doesn’t just take part in sculpting sick biceps in the gym. It forms the matrices that make up the connective tissues in the body. Hormones are made out of amino acids, which are the component parts of protein. It carries oxygen in blood. Protein doesn’t need defending. Its importance as a basic building block of the body is obvious.
What is genuinely confusing, however, is the vast and conflicting information available effect that consuming different sources of protein in different amounts has on people. It’s a subject that has a lot of misinformation thrown around about it. From the myth of too much protein being damaging to the kidneys, to the unfounded idea of protein combining in plant-based diets, the amount of conflicting and confusing information available is staggering. I’ve attempted to sort through that information and provide an easily digestible version of the facts. As always there are a lot of really great resources in the citations.
Why do we Need Protein?
To better understand the consequences of protein in the diet it would be best to understand why the human body needs it first.
There are 20 amino acids that combine together to form proteins. The body is capable of synthesizing 12 of those amino acids on its own. These are called non-essential proteins because they are not a necessary part of our diet. The remaining 8, the so-called essential amino acids, can only be obtained through food consumption, and are therefore an essential part of a balanced diet. And even though we can synthesize the non-essential amino acids, the body can still absorb and utilize them through food.
These amino acids can be found in some combination in just about every diet - vegan, carnivorous, or somewhere in between. It may be easier to obtain high amounts of all the amino acids, or complete proteins, from meats because muscles are already completely constructed proteins. All our body needs to do then is break down the proteins and reconstruct them somewhere else in the body. It’s a logical progression.
Vegetarian and vegan diets may then seem to be difficult or at least less efficient to eat high amounts of protein. While it’s true that plants have less of some amino acids, it’s still completely possible to get as much protein as is necessary. There is a pervasive myth that, since certain fruits and vegetables don’t contain high levels of all amino acids, in order to get all of the necessary amino acids, one would have to carefully combine different foods together in order to get an adequate level of protein per day.
The myth stems from a failure in logic and a misunderstanding of where meat and dietary protein comes from. If we, as mammals, need to eat other animals for protein, and they presumably have a similar ability to produce similar amino acids, then they would have to consume meat in order to get an adequate amount of protein in their diet. By this logic, herbivores (like cows) wouldn’t be able to construct proteins and wouldn’t exist, and every omnivore would have to eat meat most days in order to live without deficiency.
Just look at gorillas. They’re stronger than any man and they’re folivores, meaning they only eat leaves and tree shoots. So why would another Great Ape, with a similar biological system to humans, only need to eat leaves to be that yolked if we have to eat meat in order to get adequate protein? It simply doesn’t track. We evolved to get adequate protein from a variety of sources because meat was not always abundant or even available. It is absolutely possible to get an appropriate amount of protein from vegan diets, as long as the diet doesn’t solely consist of one food or too many nuts, oils, or processed grains. As always, science backs the idea that a varied and balanced diet is not only the healthiest, but also the most flexible.
Though it is a myth that vegans and vegetarians need to pair their foods in order to get the proper nutritional value out of their diets, it’s not a stretch to think that plant-based diets can be less efficient than eating animal protein. Plants, even those that are high in protein, contain some carbohydrates. It can be hard to find a wide variety of vegetarian foods that are efficient in delivering protein without also eating a fair amount of carbohydrates as well. Soy and quinoa are maybe more efficient at delivering protein to the body, as they have complete proteins and high levels of all essential amino acids. But eating a diet consisting of two foods that, admittedly, don’t bring a lot to the table flavor-wise can be difficult to stomach on a long-term basis. A plant-based diet doesn’t have to consist solely of steamed tofu on quinoa, though.
If you are looking to get a plant-based snack that will boost your daily intake of protein, Crunchy Broad Beans are a great way of doing so while getting a decent amount of fiber throughout the day without having to drink a protein shake. Falafel flavored chickpeas are packed with protein, and the flavor is spot on.
How Much Protein do we Need?
So now that all the concerned mothers’ worries have been quelled, we can move on to the amount of protein that the body needs, another super straightforward topic that doesn’t have a legion of completely opposing information and divergent philosophies spilling from its very core. I’m in no position to tell anyone how much protein to eat. That has entirely to do with the individual’s age, height, weight, sex, health, and activity level. But what I can provide are some facts from qualified professionals that might at the very least be interesting to know about the human body.
The daily recommended intake (DRI) by the FDA is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This amounts to about 2 to 4 ounces or ounce-equivalents per day. But those numbers are generally to keep people away from deficiency, instead of optimal health, as that is a much more personal number. It is widely regarded that most adults benefit from exceeding those the DRI. There are a lot of studies with conflicting data around how much protein to eat in a day. They range from the .5 to >1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Finding the right number for oneself is very much up to the individual.
Also, in the past, it has been asserted that the digestive system can only absorb between 25 and 40 grams of protein per sitting. The rest of the amino acids get broken down for energy or other uses. This has been challenged recently to varying degrees, but it does seem that the more often one eats high levels of protein, the more the body is able to absorb and use for muscle repair.
That seems like a large amount of protein to eat every day. It might take a decent amount of motivation to eat that much protein. Unless it all came from fried chicken, it would possibly take some amount of concerted effort to eat a high amount of protein. And though I dearly wish—and sometimes try to convince myself— that eating fried chicken every day is an acceptable way of living, it just isn’t healthy. The sacrifice of consuming a heroic amount of cholesterol in order to eat a high protein diet most likely has more cost than benefit. So, what is the carrot at the end of the high-protein stick?
What are the Benefits of Protein?
One benefit of a high protein diet is weight loss. Protein helps facilitate weight loss by decreasing the release of ghrelin after meals. Ghrelin is known as the hunger hormone. As it increases, the more one feels hungry. It’s the body’s way of reminding itself to eat. Since people that eat meals high in protein have been shown to have lower levels of ghrelin for longer stretches, they are likely to eat less over time. Protein intake increases have also been shown to maintain weight loss more effectively. So, if you managed to lose some weight and are worried about gaining all of it back after the diet ends, then a slight increase in protein is more likely to help keep the weight off and ease your fears.
Obviously, protein is important for athletes. They have high metabolisms and a need for higher muscle mass. Two other groups that require higher levels of protein consumption are the elderly and the convalescent. Numerous studies show that as we get older, our need for protein increases above the daily recommended value. Not just because of the decrease in muscle mass and stability, but because there is a positive correlation between protein intake and bone density. As the threat of osteoporosis looms, its severity can be waned with simple changes to the make-up of our diet.
Healing processes take lots of protein. The body uses proteins to form extracellular matrices that initially form the repair and make the structure in which the new cells will use as structure to heal the wound. Surgeons use fibrin, the protein that forms blood clots, and other proteins to supplement the body’s natural healing processes and repairs faster and stronger than it might otherwise. Protein deficiency in patients recovering from surgery have also shown slower healing rates with worse overall repair.
That’s a lot of info and a lot of reasons to eat more protein on a daily basis. But how is a person supposed to eat more protein and keep their cholesterol levels low without impacting the environment too heavily? The last part probably needs its own discussion, but it can still fall into the basic answer, which is variety. As always, a varied diet is a good diet and healthy snacks are a great way to mix things up. Varying nutrient sources is a wonderful way to stay healthy and not impact the planet as much. It doesn’t have to be chicken breast and broccoli every night. Switching between protein sources, meat or plant-based, is a great way to keep meal or snack time interesting. Yet eating high amounts of protein doesn’t mean a regimented diet. It can still be fun and flavorful, and healthy snacking is a great way to supplement your protein intake. Take a look at our “Higher Protein” snacks for some inspiration. Get strong and snack blissfully.
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