According to Dr. Peter Kim, Department Chair of Family Medicine at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Ca, “Unless you’re starving or doing something extreme, it’s hard to not get enough protein.” In fact, a true protein deficiency is pretty rare in the Western world.
So, why all the fuss? Although protein is not needed in an excessive amount, it is essential to human life, second only to water. Protein makes up 20% of our body weight and is found in our muscles, hair, nails, skin, eyes, and internal organs. Our immune system needs protein to create antibodies, and our hormones — like thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism — are made of proteins. “If you don't get enough protein, it can affect brain chemistry and may lead to anxiety, moodiness, hormone changes, and lack of energy,” says nutrition expert Cynthia Pasquella.
Protein also helps you feel fuller for a longer period of time. Kim attributes this to the fact that protein, at least in the case of animal protein, is usually accompanied by fat. Both protein and fat take much longer to break down, so they empty from the stomach more slowly. Have plenty of protein for breakfast and you can make it to lunch without feeling like body-slamming the next person who gets between you and the taco truck.
How Much Is Enough?
If you’re interested in cold, hard numbers, then Kim recommends a range of .5 – 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So, if you weigh 120 lbs, shoot for 60 to 180 grams of protein a day. Performance athletes and pregnant women have higher protein requirements, but Kim says most people need to experiment to find out what works for them. Intake should be based on your personal goals. Are trying to gain muscle and not seeing any progress? Maybe you’d just like to avoid that low-energy, feed-me-right-now feeling between meals? Experiment with upping your protein and see what happens.
Quality vs. Quantity
In terms of quantity, this should be easy enough for both omnivores and vegetarians, as one cup of lentils has the same amount of protein as an eight-ounce steak. However, just as important (if not more so) as the amount of protein is the type. Any vegetarian worth their Himalayan pink sea salt knows there are certain nutrients that are most often found in animal proteins, notably B12.
Iron is another crucial nutrient that’s commonly low in vegetarian and vegan diets. This is due to the fact that the form of iron found in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron in animal products.
A lack of B12 and iron in your diet can lead to anemia, a condition where a person’s red blood cell count is low or the red blood cells don’t contain enough hemoglobin — an iron-containing protein that transports oxygen to the cells. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, or headaches. Because when your cells aren't getting enough oxygen, they can't work optimally.
Additionally, the lesser known, but equally as important, vitamin K2 is only found in animal proteins — the best source being grass-fed butter. According to the studies of Dr. Weston A. Price, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2 work together to promote bone and skin health. In fact, vitamin A is one of the most potent anti-wrinkle antioxidants (otherwise known as retinol) but it needs K2 to do its job effectively.
So, What’s A Vegan To Do?
Don’t shoot the messenger, but when it comes to maintaining energy levels, sleeping like a baby, and having soft-as-can-be skin, a diet of pasta and fruit smoothies, while tasty, isn’t going to cut it. Meat-free eaters need to be strategic when it comes to meal time, paying special attention to getting in foods high in iron, like squash and pumpkin seeds, nuts and beans, and dark, leafy greens, combined with foods high in vitamin C – which help the body to absorb the iron.
As for protein, though it's important to get the correct amount of protein, it's also important that the protein source is complete. Plant-based protein sources are not complete proteins — meaning they lack one or more essential amino acids. The easy fix is combining different sources, like rice and beans, to create a complete protein. Pasquella says if you make sure you get a variety of these sources over a two-day period, you’ll be getting all the aminos you need. Finally, if you’re meatless and proud, don’t forget about those crucial vitamins B12 and K2, which need to be supplemented under the care of a physician.
So, veggie lovers can throw back a wheatgrass shot and rejoice — where there’s a will to get enough protein, there’s certainly a way. And, it isn't as hard as you thought.