Healthy Life Tip: If you are moving to a plant-based diet (or even if you’re not), be SURE to get enough protein.
Contributed by Marta Czajkowska
A good rule of thumb for assessing what you need is half a gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, according to Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), a recommendation by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Plant-based diets tend to overemphasize carbohydrates if we are not careful. Yes, fruits, grains and especially veggies provide lots of important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Yet a healthy diet should provide plenty of protein for building blocks, plenty of fat for absorption of nutrients and a carbohydrate amount adequate to your personal energy expenditure, climate, genes, lifestyle, etc. Surplus carbohydrates are directly turned into body fat.
Side effects of protein deficiency can be severe: becoming lethargic, loss of muscle mass, fat mass gain, cognitive impairment, and loss of resilience to stressors and illnesses.
Clear benefits to higher protein intakes include: lean mass retention, muscle growth, fat loss, improved mental function, and increased satiety.
For optimal brain function we need to provide the body with adequate protein. Brain cells communicate via neurotransmitters which are made amino-acids, the building blocks of proteins. When crunching for a test, consider protein rich food sources. Some studies link dementia and alzheimer’s to low protein diets throughout a lifetime.
Protein provides the building blocks for every cell in the body, all of your hormones, antibodies, etc. are composed of protein, which makes protein essential for growth, health, and body maintenance.
Be careful not to demonize the fats that may naturally come with proteins – as egg whites were falsely demonized for so many years, and whole eggs are now recognized as the “perfect” protein package. Fats are essential as they aid vitamin and mineral absorption, blood clotting and building cells. Whole proteins – such as whole fat dairy products – come with the substances we need to best assimilate the proteins into our systems.
Eat a colorful variety of vegetables, and a moderate amount of fruit. Eat plenty of healthy fats olive, coconut and avocado. Supplement with nuts if you can. Eat grains in moderation and pay attention to which ones work for you. Avoid sugar as it increases inflammation.
Whole eggs are the best vegetarian protein option. Whey protein is next highest on the list if you are training and or want to prevent muscle loss. Other healthy and gut friendly protein sources include dairy if you can digest it, especially Greek yogurt, nuts and nut butters, high protein legumes, such as lentils, higher-protein grains like quinoa, if you are interested in incorporating soy, fermented soy is better, and always look for organic, non-gmo sources. Pea-protein is an up-and-coming source in many newly available formats. Rice and hemp-based proteins are other new sources.
See vegetarian section. It’s extremely difficult to get plenty of good quality protein as a vegan without eating protein powders and other amino acid supplements. Legumes only work for some people. Concentrate on sprouted grains and fermented soy, as those will lessen the digestive burden. Consider including some animal protein in your diet such as oysters (no central nervous system), eggs, dairy, or insects. B12 is an essential element that you MUST supplement into your diet if you are following a strictly vegetarian diet.
For Meat Eaters
Not all meat-eaters get adequate and quality protein intake. Eat a variety of fish and meats, including smaller animals, wild caught, organ meats – be environmentally friendly with your animal protein consumption. Eat animal protein cyclically, take days off. Mix in vegetarian and vegan protein sources if it agrees with your gut.
For the Sedentary
Sedentary folks, uninterested in gaining muscle and free of health issues, can get away with the least protein. These are the people who can start with a minimum of ½ gram of protein per day per pound of body weight.
For the Active
Athletes need more protein to build and rebuild muscle mass. Double your protein then go up and down from that, according to your goals/needs.
If we decrease our protein intake when dieting, we may damage and lose muscle mass, bone density, tendons, connective tissues, and organ integrity. High-protein diets can help preserve overall health and lean muscle mass during weight loss.
For the Injured
Healing wounds, especially bones, increases protein requirements. Your body is literally rebuilding lost or damaged tissue.
As you age, your body becomes less efficient at absorbing protein. As you age you lose muscle faster. Increasing protein can both improve physical performance without increasing muscle mass and even increase muscle mass when paired with extended training. Protein is critical to proper brain function.
For Nursing Women
Up your protein intake to accomodate for the protein and fat that your body is putting into the baby’s milk. That does NOT mean you have to increase your dairy intake, especially if you or your child are lactose intolerant, which you will be able to detect by your baby’s reaction to your dietary input.
- Slow the metabolism, increase insulin resistance, and cause body fat gain.
- Impair the immune system and make infections more severe.
- Reduce muscle function, cellular mass (yes, the actual mass of the cell itself), and immune response in elderly women.
- Impair nitrogen balance in athletes.
- Increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Increase the risk of sarcopenia (muscle wasting)