There’s a lot of buzz about “plant-based proteins” nowadays. That is, protein from whole grains, nuts & seeds, and legumes (a.k.a. beans, peas and lentils). There are good reasons to include these in your diet, because they have multiple health benefits including their protein. Also, often, eating these things helps you reduce higher-fat animal-based foods, while still getting sufficient protein.
But a potential increase of plant-based protein should be third on your priority list of protein questions to address, man. Ask yourself:
- Regardless of source, how much total protein should I take in each day?
- Within the realm of animal proteins, is it important to shift from my current habits more toward “lean” proteins?
- With decent answers to the above two question in mind, now, should I seek out more plant-based proteins (and if so, how do I ensure “complete” protein)?
Recently, I researched all this more formally than I had before, and started some behavior change accordingly. Hopefully what I’ve learned can put you ahead of the game.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN EACH DAY?
Advice on how much protein to consume is all over the map.
Government guidelines say most men need 56-60 grams daily. They say more than this can have negative health impacts because of its correlation with saturated fat (if protein is from animal sources). And, regardless of source, they say too much protein stresses the kidneys, can cause dehydration, promotes weight gain. and even leeches minerals from the bones. Sound good? I didn’t think so.
But at the same time, many men’s fitness gurus stress protein increase as a key move to make. They recommend a LOT more protein – up to a gram daily per pound of bodyweight. That would be 180+ grams daily for a typical guy…or 3x the government guidelines.
High-protein advocates point to benefits for muscle building and maintenance, and weight loss or management. Protein has weight-control benefits for two reasons. It keeps you feeling full longer than carbs (healthy fats do this, too). Also, you’re often eating protein instead of carbs.
What about the health concerns? This viewpoint says kidney or other health concerns, while not invalid, are only a risk for a subset of people who are prone to them.
I know…this huge gap between sources of advice is one of those frustrating areas where nutrition research doesn’t provide a definitive answer. For more about such gaps, see this on why nutrition info is often conflicting/confusing, and what you can do about it.
Finally, high-protein proponents point out you can get a lot of protein that’s not from high-saturated-fat sources. Lean animal proteins like chicken, fish and egg whites, yes…but also from plant proteins.
I confess I’m not sure how to net out these conflicting signals. As in similar situations, I hedge between extremes.
For example, adding up protein from what I ate yesterday, I see I had about 110 grams….and I wouldn’t want to eat more than that. I’m not trying to win the Mr. Universe competition this year, so if I fail to put on extra pounds of muscle because of my “wimpy” protein intake level, so be it. This amount, for me, feels like the right compromise to meet my various goals.
Now, the question is: what kind of protein?
ANIMAL PROTEINS – HUGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “LEAN” AND “NOT LEAN”
This part is relatively simple: you want protein, and you want to reduce saturated fat. Take a look at the huge difference in saturated fat among these protein sources (from USDA data). These are ratios of protein grams to saturated fat grams (so, a higher # is better). I know, this is a simplified view that puts aside consideration of other nutrients.
- Skim milk, egg whites: fat-free
- Tuna in water: 29:1
- Chicken breast: 25:1
- Pork tenderloin: 18:1
- 93% lean ground beef: 7:1
- Sirloin steak: 5:1
- 80% lean ground beef: 4:1
- Turkey bacon: 4:1
- Eggs: 4:1
- Ribeye steak: 3:1 (a 9 oz ribeye steak has >100% of the recommended daily saturated fat limit — let alone the 16 oz one you’d get at a steakhouse, man)
- Bacon: <3:1
- 2% milk: <3:1
- Whole milk: <2:1
So what’s really new here? “Eat more chicken and fish” is a pretty well-known nutrition commandment. But looking at these #s really drives home, quantitatively, what a BIG difference there is among these various animal proteins, brother. Especially if you’re intentionally eating more protein than government guidelines suggest, you need to watch saturated fat content.
For example, let’s say you target 100 g of protein daily, and that was from protein with a 4:1 ratio (like less-lean beef cuts, bacon, etc.). That would mean you’re taking in 25 g of saturated fat along with those 100 gr of protein (and the recommended daily max is 21). And this is all before we even start accounting for saturated fats that come from oils and other non-animal sources.
PLANT-BASED PROTEINS: HOW TO ENSURE THEY’RE “COMPLETE”?
Even though I mainly stick to the leaner proteins (not 100% perfect), the fact that I knowingly eat more protein than government guidelines is motivating me to explore plant proteins, which help avoid the saturated-fat concerns. Two useful articles on this are below.
But before sending you there, I want to spell out something I know is confusing. How do you ensure “complete” protein from plants? “Complete” here means what you eat has all of the nine protein-creating amino acids your body needs from food. There are 11 other amino acids your body makes on its own.
You can get complete protein (all nine so-called Essential amino acids) by combining in a meal, or even just during a day, any two of these three plant groups:
- Whole grains
- Nuts & seeds
- Legumes (beans, peas and lentils…and remember peanuts are actually a legume)
- Whole grains + legumes: peanut butter on whole wheat bread (or the classic “rice and beans” of course – if it’s brown rice)
- Whole grains + nuts/seeds: whole-grain cereal with walnuts or almonds
- Legumes + nuts/seeds: hummus (which is made of chick peas + sesame seed-based tahini)
Also, there are a few plant proteins which are “complete” on their own, including quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, chia seeds, hemp, and soy. I advocate avoiding or at least minimizing soy due to its estrogen-promoting characteristics, though.
These protein-related questions may or may not have been on your radar. Either way, now’s a good time to think about this and make a game plan.
Here are simple ways to get started:
- Track your normal / average protein intake for a few days, to get a baseline. Before I did this, I really had no idea how much protein, high or low, I was eating.
- If you decide to adjust protein consumption upward, there are lots of ways to do this without correspondingly spiking your calorie intake, but they all tend to either cut carbs or unhealthy fats as a tactic.
- Definitely shift toward leaner animal proteins if you’re not already there, and explore the plant proteins side of this a bit. This could happen by combining foods from the three groups referenced above, eating “whole protein” plant foods (except soy), and/or trying a plant-based protein powder or bar.
“There were plants and birds and rocks and things.” (America, A Horse with No Name–click to listen)
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