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I think you’ll agree that how much protein humans should be eating is a hot topic right now, with paleo health gurus stressing the importance of eating a good portion at each meal to be strong and healthy.
What is it about protein that people are so fascinated about? The general population is going overboard with animal products, protein powders and supplements thinking they need a ton of protein every day. Why are people completely obsessed with eating enough of a nutrient that is so readily available in the food we eat?
Here’s the deal: I believe the need for protein has been blown out of proportion and its functions have been misrepresented. We are encouraged to believe that our own diets are in some way lacking in protein, and that we need to focus on protein intake to make up for some sort of deficit. In this blog post I’m going to show you that this simply isn’t true, and that the amount of protein you actually need from your diet is much less, and easier to achieve than you think.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS PROTEIN?
Protein was discovered in 1839 by a Dutch chemist, Gerhard Mulder. It is an essential nutrient, not just in building and repairing muscle tissue, body tissues and hair, but in the maintenance of a wide array of important bodily functions. Proteins consist of twenty different amino acids, eleven of which can be synthesised naturally by our bodies. The remaining nine essential amino acids must be ingested from the foods we eat.
The truth is: humans don’t need protein. We need amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein.
WHERE DO WE GET PROTEIN?
Protein is found in all whole foods including meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. The protein structures found in animal products are “complete” and contain all the essential amino acids, however they are complex and the body has to work hard to break them down, whereas protein from plants does not need to be broken down first in order for the body to use it. Plant protein is known to be “incomplete”, however this is convenient since the human body does not technically need all essential amino acids from one food or meal because our bodies are able to store them for future use. I also believe nature has done this on purpose because it slows down our growth hormone, prevents disease and helps us live longer!
The strongest animals in the world get their protein from nibbling on plant sources e.g. elephants, gorillas, rhinos etc.
Here is a professional body builder who gets all her protein from raw fruits and vegetables.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO HUMANS ACTUALLY NEED TO FOR OPTIMAL HEALTH?
100 years ago the protein requirements were more than twice what they are today. This fascination peaked in the 1950’s with the United Nation identifying protein deficiency as a serious problem. This was discovered by Dr. Williams who then spent the next 20 years unravelling his discovery to find there was no real evidence to support this condition. There was a massive recalculation in protein requirements in the 1970’s which put to rest the theory of protein malnutrition. Protein requirements went from 13% down to 5%, but people these days are still obsessing about protein, particularly the people who promote a paleo lifestyle.
Let’s look at the food which is the most perfectly created for humans with the best amount of protein – human breast milk. If protein was the most important nutrient to build our big brains over the past million years you would assume that would be reflected in the composition of human breast milk, particularly during infancy which is the time of our most rapid growth. In fact, human breast milk has the lowest protein concentration of any animal in the world:6% of total calories coming from protein. But really, we shouldn’t look at this as low or abnormal because this is the most natural amount for the human species. I believe this is enough proof that adults do not need more protein than this, as protein’s primary function is growth, and once our body is built, we have very little need for more building blocks (amino acids).
Protein Findings: The British Journal of Nutrition states that adults need no more than 0.8 grams of protein per healthy kilogram of body weight per day. The World Health Organisation, US National Academies Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council suggests eating 10% of our total calories from protein is sufficient. One thing to keep in mind is that these guidelines are based on the average person eating their protein cooked, which deranges protein and other nutrients, so people on a mostly raw/fully raw diet are able to consume far less plant protein and be assured of sufficient nourishment. Dr. T. Colin Campbell in his book The China Study states that we require only 5-6% of our total calories from protein in order to replace the protein we naturally lose every day.
The U.S. has a high average daily intake of protein (close to 80 grams in the National Health and Nutrition Survey data from 2009-2010) which means that they average about 80 grams of amino acids in their daily meal plan. Since our need for any particular indispensable amino acid is typically less than 10 grams, you can see how our odds of getting enough are fairly good.
So I think it’s safe and reasonable to say that consuming 10% of your calories from protein is plenty.
DO YOU REALLY NEED MORE PROTEIN IF YOU’RE AN ATHLETE OR WANT TO BUILD MUSCLE?
People think that they need to eat more protein to stimulate hormone production and grow muscles to achieve optimal athletic performance or a body building physique. The truth is, muscles only grow bigger in response to weight bearing exercises which break down muscle fibres that then grow back stronger and larger.
To my knowledge, no scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond the Recommended Dietary Allowance (10 percent of daily calories) stimulates additional muscle growth. The Institute of Medicine/Food and Nutrition Board determined that no extra protein is needed to the RDA for physical activity.
In everyone there is both constant protein synthesis and breakdown, and resistance training can cause both breakdown and synthesis to increase. As you progress in your training, your body becomes more efficient at stopping the breakdown of protein, and also more effective at metabolising it. Since less protein now needs to be replenished, less protein is needed for optimal growth.
In saying that, depending on the unique situation, a small increase in protein and amino acid needs may occur with general physical over-exertion and high-demand body building. If you fall into this category, you want to keep a healthy, alkaline based, balanced chemistry while having more amino acids. You don’t want an acidic body when building muscles otherwise you’ll be forcing bulk muscles while losing all factors of health (just to look ripped!) I’d recommend drinking lots of green juices, increasing your intake of fresh fruit for more calories, and incorporating plenty of sprouts.
Here are 5 plant-based athletes who blow the protein myth out of the water.
HOW EATING TOO MUCH PROTEIN IS HARMING YOUR HEALTH
You are more likely to suffer from too much protein than too little. More is not better. Dr. Michael Gregor suggests that most people get 2-6 times more protein than they actually need.
The human body cannot actually use protein without breaking it down into amino acids. Protein sources from animals (and even some high protein plant food like legumes) are complex and create an acid ash during digestion as their predominant minerals are the acidic minerals; chlorine, phosphorus, and sulphur. The body wants predominantly alkaline amino acid structures which are found in fruits and vegetables; sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium. When you go to the extreme with high protein diets the body must maintain homeostasis by counterbalancing the acidity of excess protein by taking alkaline minerals, calcium, from the bloodstream. The body then replaces calcium into the bloodstream, where it stays relatively constant, by removing it from our bones and teeth, setting the foundation for osteoporosis.
ISRN Nutrition Volume 2013 states that the adverse effects of long-term high protein/high meat consumption, include disorders of bone and calcium imbalance, renal function disorders, increased cancer, liver function disorder and precipitated progression of coronary artery disease. Excess protein is not stored but excreted by the kidney in urine mainly as urea. Also, too much protein (from animals or plants) stresses the kidneys. The China Study proves that cancer genes are turned on by an animal protein intake of over 10%.
“The paradox of protein is that it is not only essential but also potentially health-destroying,” wrote Dr. Morter in Your Health, Your Choice, “Cells overburdened with protein become toxic.”
Complex proteins are acid and mucus forming which clogs your lymphatic system. Excess protein sucks a lot of energy from us because the body has to work hard to process heavier, protein-rich foods and this can lead to constipation. Also, when you focus too much on high protein foods you miss out on high carbohydrate fruits and vegetables which contain antioxidants, phytochemicals, fibre, minerals etc.
It is critical to emphasise the importance of the source of protein regarding adverse health consequences. You can read more about that HERE.
You’ve got to lose the idea that a high protein diet is optimal, because it is a negative force which is ultimately stopping you from healing and becoming your healthiest self. There is a very simple rule: ”if you eat enough calories from fresh whole foods, you will get enough protein.”
If you’re someone who’s looking to have vibrant health while safely building muscle, you don’t need to obsess over how much protein you’re consuming enough calories from plant based foods like bananas, mangoes, papayas, dates, potatoes, yams, sweet potato, leafy greens, avocados, soaked nuts and seeds etc. Whether you’re eating protein from plant and/or animal sources, don’t go overboard. Aim to get around 10% of your total calories from protein, but more importantly, consume whole, fresh food because it provides the range of nutrients (protein included) that humans need to function at their best.