A client of mine recently told me he was reading a nutrition article in a popular health magazine. The article laid out an eating plan that included a protein shake three times a day, at each major meal. Reading this article, you might think you need a lot of protein to be healthy. And you might think it’s hard to get enough protein from normal food.
And yet, when you get into the research, it turns out that 97% of Americans, including American vegans, get about twice as much protein as they need. Why is this a problem? Because it means we are focused on the wrong thing when it comes to food.
Americans do not have a long-standing, traditional food culture. Instead, we have unprecedented access to an extremely broad range of foods, some of which, like protein shakes, have only recently been invented. So how do we know if we’re making the right food choices?
What is protein, anyway?
Protein is a macronutrient, along with carbohydrate and fat. These are the parts of food that provide calories, which literally provide us with energy. A protein molecule is made up of amino acids, which our body uses to create a myriad of proteins that we need for cellular functioning. We have a biological need for amino acids, not for protein per se.
All foods contain protein/amino acids (except highly processed foods like oil and sugar), because all living cells contain proteins within them to function. Even an apple has protein, though not very much.
Does protein make you healthy?
With protein, more is not necessarily better. In fact, focusing on the three macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) to choose what to eat is a big, popular mistake. Macronutrient ratios have little to do with health. The components of food that reduce disease risk and make us healthier are micronutrients: fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (a class of chemical compounds in plants). Because of micronutrients, people who eat primarily plant foods enjoy health benefits such as healthier arteries, better protection against cancer, and improved insulin sensitivity. Eating lots of plant foods that are high in micronutrients offers significant protection against those diseases that plague Americans most: cancer, mental decline, joint inflammation, heart disease, excess body fat, and diabetes. Macronutrients, such as protein, do not protect against disease.
It’s true that a diet higher in protein can boost weight loss, but weight loss is not the same as health gain, and should not be considered the only goal. Furthermore, most people who diet do not stick with it long-term, and eventually end up heavier than they were at the start. What we need is not a temporary diet based around weight loss, but a healthy eating pattern sustained over the long-term!
So instead of trying to get more protein, try to eat more whole plant foods that are micronutrient-rich. With green vegetables, berries, beans, mushrooms and seeds, more is better – the more you eat, the healthier you will become. And don’t worry – all these foods contain protein (and plenty of other nutrients)!