Protein: Debunking myths
Following on from the previous article Protein: Understanding the Importance and establishing your protein goal. In this article we are going to look at some of the common myths that surround protein, in particular the common physiological arguments for meat vs plant-based protein.
Let’s tackle some common questions and myths to help you retain an open mind about protein and not get sucked into the buckets of misinformation out there.
Do you need to consume animals to achieve adequate levels of protein?
Short answer, no. However, the higher your demands for protein the more aware you are going to have to be of your diet to ensure you are reaching the appropriate levels for you. This might mean a bit more planning and a better understanding of the protein content of foods. Combining plant-based foods that are rich in protein, and perhaps even choosing to supplement with a protein powder if you are struggling to reach your goal with food alone.
Do some plant-based proteins contain higher percentage levels of protein than animal protein?
Some yes. However, when looking at the percentage of protein we also need to consider the total amount of protein per portion. Just because something has a higher percentage level of protein or contains a good level of protein per 100g does not necessarily make it a good protein source.
A good example is if you have to eat 10 portions of that plant-based food to reach 30g of actual protein; the same amount found in one portion of animal protein. For that reason, it then becomes unrealistic to consider that as a good source of protein; as a result, you need to consider total protein content per portion and not just the percentage level of protein.
When considering protein content per 100grams, you must consider what else makes up that 100g. If the food is 60-80% carbs or fats and 10-15% protein, yes it may provide 10-15grams of protein, but it may also provide an additional 500-750kcals from other macronutrients. The questions here is, by chasing a protein goal and forgetting about other macronutrients and kcals you may not be optimising your macro and caloric intake, something that is likely to lead to nutritional imbalances and potentially weight gain.
If I eat a plant-based diet will I miss out on any amino acids?
Whilst most plant-based proteins are not complete proteins (do not contain a full spectrum of amino acids), it is still very easy to get adequate levels of all amino acids assuming you have a varied plant-based diet. The reason for this is that different plant-based foods have varying amino acids. As long as your diet is varied you will typically consume a complete spectrum of amino acids over the different meals you consume.
Will eating animal protein give you cancer?
No, being that black and white about animal protein and cancer is bonkers. However, if you choose more processed forms of meat, choose high temperature cooking and burn your animal protein as well as having a diet limited in plant-based foods then yes, you may well increase your risk of certain cancers. The issue here however is not necessarily the eating of animal protein, it is eating a chronically substandard diet or just the obscene amount of inferior animal protein some people choose to consume!
Animal protein can easily be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet that reduces your risk of health issues as well as optimising your health. The trouble we have these days is the overconsumption of animal protein and the inadequate consumption of more plant-based foods.
As the writer Michael Pollen says: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”
Eating high levels of protein will damage your kidneys & bones?
These are such common statements you see written about protein, in particular animal protein. Looking at protein intake, studies have shown that protein intake ranging from 1.28-2.8grams per kg of bodyweight indicate no significant changes in kidney function.
However, if you have a pre-existing kidney issue then high levels of protein can cause your kidneys to become challenged; in fact, you may be better on a low or low to moderate intake of protein.
In those individual’s kidney function should always be monitored and this is also a reason I recommend basic blood testing before and after significant dietary changes. Whether you are moving to a high protein diet or a lower protein more plant-based diet, we should at least get baseline measurements and assess our response to those changes in eating habits. This is the only true way you can be objective about your dietary change without getting too caught up in emotions and opinions that are commonly associated with such dietary changes. Ultimately it is about finding what is right for you and retaining an open mind to be able to change your eating habits if the evidence is there to do so.
What about bone health I hear you ask. Doesn’t high protein diet, especially a diet high in animal protein, increase acidity and cause your bones to leach calcium.
Cue my eye roll…
One early study noted that increased levels of calcium appear in the urine in relation to protein consumption, thus it became associated with bone loss. Unfortunately, this was based upon the incorrect assumption at the time that the calcium loss came from bone. Follow up studies later indicated that urinary calcium was a poor predictor of bone mass and that protein actually had a protective or at least neutral impact on bone health. In fact, getting adequate protein in the diet when one has osteoporosis/osteopenia or is recovering from a bone fracture is critical.
A common thing I have seen clinically, is the under consumption of calories and protein in relation to high levels of training resulting in early stage osteopenia/osteoporosis.
These are just a few areas of consideration and misinformation when it comes to protein intake. Be your own experiment, retain an open mind and find a level of protein that suits your physical needs and aligns as well as it can to your ethical/environmental.