After reading many books on healthy eating at the age of 23, I decided it was time for a change. My diet was horrible and not based on science but on convenience. That was 32 years ago. I learned that the foods I consumed greatly impacted my health not only today, but also in the future. This new information made sense to me and I was ready to hear it. It was a new way of eating, not a diet, but a lifestyle change. I started immediately.
Eliminating animal foods including red meat, fish, chicken, cow milk, cheese, and most processed foods from my diet required some planning and learning new recipes. I started eating more fruits, vegetables and legumes(beans) and noticed a change in how I felt. I felt lighter and more energetic. My skin cleared up completely (I had acne even at 23). People were paying attention to the changes that they saw and would ask questions. I wasn’t a doctor or nutritionist, but I had some new knowledge and they were curious.
One common question was, “where do you get your protein”? It was an interesting question since I grew up like most with the understanding that protein came from animals, dairy, and eggs. That’s what I saw in the posters in my classrooms and heard from my teachers and parents. As my education continued, I realized that all protein starts with plants. The animals that carnivores consume are vegetarians. In fact, some of the largest animals on the planet subsist on plants only like the elephant, rhino, hippo, and horse. Obviously, humans are not as big as those animals but we have similarities. For instance, our digestive tract, which is responsible for processing all the food we consume, is long like the plant eaters. Carnivores on the other hand have a much shorter tract to speed up the transport of rotting meat. Most agree humans are omnivores and can digest both plants and animals. However, there has been much debate on which protein is better and it continues today.
Protein exists in all foods and is one of three macro nutrients where we receive our calories for survival. All protein that we consume in our diet will be broken down into amino acids, or the building blocks of every cell. The human body needs 20 different amino acids and nine of them are essential, meaning you must consume them. The others can be made by the body itself. The amount of protein required varies and is based on activity and age. For instance, the average adult male needs about 56 grams per day and adult female needs about 46 g per day. If you are active, then your requirements go up because your need for calories goes up. Therefore, as you eat more food, you’ll get more protein.
Where we get our protein matters. Which has more protein per 100 calories, broccoli or beef? You’re right, beef of course! However, it depends on the cut of beef. Some cuts have less protein than broccoli. On average broccoli contains about 8.9 grams of protein and beef contains approximately 12.7 grams of protein per 100 calories. That is a significant amount from a vegetable and was a surprising fact for me to learn.
What is more interesting is what comes with each type of protein. Again, let’s look at broccoli. It is loaded with fiber, phytonutrients, cancer fighting compounds, antioxidants, and has zero cholesterol, zero saturated fat, and low in carbohydrate and calories. Beef on the other hand has zero fiber, loads of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids, which in excess has been linked to high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and some cancers. Broccoli looks like the better choice to me.
Obviously, you can’t get all your protein needs from broccoli alone but adding other vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, some seeds and nuts makes it quite easy. For example:
- 1 cup of cooked lentils- 17 g of protein
- 1 cup of steamed broccoli- 4 g
- 1 orange- 2g
- 2 tablespoons of flax seed- 3 g
- 2 tablespoons almond butter- 7 g
- 2 slices of whole wheat bread- 10 g
- 1 cup of cooked steel cut oatmeal- 10 g
- 1 oz. walnuts- 4 g
We are up to 57 g and only 1,066 calories! The average female and male consume about 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day respectively. I am not suggesting or advising that you become a vegetarian. I’m not. However, I do continue to get most of my calories from plants and eating a variety of plant foods has similar health promoting properties that beef and other animal foods don’t have.
The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, one of the most extensive studies on disease and diet helped make up my mind. “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest,”.
Consider eating more plants for protein and enjoy all the health benefits that go with them like reduced chance of heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and some cancers. You will probably notice more energy as well.