“I’m wondering which foods (other than animal protein) have the highest protein content. My husband has a physical job, and I need to make sure he’s getting enough.” —Alexandra McDonald
Protein is critical to the building, maintenance, and repair of tissues in the body. But a protein deficiency is not something most Americans, even physically active vegetarians and vegans, have to worry much about. That’s because protein is not a food group; it’s a nutrient that is present in almost all foods, including green vegetables, potatoes, grains, nuts, seeds, and fruit. I’m channeling NYU nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle here, as she is famously cranky about the subject. “Nutritionists like me consider protein a ‘macronutrient,’ meaning that foods contain many grams of protein and also that protein is a source of calories (4 per gram as opposed to 9 for fat and 4 or so for carbohydrate),” she wrote in a Food Politics blog post in January 2012. “…. ‘Protein’ is most definitely not a synonym for meat or even tofu …. Let’s keep terms clear and talk about nutrients when we mean nutrients and foods when we mean foods. Protein is not food.”
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for the average, sedentary adult is just 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. (To find out an average individual need, multiply body weight in pounds by 0.36 to get the recommended protein intake in grams.) Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or people who are very active or athletic, need more protein, but their requirements can easily be met through larger food consumption daily. Oatmeal or other whole-grain cereal, an extra serving of lentils or yogurt, a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread, or a handful of dried figs, almonds, or pumpkin seeds can help meet those needs.
That doesn’t stop the rest of us from being obsessed with protein; in fact, we consume about twice as much as we need. Much of this overindulgence stems from what is called the health halo effect. “A mother believes food with protein will give her child energy before soccer practice and help her lose weight by making her feel full,” wrote Sarah Nassauer in the Wall Street Journal, citing consumer research from Kraft, Kellogg, and other large food companies. “An office worker sees an energizing snack that is better than candy at 4 p.m. A weight lifter sees it as a way to build muscle. They all see it as healthy.”
Since the word “protein” has become such a hot new marketing buzzword, manufacturers are rushing (surprise, surprise) to add the nutrient, usually in the form of soy protein isolate, to all manner of cereals, bars, and drinks. According to the food-industry newsletter FoodNavigator-usa.com, an international patent application filed by PepsiCo last September and published on April 5 reveals the company’s impending launch of high-protein nutrition beverages in four-fluid-ounce “hydration units” as part of an initiative called P.L.A.Y., short for “Protein, Liquid, Activity, You-time.” You-time? I could not make this stuff up.
There’s no reason any consumer, no matter how physically active, needs this sort of protein supplementation if he or she eats a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. In fact, getting all the protein you need from a plant-based diet is even less complicated than you may think. I’m talking here about the misinformation swirling around amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and their role in “complete” or “incomplete” protein foods. A complete protein food (meat, fish, poultry, and a few plant-based sources such as soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth) contains all nine essential amino acids—that is, those that can’t be produced by our bodies. An incomplete protein food is missing or has very low amounts of one or more essential amino acid; the majority of plant foods are in this category.
Frances Moore Lappé advocated protein-combining to improve the quality of protein intake in her 1971 bestseller Diet For A Small Planet, but she had rethought matters by the time the tenth-anniversary edition rolled around. “In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get enough high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth,” she wrote. “I gave the impression that in order to get protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.”
No argument there from the medical establishment. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states on its Medline Plus website that protein foods are no longer described as being “complete proteins” or “incomplete proteins.” It continues, “Essential amino acids ... do not need to be eaten at one meal. The balance over the whole day is more important. A nutritionally balanced diet provides enough protein .... Vegetarians are able to get enough essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant proteins. The amount of recommended daily protein depends upon your age and health. Two to three servings of protein-rich food [click here and scroll down for recommended serving sizes] will meet the daily needs of most adults.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website provides a handy plant-based protein checklist here. And the Vegetarian Resource Group provides a larger list, as well as sample menus, here.