Proteins are important to a healthy diet but most people eat more protein than is recommended and often choose less healthy sources of protein. Personally I have chosen to eat a vegan diet for nearly 30 years. It makes me feel great and I create a smaller carbon footprint, contributing to my own health and the health of the environment. But I do not try to influence everyone else to become vegan. I would like to get people to stop making two assumptions, though, to help them select their own proteins more wisely. First people tend to ask “How do you get enough protein in your diet?” and the second assumption is invariably “So you must eat a lot of tofu.” Whether you choose to eat a plant-based diet or to eat animal proteins, you might want to learn a little more about recommended protein intake.
Every cell in the body is made of proteins that are constantly being broken down and replaced. Amino acids gleaned from dietary proteins are the source of our cellular protein. Proteins are absolutely necessary parts of the diet, however the “average American diet” tends to include twice the recommended dietary allowance for protein. Anyone in America eating a healthy diet from a variety of foods will get enough protein without having to supplement or pay special attention to what he eats. The best diet includes a variety of wholesome foods rather than focusing on any one type of nutrient. The right amount of protein depends on one’s weight, but the guideline is to keep a diet in which 10-30% of the calories come from protein. More specifically, recommended dietary allowance is 0.80 grams of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight. That means that a diet for a 150-pound adult should include 54 grams of protein a day.
Yes, protein does come from tofu but also from many other sources. A vegan diet like mine gets most of the protein from nuts, seeds, beans, and peas. Grains (particularly quinoa), fruits and vegetables (particularly spinach and broccoli) contain protein, but not as much as the other sources and cannot be the sole source of protein. People that eat animal proteins get them from dairy, fish, poultry, and red meat. One cup of cooked beans has 6 grams of protein, raw almonds have 30 grams, asparagus and broccoli have 7 grams, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes have 5 grams. A cup of milk has 8 grams of protein and an 8-oz container of yogurt has 11 grams. A 3-oz portion of meat contains about 21 grams of protein.
People are not very likely to experience serious health issues if they eat more than 0.80 grams of protein per kilogram of weight a day. The problem is that animal sources of protein tend to be higher in calories and saturated fat (associated with cholesterol) than plant-based foods. So the person that eats more than the recommended dietary allowance of protein each day is most at risk of experiencing the health risks associated with too many calories and saturated fats (heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers, etc). By association, cutting back on animal-based proteins is a fairly easy dietary change can result in desired weight loss. (People with kidney disease need to reduce protein intake to help the kidneys function properly, but I refer here to people without kidney disease.)
Americans have become used to including meat and dairy at each meal now that food production has reduced the cost of animals as a food source. Including meat as a complement to plants for the evening meal rather than meat as the primary focus of the meal will have the effect of weight loss. Consider lean beef or chicken stir fried with fresh vegetables over a bed of brown rice rather than a larger-than-recommended portion of steak or chicken with a small portion of string beans and mashed potatoes. Replacing sausage at breakfast with an egg white omelet tossed with mushrooms and tomatoes will still provide animal-based protein but with fewer unwanted calories. Other ways to select healthier proteins include using black or pinto beans rather than or as a supplement to less hamburger meat in chili and sauces, selecting low-fat dairy products, choosing lean meats, and using egg whites without the yolks.
So, in answer to the questions I always get when someone learns my diet excludes animal products: I get plenty of protein using beans and nuts as my primary source. And although an ounce of tofu offers about 20 grams of protein, I probably eat it once or twice a month.