How Much Protein is Enough?
Protein deficiency is virtually unknown in the United States and developed world. Where it does exist in the undeveloped world, it is the result of too few calories and too little protein in the diet. As such, as soon as a sufficient quantity of calories is available in virtually all traditional diets across the world, “protein deficiencies” vanish.
The average American exceeds their daily protein requirement by as much as 100%. According to one source, approximately 72% of protein in the American diet is derived from animal products while only 28% is derived from plant foods. There is a plethora of evidence indicating that reliance on animal proteins to meet protein requirements is linked to the development of several chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, many cancers, high blood pressure, kidney disease, osteoporosis and kidney stones.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is based upon body weight; to calculate your own protein needs, multiply your bodyweight by .36 grams. For example, a person weighing 140 lbs. would require 50.4 grams of protein per day (140 lbs. X .36 = 50.4 grams). An easy-to-remember rule of thumb is that your plate at each meal should contain no more protein than the size of the palm of your hand.
The Protein Myth
There is nothing magic about the protein contained in meat; it contains no essential nutrients that cannot be obtained in equal or higher quality directly from plant sources.
In recent decades, a common misunderstanding regarding the quality of protein sources in the human diet emerged: the argument went that one or more essential amino acid, (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins) was missing or low in vegetable foods. Therefore, a vegetarian diet, otherwise “lacking” in some essential amino acids, was to be “cured” by combining certain foods – typically grains and legumes – so that the body would assimilate “complete” proteins, i.e., proteins that look like those in animal flesh. This inaccuracy emerged because the nutrition research community by and large compared all protein/amino acid contents with those found in meats, which were considered to be “complete,” and therefore, the “best” source.
Sometimes we hear that an essential amino acid is missing or low in a given food. However, almost every unrefined food from the vegetable or animal kingdom not only contains all eight essential amino acids, but all twenty known amino acids. Therefore, to say they are “missing” or “lacking” is inaccurate. Furthermore, because a pool of amino acids stored in the body is available to compliment the amino acids in recently ingested food, one need not combine plant foods during one meal at all to obtain a “complete” protein.
Why Adopt a Plant-Based Diet
There are so many reasons a person may choose to reduce or omit their meat consumption, or to adopt a plant-based diet that may or may not include animal products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, butter and eggs. Health reasons are often at the forefront – advocates of a vegetarian diet argue that meat-eaters risk developing a myriad of medical problems such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and obesity. Research has shown over and over that animal-based diets are high in saturated fat, excessive protein and cholesterol. Cardiovascular disease, just one possible side effect from eating an animal-based diet, is the leading cause of death in the United States; one in every three deaths is from heart disease and stroke – equal to 2,200 deaths per day.
But there are a host of factors that cause others to adopt a plant-based diet: concern for the planet’s resources and environment; potential health problems caused by toxins, hormones and antibiotics used in meat production; and disease threats such as mad cow disease and e-coli. Many others choose to abstain from eating meat and/or meat products for reasons relating to animal welfare, spirituality and religion. Here at Tsethar International, our primary motivation for adopting a plant-based diet is a compassion-based belief, deeply rooted Buddhist tradition, that life is precious in any form and should be protected and nurtured so that all beings may reach enlightenment.
Our motivation to eat a meatless diet is no less influenced by the reality of modern-day meat production. The average meat-eating American consumes the equivalent of 21,000 whole animals in a lifetime. The competition to produce inexpensive meat, eggs, and dairy products to feed meat-hungry Americans has led to the extinction of the family farm and the proliferation of the “factory farm,” in which animals are confined in large warehouses and forced to live their entire lives in crowded cages or pens until they are led to slaughter.
Our addiction to meat in the West makes little sense when our planet’s dwindling precious resources are considered. Compared to the production of plant-based protein sources, the process of industrial meat production is grossly inefficient. For example:
- it takes 16 pounds of grain and soybeans to produce 1 pound of beef
- about 2,500 gallons of water are required to produce a single pound of meat, whereas only 25 gallons of water are needed to produce a pound of wheat.
- a meat-eating American needs 3-1/4 acres of cultivated farm land per year; a vegetarian requires only 1/6 acre per year.
- it takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel to make one calorie of animal protein as it does to make one calorie of plant protein.
- The planet’s entire petroleum reserves would be exhausted in a just over a decade if the whole world adopted the technology used in the U.S. to produce the standard American meat-centered diet.
- 35 pounds of eroded topsoil go into the production of one pound of steak.
Imagine how we could transform our world if more of us adopted a plant-based diet! Just one example: if Americans were to reduce their consumption of meat by just 10% for one year, it would free 12 million pounds of grain for human consumption, or enough to feed 60 million people.
How to Adopt a Plant-Based Diet
There are many ways you can begin the transition to a plant-based diet:
- Before you cut out meat, study up on vegetarianism and learn as much as you can about it. This will not only help you develop resolve and validate the reasons for your dietary change, it will guide you on how to devise a healthy diet for your needs.
- Also before you cut meat out from your diet, look at recipe books, magazines and web posts to identify recipes that appeal to you. This is important because you need to be satiated, or satisfied, after you eat, or you will feel deprived and your motivation may dwindle. Study up on innovative and delicious ways to incorporate high protein sources of plant foods such as quinoa, rice, whey protein, beans and legumes (and stay tuned as we provide updates on adopting a plant-based diet, including short essays on health, diet and recipe tips!) Organize your recipes in a notebook or other special place and stock your pantry with the basics you will need to satisfy your particular tastes.
- Eat out at Asian restaurants (eg., Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese) and treat yourself to a variety of meat alternatives such as tempeh, tofu, or mock meats made into authentic dishes so you can see how these alternatives are best used and which ones you like the best. Then pick up your favorite ingredients at an Asian market and experiment with them at home.
- One way to begin transitioning to a diet without meat is by omitting one animal at a time from your diet. Continue removing additional animal proteins from your diet by one per month until you have adopted an entirely plant-based diet.
- Another way is to assign one meal per day, or one or two days each week, to eat only vegetarian meals. Increase the number of meat-free days each week over time.
- Adopt a plant-based diet with a buddy. The buddy system can make the transition feel less daunting when you share ideas, recipes, and enthusiasm.
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