Many people still believe that protein is only available in meat and animal products. This is probably because protein that comes from meat, eggs and dairy products contains the nine essential amino acids the body needs, while most plants miss at least one of these amino acids (notable exceptions: quinoa, spinach and soy).
However, nutritionists argue that even vegans or vegetarians can easily eat more than enough protein as there are plenty of complete sources of plant-based protein that they can eat. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some protein.
Venuste Muhamyankaka, the president of Rwanda Nutritionists’ Society, says that vegetarians can easily meet their needs if they eat a varied diet — especially if they eat dairy and eggs.
He explains that a moderately active 68 kg person needs about 54 grams of protein a day. The only people who need more are pregnant women and those in intensive physical training, such as for a marathon or body building workout.
“It’s not difficult to consume that amount of protein, if people consume a wide variety of different foods throughout the day — particularly those with a high protein content to begin with. For instance, milk and egg proteins are both high-quality, complete proteins. This means each of these foods contains all of the amino acids you require daily to build and repair proteins within your body,” he says.
Eggs and milk also contain similar quantities of protein, but eggs provide slightly more. A serving of two large eggs provides almost 13 grams of dietary protein, and one cup of low-fat milk contains about 8 grams of protein. A portion of four egg whites provides about 14 grams of protein.
He points out that a diet that includes nuts, soy and beans also offers the required quantity of proteins. For example, a half-cup of cooked black beans has eight grams. The same amount of cooked garbanzo beans has nine grams. And a half-cup of Tofu (soy meat) has 10 grams —sometimes more — depending on the type of tofu a person buy.
“Beans are top sources of protein, but grains, nuts, seeds, and even vegetables all provide some. But most plant proteins are “incomplete” proteins, meaning that they contain some, but not all of these essential amino acids in adequate amounts. It’s when a vegetarian diet isn’t planned at all that nutrition trouble can start. Eating a variety of plant foods usually ensures all essential proteins are consumed,” he says.
Though numbers vary depending on age, weight and the amount of exercise you get, Muhamyankaka suggests making beans a big part of a plant-based diet, because they are loaded with protein and fibre, are low in fat, and offer a slow-burning source of carbohydrates.
“There are additional bonuses,” he says. “Beans are cheap, keep well in the pantry and adapt to a wide variety of cuisines.”
Beans can help lower blood cholesterol and reduce hypertension, and may have an effect on some forms of cancer and diabetes. For all those reasons, experts recommend that people consume an average of three cups of beans a week.
HOW ESSENTIAL IS PROTEIN?
Private Kamanzi, a nutritionist at Amazon Wellness Centre, says that protein is an important component of every cell in the body. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. The body uses protein to build and repair tissues. Protein is also important to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals.
“Vital organs, muscles, tissues and even some hormones of the body are made from protein. Additionally, protein creates haemoglobin and important antibodies. Protein is involved in just about every body function from controlling blood sugar levels to healing wounds and fighting off bacteria,” he says.
Kamanzi adds that a low protein diet can result in a number of health issues. Below are some poor protein consumption issues:
Low protein can result in muscle wasting (or muscle atrophy), fatigue and even fat gain. In fact, you can work out more, but see less results if your diet isn’t adequate to support tissue repair, or your energy needs.
Medics suggest that poor sleep and insomnia can sometimes be linked to unstable blood sugar levels, a rise in cortisol, and a decrease in serotonin production. Blood sugar swings during the day carry over through the night. Carbohydrates require much more insulin than fat or protein does.
“Eating foods with protein before bed can help with tryptophan and serotonin production, and they have a minimal effect on blood glucose levels; in fact, protein slows down the absorption of sugar during a meal,” says Kamanzi.
Protein is the building block of all of your cells — your hair follicles included. “If your hair follicles are strong, they keep hair on your head, But if you’re chronically skipping on the scalp-stabilising nutrient, you may notice that your strands start thinning (although, keep in mind, this can also be a sign of other conditions,” says Bukaba.
INJURIES AND SLOW HEALING
Bukaba says that protein is needed for calcium absorption and helping with bone metabolism. Therefore, low protein diet can raise your risk for muscle loss, falling, slow bone healing, bone weakness, fractures and even osteoporosis.
Studies show that older adults with the greatest bone losses are those with a low protein intake of about 16 to 50 grams per day.