On the pyramid of macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat, each work in concert as fuel. However, protein only accounts for 10%. Ultimately, the body’s preferred choice is glucose from carbohydrates (see demystifying carbohydrates). Protein’s primary function is to build and repair. Think of it in terms of bricks and mortar rather than octane. The inherent problem with the Standard American Diet (SAD) is that it promotes the over consumption of animal proteins, which tends to lessen the intake of other nutrient dense foods such as fibrous vegetables, legumes, and whole grains that also contain protein in addition to antioxidants and complex carbohydrates; our body’s primary fuel source, whereas animal protein doesn’t provide antioxidants or carbohydrates. But how much protein—whether it comes from animal or vegetable—do we really need per day? The DRI (daily recommended intake) suggests 56 grams a day for the average sedentary male, and 45 for the average sedentary female. But even at the DRI’s lowest point, how do we equate that in real terms? What does 45-56 grams of protein look like? From a visual perceptive, a 3oz boneless, skinless chicken breast is about the size of a deck of cards and represents 21 grams, whereas most portions range from 6-8oz per serving. Multiplied by two and we’re in the neighborhood of 12-16oz or 60-90 grams of animal protein a day, which more than exceeds the DRI for both men and women. Here are two sample menus, each based on a 1200 low-calorie diet with a saturated fat intake of about 5.5 grams. Some of the items presented are similar with the exception that Menu-B is augmented with a small amount of animal protein.
Plant Based Menu-A Animal Based Menu-B
- Breakfast: Breakfast:
- Chocolate Mousse with Blueberries 6oz Greek yogurt with Blueberries
- Electrolyte Green smoothie Electrolyte Green smoothie
- 8oz-Almond milk
- Lunch: Lunch:
- Life-Force-Energy salad Life-Force-Energy salad
- Electrolyte Green smoothie 3oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
- Dinner: Dinner:
- Cowboy Caviar with Chili-Lime Tortilla Points Roasted Curry Cauliflower
- Tex-Mex Vegetable Chili 4oz Cod
- Tomatillo Sauce Brown Rice & Broccoli
- Snack: Snack:
- Mixed berries Strawberries
To further expand the point, let’s examine the macro and micro nutrients of these menus. Menu-A has a protein intake of 42 grams all of which are plant based, while menu-B is animal based with a protein intake of 96 grams that far exceeds the DRI. And yet as you can see from the actually menu, the portions appear quite modest. Less than a cup of yogurt for breakfast, 3oz of chicken for lunch, and 4oz of cod for dinner. Hardly the levels of an elite athlete or bodybuilder. The difference is the level of fiber, essential fatty acids, and the nutrients of vitamins and minerals. At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie. See comparison charts below, (Actual intake is to the right of DRI.)
The only obvious hole in menu-A is vitamin-B12, which is a common deficiency amongst vegan and vegetarian diets while menu-B falls short in other areas such as calcium, potassium, zinc, omega-3, and fiber. What pops menu-A’s vitamin/mineral content and omega-3 over menu-B is the added Electrolyte Green smoothie for lunch.
Should animal protein be eliminated from our diet?
Some nutritionists and dieticians will advocate menu-B, while others lean towards menu-A. Both are healthy and should be part of a balanced diet. Just as bodybuilders cycle their calories and work-outs, we should cycle our menu choices. An ideal median would be four days plant based and three days animal based. As they say in the world of finance, “diversify, diversify, diversify.”