Protein, whether animal or vegetable, only accounts for 10% of our body’s fuel. Protein’s primary function is to build and repair. Think of it in terms of bricks and mortar rather than octane. Fibrous vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains contain protein and antioxidants, that when broken down in the liver to glucose is the body’s preferred fuel source, but it will dip into the Fat Closet under certain conditions during a restricted timeframe—not to exceed three days. See Fat vs, Muscle.
Conversely, animal protein doesn’t provide any antioxidants or carbohydrates, but it does provide essential amino acids as part of a complete protein, that plant-based protein lacks. Even when beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts are combined to create a complete protein, they don’t contain enough vitamin B-12, D, DHA, heme-iron, and zinc on their own and have to be fortified. Then there’s the essential amino acid, lysine for hair and skin health, tendon, ligament, bone, and muscle repair. Example: 1/2 cup of quinoa provides less than a gram of L-lysine [.70], while 4oz of cod provides 2 grams. You’d have to eat 3 times the amount of quinoa to reach the same amino acid level. That equates to 350 calories, while wild-caught cod weighs in at a slim 93 calories.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking a plant-based diet; I’m a huge proponent of it, but the human body was designed to consume a certain amount of animal protein. Yes, I’ve heard the argument, “but gorillas and oxen are muscular, and they don’t eat meat.” Because their skeletal and muscular system are already baked into their DNA. While we’re on the subject of muscle-building, there are a lot of elite athletes and bodybuilders who have gone vegan in recent years. But none of them built their ripped bodies from scratch as a vegan unless they used supplements. Bottom line, gram-for-gram, animal protein is the most efficacious for building bone, tendons, and muscle. But I do agree that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is also problematic because it promotes the overconsumption of animal protein, which lessens the intake of other nutrient-dense plant-based foods.
But how much protein per day do we really need?
According to the RDI, it’s based on kilogram weight—divide your current weight by 2.2—multiplied by .8 to establish daily protein intake. I’m 5’4″ and weigh 115lbs, which equals 52 kilograms. Multiplied by .8, lands me at 41 grams of protein per day—barely enough to keep me alive beyond a coma.
Depending on your activity level, a moderate approach would be a sliding scale, starting at 1.25 for sedentary, moving a quarter percentage point per for active/moderately active/very active [2.00], which on workout days rounds out to 100 grams for me. Non-workout days puts me somewhere in the middle at 75 grams. But let’s not forget the age factor. The older we get, the more protein we need.
What does 75-100 grams of protein look like?
Visually, a 4oz piece of animal protein is about the size of a deck of cards or 22 grams, whereas most American portions are 8oz per serving, which is closer to 50 grams. Multiplied by two-three meals a day, and I’m at 100-150 grams of animal protein without consuming any plant-based protein. “But more is better, right?” Not necessarily. There are inherent risks to the overconsumption of animal protein most of us are aware of, such as heart disease, cancer, constipation. Then there’s the buildup of nitrogen found in the amino acids which make up animal protein that our kidneys have to work overtime to flush. And let’s not forget weight gain. Even while high-protein diets, like Paleo and Ketogenics, may show weight-loss in the beginning, it’s short-term. Because just like with too many starchy carbs on a plant-based diet, whatever the body doesn’t use, goes to the Fat Closet!