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Where’s the Protein?

By Yvonne Nienstadt, Nutrition Director, Rancho La Puerta

Some of our new guests may not be aware that The Ranch began in 1940 as a lacto-ovo-vegetarian facility. Fish was added about 30 years ago to keep with our Mexican-Mediterranean diet philosophy. Despite the fish, many guests have voiced concerns that there is not enough protein served at meals to support the volume of exercise that Ranch guests engage in. Our response is that we serve more protein in each meal than guests may realize. Not only are eggs and dairy abundant at breakfast, but they are also used as ingredients in many of our main dishes and desserts. Egg whites and dairy whey are called ‘the reference proteins,’ because gram for gram they contain more biologically available protein than meat.

There are also plenty of proteins in plant based foods. Horses are herbivores and gorillas are frugivores, and they are both well-muscled animals!  Many folks are surprised to learn that grains contain 8% protein with 3 – 4 grams of protein per ½ cooked cup. Beans provide up to 28% protein, providing 8 – 10 grams protein per ½ cup. Tofu and tempeh contain 12 grams and 15 grams of protein per three ounce portion, respectively. Greens have between 30 – 40% protein, with an incredible 3 – 4 grams per cooked ½ cup.

Are vegetable proteins incomplete?

There are 12 amino acids that can be synthesized in the body, but nine others, called essential amino acids, must be ingested via food. Animal based foods have all of these amino acids, and vegetable proteins are strong in some essential amino acids, but lacking others. Protein complementarity can remedy this: it is when plant foods are mixed and matched to complement one another and thus provide healthy amounts of  essential amino acids. Read more about amino acids here.

Examples of pure vegetarian complementarity:

  • Beans and tortillas
  • Peanut butter sandwich
  • Pasta Faggioli (noodles and beans)
  • Tofu with rice
  • Hummus with pita bread

proteins2

Interestingly, corn, beans and squash are the three sacred crops of the indigenous peoples of North America. The Iroquois called them ‘The Three Sisters.” When combined in equal amounts, they provide 100% of the essential amino acids – rivaling animal foods. Additionally, quinoa, and soy are nearly complete vegetable proteins on their own.

It was once believed that complementary proteins had to be consumed together at every meal. It is now known that intentional combining at each meal isn’t necessary, mainly because we have a 30 foot long digestive tract and foods transit through it in somewhere between 14 – 30 hours. This means that proteins will be combined in the small intestines all day. As long as you eat a variety of plant foods, such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), and greens, your protein needs will be easily met.

Daily Protein Requirements

We are made up of 18 – 20 % protein by weight and must renew our supply of protein daily to maintain our vital structures, make hormones, anti-bodies, enzymes and neurotransmitters. The World Health Organization says 5% of total daily calories from protein will do the trick.  The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council recommend 10 -12% of total daily calories which translates to 0.36 of a gram up to 0.40 of a gram of protein for every lean pound of body weight (subtract body fat %).  What this means is at the 10 -12% level, the average sized woman would need about 45 grams of protein and the average man about 56 grams per day.  If doing strength training regularly (two times a week, 20 – 30 minutes each time, working until failure) protein intake can bump up to 15 – 20% of daily calories.  This translates to 0.50 gram to 0.60 gram protein per pound of lean body weight.  In their pivotal book BioMarkers: The 10 Keys to Prolonging Vitality, Dr. Evans and Dr. Rosenberg found that everyone from age 19 – 90 who did rigorous resistance exercise twice a week needed a maximum of 20% daily calories from protein.

Recent Institute of Medicine studies suggest that protein intake should amount to up to  35% of daily calories for some people who are training heavily (0.75 to 1.2 gram per pound of lean body weight). Perhaps this works for professional male body builders, but there are experts who would disagree about this higher protein intake. In a study of five male endurance runners published in Metabolism, Patricia Gaine found that, “a protein intake of 1.2 g/kg or 10% of total energy intake is needed to achieve a positive nitrogen balance” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16546481). They found no advantage for consuming higher levels of protein and added that higher protein diets provided insufficient carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen and could result in fluid imbalances and dehydration.  In another study, Gaine examined the effect of variations in protein intake on whole-body protein turnover (WBPTO) after exercise in endurance-trained males.  She found that a lower protein intake was associated with decreased rates of WBPTO after exercise (Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Mar;39(3):480-6 ).

Dr. John McDougall, M.D., maintains that 10% protein is sufficient even for endurance athletes. Olympic Gold Medal winner, Carl Lewis, achieved his status as the fastest man in the world at the time on McDougall’s vegan diet with just 10% protein. He says that even vegan body builders do well.  Read Dr. McDougall’s article here.

Do you need evidence that a plant based diet is not only adequate, but beneficial for health and long life? Read The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. He notes that the five populations on the planet with the greatest longevity are predominantly plant eaters.

Finally, Dr. Michael Greger, M.D., author of New York Times instant best seller, How Not to Die, discusses why plant protein is preferable to animal proteins at this link. Dr. Greger reported that in 2013, Kaiser Permanente advised their physicians to recommend a whole foods, plant based diet to all their patients. More information can be found here.  When the largest managed care facility in the U.S. recommends this, we know we have been right all along. Viva Rancho La Puerta and may our guests live long and well!

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