This post is a follow-up to “Without Meat, What Do You Eat?” a guest post I wrote for the lovely health and wellness blog, marycrimmins.com. In both posts, I give answers to questions commonly asked about my family’s “less meat” way of life.
“But what about protein?”
This is an excellent question, and the most commonly asked by individuals after learning of my family’s very little meat consumption. Many are surprised to learn that even beyond tofu, all of one’s protein needs can be gained completely from a plant-based diet. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, and artichokes, for example, are all vegetables high in protein. Quinoa is a complete protein, as are chia seeds, no longer only known for their ability to grow a “pet” from a terracotta pot. In pairing a legume (peas, beans, lentils) with a grain, a complete protein is created as well, and they need not even be paired during the same meal – eaten within the same day is adequate. But despite these excellent protein-rich foods, cultural associations that link beef, pork, and chicken to protein continue to hold strong, much like the milk industry’s unfortunate monopoly on calcium intake.
High-protein, low-carb fad diets that attempt to reduce food to a science certainly do their part to hold these beliefs in place as well, and nearly every food related message on the cover of fitness magazines seems to be saying the same thing: Eat More Protein! Although we certainly need protein to lead healthy lives, I usually have an inkling of suspicion that the individual asking, “But what about protein?” is looking for an excuse to continue eating meat every day. After all, I have never been asked, “But what about folate or Vitamin K?” – nutrients most commonly found in dark, leafy greens. For their defense, I am usually quoted a vague statistic surrounding protein, the food pyramid, and numbers. In keeping with this mindset, let’s briefly examine a steak dinner.
On average, an ounce of lean beef contains 7 grams of protein. By simply eating an average-sized restaurant steak for dinner – 8 ounces – an adult male can receive the daily amount of protein recommended by the Center for Disease Control. But consider the protein grams acquired throughout the day: a glass of milk at breakfast, a sandwich with sliced turkey and cheese at lunch, a side of vegetables with dinner. By looking at the protein content of just one meal in which meat is the centerpiece, it is no wonder how the average American consumes twice their recommended amount of protein in one day.
While it’s good to be aware of the nutrients that certain foods provide, I would like to suggest a lifestyle in which grams, calories, and nutrients — unless under very special circumstances — are not counted. Charts that list the nutrient needs of individuals often do not cover the wide range of shapes and lifestyles that our society holds, and I find that the thought that leads people to measure and calculate food is not very far from the thought that leads others to isolate and manipulate those nutrients and properties. If your mindset is to consume lots of protein, odds are you will gravitate towards meats and other high-protein foods, possibly forsaking other nutrients in the process. Instead, let the goal of being well-nourished propel you to eat a variety of seasonal, whole, unprocessed vegetables and grains. In doing so, good health can’t help but fall into place.