Over the last century, we have been obsessed with protein. Everyone is always talking about foods that are ‘full of protein’, protein shakes, high protein diets and where we should be getting our protein. But why is this? Should we really be worried about protein? And how much protein do we actually need?
There is a history of enthusiasm for protein in the nutrition world. A century ago, the protein recommendations were more than twice what we know them to be today! In the 1950’s the field of nutrition got protein requirements spectacularly wrong, leading to massive recalculation of our protein needs.
During WWII, milk production was boosted in order to make large amounts of processed dairy products as relief food for soldiers. When the war ended the dairy industry was left with a massive surplus of milk powder. In the 1950’s, shortly after WWII ended, coincidentally, the protein obsession began!
In 1952 the UN identified protein deficiency as a widespread, global problem. There was a ‘protein gap’ that needed to be filled. This led to the ‘Great Protein Fiasco’.
There was a disease of malnutrition called kwashiorkor which was assumed to be caused by protein deficiency. Dr Cicely Williams, the Doctor who discovered this disease, was the same doctor who spent the latter half of her life debunking the very condition that she first described.
Science eventually prevailed and showed that there is no real evidence of dietary protein deficiency. Studies suggest the actual cause of kwashiorkor is changes in gut flora.
This led to a recalculation of protein requirements in the 1970s. And the theory of this pandemic of protein malnutrition was destroyed. Infant protein RDA went from 13% to 10%, to 7%, and then 5%.
But to this day people still seem to be obsessing about protein. In the last few decades there has been an uptick in trends around high protein diets like the atkins diet and the paleo diet, and foods like protein powders and protein enriched foods. Many of these fad diets make evolutionary claims about our protein requirements. But what has evolution actually shown us?
There is one food that has been developed and fine tuned by nature over millions of years to contain the perfect amount of protein for humans…. human breast milk!
Human breast milk has the lowest protein concentration of any animal milk in the world…
…it contains less than 1% protein – the natural, normal level of protein for growing human babies, fine tuned over millions of years! For this reason, feeding cows milk, (which is about 3.5 times higher in protein than human breast milk) to babies can be so dangerous.
How easy is it to get my RDA of protein?
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, adults require about 0.75g of protein per healthy kilo of body weight, per day. This means you need to calculate your protein needs by using your ideal/healthy weight. (i.e. if you are under or overweight you should calculate your protein requirements with your ideal/healthy weight, not your current weight.
There is no scientific basis to recommend more than this due to its disease risks.
A woman weighing 56kg would need approximately 42g protein per day. A woman this size would need approximately 2,000 calories per day.
8 cups of steamed, brown rice (2,000 calories) = 44.6g protein
4.5 cups of soy milk (400 calories) = 42g protein
5 cups of cooked pasta (1,040 calories) = 42g protein
4 cups of oats (1,200 calories) = 42g protein
6 stalks of broccoli (615 calories) = 42g protein
600g of mung beans (625 calories) = 42.1g of protein
Although you may not sit down to 6 potatoes or a cup of oats at every meal time, and will most likely be eating more foods like green, leafy vegetables and legumes that have a much higher protein content, these numbers just go show that eating enough protein is not just possible, it is, in fact, very easy.
What type of protein should we be eating?
Protein from plants has been associated with lower rates of chronic disease, so opt for whole plant foods. When eating plant-based whole foods, you will also be consuming high amounts of beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and minerals like vitamin c, calcium, potassium and fiber!
We are far more likely to suffer from protein excess than protein deficiency!