Wednesday, May 27, 2009


The issue of protein is hotly debated these days, with advocates of different diets all claiming that their particular way of eating is best for people and/or for the environment. Some people think they can get all the protein their bodies need entirely from plants (like whole grains, beans, and nuts), others believe you should include eggs and dairy, and others think they must eat a steak a day for optimal health. So what is really the truth?

To begin this discussion, I must first say that everyone is different. As I have reiterated in other posts, we are all different people with unique traits and physiological needs. So I always encourage people to experiment with different types and amounts of protein. With all that said, however, there are some guidelines we need to consider:

1) humans are omnivores. There is no shame in this! Many people experience strong cravings for high-protein animal foods like meat and eggs. This is totally normal. When we deny our need for this type of basic nourishment we open up a whole Pandora's box of problems: weight gain, depression/anxiety, dramatic tooth decay, sugar cravings, lethargy, infertility, chronic hunger (i.e. not being able to get full)...the list goes on. I have noticed that many issues of Vegetarian Times (which I love for the veggie recipes!) tends to include main-dish recipes that are basically carb-on-carb because they are simply replacing the usual meat dish with carbohydrates (worse yet, these are generally "white" carbs like a curry-potato dish on top of white rice!). Because this is the natural tendency of people who "go veg" they can end up gaining weight on a diet that seems quite spartan. It is easy to forget that meat is uniquely filling and energizing for many people, and allows them to eat less of other foods because it fills so many requirements. Think of it this way: if you were to eat a good 4-8 oz. of meat at a dinner out would you also feel the need to fill up on the bread basket?

2) high-quality animal fats (such as those in grass-fat meats, small oily wild fish, pastured egg yolks, fish eggs, butterfat from grass-fed cows, organ meats, lard from pastured pigs, etc.) are essential for proper growth, fertility, strong teeth & bones, resistance to disease, mental health, and many other things because of their high levels of vitamins A, D, and K. They generally come along with plenty of protein (not in the case of fat or lard, though, obviously), so when people are trying to avoid fat they often end up avoiding protein which is bad news.

3) for people recovering from depression and other mental disorders it is sometimes quite effective to eat about 30 grams of animal protein at each meal. This sounds crazy, but it works. Tryptophan is an amino acid required to form serotonin. So a diet low in protein, and therefore low in tryptophan (think: the typical dieter's diet, a high-carb/low-protein diet, or a diet of candy, coffee, and other stimulating junk which many people try to live on) can actually set us up for depression and mental illness.

4) keep in mind that your body needs fat in order to absorb protein! So eating low-fat or fat-free yogurt, for example, is pretty pointless. (Not only will you not absorb the protein, but you also won't absorb the nutrients either.) Fat and protein go hand-in-hand. Also many people need saturated fats to feel full, and since large amounts of saturated fats are found only in animal protein, dairy & eggs (with the exception of coconuts) many people need to eat these foods on a regular basis. Have you ever had the experience of eating a serving of salmon or lean skinless chicken breast and then feeling hungry afterward? This is your body telling you it needs something more. And the "something more" isn't dessert or extra pasta, it's probably fat. Since we need fat to absorb protein and nutrients AND to feel full and satisfied, and since the most satisfying nutritious fats come attached to meat, yogurt, eggs, etc. then it follows that we need to eat these things. Again, not everyone does, but many people do. In traditional "primitive" cultures, people would go far out of their way for the chance to eat fat, and they would even throw away lean meat in times of plenty, and always consume the fattiest parts first. This is a fascinating article that shows the types of fat that Native Americans ate and how it affected their health:

5) protein from grains, beans, and nuts/seeds is harder to absorb, and these foods are much harder to digest as well. This is really true. Animals that exist solely on plants have more than one stomach so they can digest them properly and absorb the nutrients. Humans have only one stomach, so we have to be smart about how we prepare our food. If you are getting a lot of your protein from things like whole grains, beans, and nuts it is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to prepare them properly. This means soaking or sprouting, or (in the case of bread) eating sourdough whole wheat that has been made the traditional way with a sourdough culture. Also, if you make any type of baked good at home like pancakes or biscuits, it is essential to use whole wheat flour and soak it overnight in an acidic medium. Grains (including flour), beans, and nuts are high in phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors which really must be neutralized or they will have a demineralizing effect on the body (including bones & teeth). This problem is very real. Check out this story by a vegetarian mother -- it's quite illuminating re: the effect of diet on dental health (scroll halfway down the page to "Vegetarianism and Cavities"):

6) what about protein bars and shakes? Forget them. They are not real food and have no place in your diet.

7) so how much protein to eat? If pregnant you need 80-100 grams of good-quality (easily-absorbed) protein, like that found in meat, eggs, raw dairy, and properly-prepared beans, nuts & whole grains. Otherwise, there is no hard-and-fast rule for the rest of us. Personally, I have found that IN THE WINTER I generally need the equivalent of the following in one day: 2 eggs, 4 oz. yogurt or kefir, 2 oz. cheese or a glass of raw milk, 4-6 oz. meat/chicken/fish, 1-2 servings whole grain (oatmeal, quinoa, etc.). I will also sometimes have crispy nuts (which have simply been soaked overnight in salted water, then dried in a warm oven) on a salad or for a snack, and properly-prepared beans instead of meat maybe 2 times a week. This makes for a rough estimate of about 80 or more grams of protein per day; however, there will be days (maybe 2-3 days a week) when I eat very light and choose beans instead of animal protein. I have found that I need this much to be energetic and have no "bad" cravings, and I am a small person (5'2" 115 lbs.) and getting only moderate daily exercise (though considerably more than the average American as I walk to many of the places I go and run around after a small child all day). I am, however, breastfeeding so this raises my requirements. ALSO the seasons affect my protein needs quite a lot. In the winter I need more meat and heavy foods whereas in the summer I would be satisfied with a meal of raw cottage cheese and lots of fruit, or a big salad with a sliced egg, some nuts, and sourdough croutons. Exercise also affects protein requirements. When experimenting with different kinds of foods and protein keep these things in consideration: pregnant/nursing/menstruating, time of year, daily exercise, stress, cravings. Strong sugar cravings can be a sign that you need more meat (or, if you are already eating a big steak every day and craving sweets then this is a sign you need to cut way back on the meat). For me, if I go several days without red meat I usually begin having very strong cravings for things like cheese fries and fried chicken! Then if I have a small amount (maybe 4 oz.) of pot roast, for example, with accompanying veggies & butter, the cravings disappear.

8) many traditional cultures rely largely on carbohydrates for their nourishment, like beans, corn, or starchy roots. These people also have a way of preparing these foods to maximize their nutritional value (such as soaking). In addition, they use small quantities of high-quality animal fats (like lard) to make the food more nutritious and the nutrients more easily-absorbed. These traditional methods of preparation are used intuitively.

9) soy is a special topic so I will discuss it more in another post. Suffice it to say, for now, that modern soy products should be avoided as they depress thyroid function, harm fertility, and are high in phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors (not destroyed by modern production methods). Use small amounts of traditionally-fermented soy sauce or natto and tempeh if you wish. Soy milks, protein powders, soy "meat" and soy "cheese," and modern tofu are highly processed and not nourishing (in fact, they are quite the opposite!).

10) A little more about grass-fed vs. typical animal foods: Eggs & meat from grass-fed (pastured) animals contain a proper balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is extremely important for human health. For example, the typical supermarket egg contains a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats of 20:1 as compared to a pastured egg which is 1.5:1! It's the same deal with grass-fed beef. Since many health problems are due to the extreme imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the Western diet it is wisest, tastiest, and healthiest to choose local meats, dairy, and eggs from small farms that raise animals the right way: on pasture. Grass-fed beef and raw butterfat are also high in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which protects us from cancer, diabetes, immune disorders, and OBESITY. There you go: you truly can eat fat to be thin.

*One final note: it is really best to avoid any types of products from animals who were raised in misery. There are many other options available besides eating factory-farmed dairy, eggs, or poultry/meat/fish. If you are on a limited budget you can eat small amounts of sustainably-raised and harvested meat and fish and emphasize things like eggs & properly-prepared whole grains, beans, and legumes cooked with good-quality animal fats (such as lard from pigs raised on pasture). Cooking your grains and beans with homemade gelatin-rich bone broths is also a great way to stretch a small quantity of meat; these broths are extremely nutritious and "protein-sparing," which means they make a small amount of protein go farther in the body.

For an interesting article on protein & osteoporosis, click here:


  1. Thanks for posting on this topic! I am always wondering if I get enough protein, and your analysis of the various sources of protein available is interesting and informative. (Even if I remain committed to my canned beans :)

  2. I'm glad this was helpful! As for your last comment, canned beans are okay as they have undergone soaking and cooking. Be sure to serve them with some type of fat, and keep in mind that they generally contain sodium and preservatives and are processed (which is why it's best to use dry beans). If you like you can slowly begin to incorporate some bean-soaking into your cooking preparations. I will post about how to do this so it's easy and takes practically no time!

  3. hannah, this is a great, informative post. what really resonates for me is the part about needing fat along with my lean protein. For example, when I eat skinless boneless chicken, I am left unsatisfied and reaching for ice cream or something sweet (which is not like me). However, when I have chicken with the skin on (my true love in life), or salmon with a bit of the fatty skin, or gray part (you know what I mean?), I really feel a lot more satisfied by my dinner. I will try to keep this in mind in the future. however, we know I am a fat phobe, so it could take some getting used to.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Hilary. It's cute that you say chicken with skin is your "true love in life." What a great line! I think it's very important to pay attention to the foods that you gravitate to and consider why this is. For me, butter is totally my thing. (Also probably the thin crispy skin from a hot, roasted chicken--but I don't need this every day like I do with butter.) Like you said, if I don't have butter regularly and plenty of fats in general with my food I totally want to eat sugar or things like chips & fries. What I'm trying to say is that there is a real biological reason why your body loves what it loves. As you pay attention more and more to its signals you will learn what foods you need and in what quantities, and will also learn why you are reaching for things like sweets and junk food snacks (and what it is you REALLY want underneath). I believe strongly that if people would simply allow themselves to eat reasonable amounts of some high-quality animal fats every day they wouldn't have such a problem with sugar cravings. And consequently they would actually be a healthier weight and much healthier overall!

  5. Mmmmmmm crispy chicken skin-- soooo good! :)

  6. i still feel afraid of butter, hannah!