Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

More on protein

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I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have been seeing a bunch of infographics such as these lately:

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While the second one’s much better than the first (credit: Avery Muether Illustrations), it includes fairly accurate protein quantities (and some of these foods are reasonably high sources of protein), I still wanted to comment on them. I went through the foods included in the first infographic and looked up the protein in a serving of each. Here they are:

spirulina (1 tbsp dried) – 4g

goji berries (2 oz dried) – 8g

chia seeds (1 oz) – 4.4g

spinach (1 cup raw) – 0.9g

hemp seeds (2 tbsp) – 10g

barley grass (6g dried) – 1.5g

brazil nuts (1 oz) – 4g

broccoli (1 cup raw) – 3g

(bean) sprouts (1 oz) – 0.8g

figs (1 oz dried) – 0.9g

avocado (1 oz) – 3g

maca (1 tbsp powder) – 1g

kale (1 cup raw) – 2g

romaine lettuce (1 cup shredded) – 0.6g

For the most part, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of protein in these foods. Considering that a single serving of protein is considered to be approximately 6-7g. Even if you consumed all of these foods in a day you would be consuming only 44.1g of protein in total. This is quite close to the needs for many women. Protein needs are generally 0.8g per kg of body weight. However, more protein may be needed in some cases such as for athletes, pregnancy, wound healing, childhood, elderly, etc. Even so, most of us handily exceed the daily requirements for protein.

There is something else beyond total protein to consider, however. We also need to look at protein quality. High quality proteins are those that contain ample amounts of all nine essential amino acids. I’m sure you already know this but just as a refresher… Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are 20 (or 21 if you count cystine) amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential because our bodies cannot synthesize them and must, therefore, obtain them from food. Animal proteins (with the exception of gelatin) are considered to be high-quality as they contain all of the essential amino acids in ample quantities. Many plant proteins are considered to be low-quality as they are either low in, or lack, one or more of the essential amino acids. While it’s absolutely possible to obtain all of the amino acids we need from plant proteins it also takes more careful consideration than proteins obtained from animal sources. This is why we talk about complementary proteins. These are plant protein sources that, when combined, yield adequate amounts of all 9 amino acids. A few examples are: hummus and pita, rice and beans, veggies and polenta. Just to be clear, the complementary proteins needn’t be consumed together at the same meal (although they certainly can be) as long as they’re consumed throughout the day.

Generally speaking, aside from foods such as beans, nuts, and seeds, plant proteins are lower in total protein (not just essential amino acids) than animal proteins. Just a few examples: 3 oz of canned tuna has 21.6g of protein, 3 oz of chicken breast has 21.3 g, Greek yoghurt can contain up to 15-18g per serving.

Yes, it is possible to consume adequate protein without consuming animal products. It’s likely preferable if we do favour plant sources of protein over animal sources. However, it’s not as simple as those infographics make it seem. Most foods contain some quantity of protein. That second infographic especially irks me. Suggesting that romaine lettuce and figs are good sources of protein is ludicrous.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

8 thoughts on “More on protein

  1. Hello, my name is Avery Muether and I noticed you posted my illustration of “Where do you get your protein?” poster. I would greatly appreciate it if you sourced my drawing back to me. I am flattered you enjoyed it and it has gone quite viral and I have been trying to keep track of it! Thank you!

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    • Hi Avery,

      Sorry about that! I saw it on twitter, I think. I’ve edited the post so that clicking on the image will take viewers to your site as well as adding a note in the body of the post attributing the image to you. Great work, by the way!

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  2. Hello again Diana, I keep coming back to your blog – it’s super interesting and also quite enlightening, not to mention refreshingly free of health/nutrition/well being/New Age bullshit. Do keep it up – the internet needs you!

    About the topic of this post, I am not sure I understand your view (and may perhaps do so upon reading further back in your archives) on “acquiring proteins”. On one hand it doesn’t seem that you are saying that we shouldn’t consume animal sources of protein, but on the other I’m not quite sure what you are really saying? Surely this discussion isn’t very interesting if animal proteins are a part of one’s diet? And surely, from no common sense nor scientific point of view, one would exclude animal protein from one’s diet?

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    • So glad you’re enjoying my blog Andreas! My point was just that obtaining adequate plant-based sources of protein isn’t as simple as eating kale.

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      • Agreed. Is a corollary that it is as simple as adding a little meat to your diet though?

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      • Sorry, I don’t understand your question.

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      • Right, what I meant is this. Is a consequence of your point from above that, on the other hand, it is as simple as just having some meat instead, in order to obtain the required proteins?

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      • Well… Just having animal protein is very easy but I also don’t want to discourage people from following vegetarian/vegan diets. I just think that it’s important for people to realise that if you’re not eating animal proteins, they’ll need to be more cognizant of obtaining adequate, good quality protein. Hope that makes sense!

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