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An expert guide to protein

An expert guide to protein

There’s been a lot of buzz around the topic of protein with the recent release of Canada’s new food guide. One of the guidelines states that plant-based protein foods should be consumed more often. So, does this mean animal products are out?? Let’s dive in, and see what the research suggests!


What is protein anyway?
Proteins make up living things, including humans and the food we eat! Proteins are molecules that are made up of hundreds to thousands of amino acids, connected to each other in long chains. Our organs and tissues contain many proteins, including enzymes, hormones, and antibodies that play important roles in the body.

When we eat foods containing protein (amino acids), we can use these amino acids to create other proteins to help our body function. Of the 20 amino acids, nine of them are essential, which means we need to obtain them from our diet. We do not need all essential amino acids at each meal, however we do need to include adequate amounts throughout the entire day. Low protein intake can lead to growth stunting in youth, and decreased lean muscle tissue in adults. Protein is one of the three main macronutrients humans require, and it’s crucial that we get enough in our diet!


What are sources of protein?
There are many sources of protein! In fact, most foods contain at least small amounts of protein. Here's some examples:

Animal Based:

  • Meat: beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, etc.
  • Fish & seafood: salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp, lobster, crab, mussels, oysters, etc.
  • Dairy products: milk, yogurt, cheese, kefir
  • Other: whey protein powders, collagen supplements

Plant Based:

  • Soy: edamame beans, soy milk, soy nuts, tofu, tempeh
  • Legumes: beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas
  • Nuts & Seeds: peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp hearts, chia seeds, etc.
  • Whole Grains: quinoa, kamut, teff, spelt, whole grain pasta, wild rice, millet, oats, buckwheat, etc.
  • Other: seitan, nutritional yeast, vegan protein powders, vegan protein bars, etc.

What are my protein requirements?
Everyone’s protein requirements will vary, as it depends on a variety of factors such as age, activity level, stress factors, medical conditions, and dietary intake. Health Canada recommends an intake of 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, however this may vary depending on the factors listed above. In general, including a protein source at each meal and most snacks should ensure you are meeting your protein requirements!


Animal vs. Plant-Based Protein for Health
Before getting into this topic, it’s important to remember that there are many different factors influencing health. Diet definitely plays a huge role, but physical activity, stress, lifestyle, and emotional & mental wellbeing are also key factors. Research suggests that following a plant-based diet may have beneficial effects on health, but is this because animal protein is actually harmful or because the addition of plant-based foods have a beneficial effect? Let’s take a look!


According to Health Canada’s literature review, intake of dietary fibre, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and soy protein are all linked with health benefits such as lower risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and decreased LDL cholesterol. While following a whole foods, plant-based diet will help you achieve this, people that include animal products in their diet don’t necessarily need to cut them out entirely. What this research appears to suggest is that if you are including adequate amounts of dietary fibre, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and soy proteins in your diet, you can enjoy animal products in moderation as well - specifically animal products that are low in saturated fats. Processed meats (deli meats, hot dogs, ham, beef jerky, etc.) have been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer, so should be limited or avoided. However, as we discussed in this previous blog post, grass fed and grass finished beef tends to have lower fat and saturated fat, as well as higher levels of CLA and Omega 3 fatty acids. Grass fed and finished meats also have an higher amount of antioxidants, carotenoids, and vitamin E. So while we should be limiting our intake of processed meats, there is no evidence that we should completely eliminate moderate amounts of good quality, sustainable animal products. 


Benefits of vegan diet (plants only):

  • Usually high in dietary fibre,  fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and soy proteins
  • Usually low in saturated fat and cholesterol
  • Plant proteins are more affordable
  • Plant proteins have less environmental impact

Benefits of including animal products

  • Nutrients are very bioavailable (ex. Iron and zinc - much easier to absorb in animal products than plant products)
  • More energy & nutrient dense - good for people with lowered appetites
  • Taste preference: some people really enjoy the taste of animal products. And as Ellyn Satter, RD, said: “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers”.

Serving Comparisons

Animal Protein

Grams of Protein

Plant Protein

Grams of Protein

100g grass fed beef

20

100g Lentils

9

100g chicken

22.5

100g extra firm tofu

10.5

100g salmon

20

100g Tempeh

18

Hamburger Patty (113 g)

24

Soy Patty (110 g)

17

1 cup milk

8

1 cup soy milk

6

1 Egg

6

¼ cup Almonds

8

2 tbsp cream cheese

1

2 tbsp peanut butter

8

2 oz cheese

14

2 oz pumpkin seeds

11


Final Thoughts
I am a firm believer of following whichever diet makes you feel your best, whether it includes animal protein or not. As humans, we all have our own unique makeup, so we can't expect one diet to meet everyone’s needs! There is convincing evidence that following a plant-based diet can lead to health benefits, but this research emphasizes the addition of a variety of plant foods, not necessarily a complete elimination of animal foods. So if you do consume animal products, I recommend being a plant-forward, conscious carnivore who chooses ethically and sustainably sourced animal products!


Stephanie Dang, Vancouver Dietitians
Stephanie Dang, Registered Dietitian 

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