Essential: How Much Protein Do We Actually Need?

As we have been discussing the past few weeks, knowing what nutrients are essential — meaning they must be consumed from food, our body cannot manufacture them — teaches us a lot about what we should be eating.

This week we take a look at protein, or more specifically amino acids.

It’s a list of nine this week. The amino acids that are essential are:

  • phenylalanine
  • valine
  • threonine
  • tryptophan
  • methionine
  • leucine
  • isoleucine
  • lysine
  • histidine

It’s not so important that you memorize the names of each of these amino acids — just understand that we need to get each of these from the foods we eat.

So sticking with the theme of this series of posts, what does this teach us about what we should be eating? Does it teach us that we need to eat meat and other animal products to be healthy? Does it tell us that getting enough protein is hard?

Well actually the opposite…

To dive deeper, let’s look at the list of foods that contain ALL of these essential amino acids:

  • ALL vegetables
  • ALL fruits
  • ALL whole grains
  • ALL legumes (beans)
  • ALL nuts and seeds
  • and of course animal products as well

Wait, that’s a pretty comprehensive list of foods… You might even say that all whole foods contain all nine essential amino acids…

In fact the only foods that do not contain all nine essential amino acids are processed foods, like white sugar and added fats (oils and butter).

So what this really teaches us is that protein is a nutrient of very low concern, and getting enough of it is incredibly easy.

In fact…

As long as you are eating enough calories, you cannot be deficient in protein!

This of course only applies to eating whole foods — all bets are off if you guzzle olive oil by the quart…

Simply put, you DO NOT need to try to get protein in your diet. The mantra is this:

Protein Happens.

Be wary of protein washing as well. This is the practice of processed food manufacturers to label on the package “now with more protein” to make you think it is a healthy food. Sadly, this works. Our obsession with protein in America leads us to believe that it is a sacred nutrient, scarce in the food economy, and any food or food-like substance that contains it is automatically healthy.

Do not be fooled. Protein is so easy to get — just eat enough food every day. And trying to get more protein by focusing on the most protein rich foods on the planet (animal flesh) adds so much negative baggage to your diet — like saturated fat, cholesterol, and the protein itself, which has been linked to cancer progression — that it is not worth it in the nutritional cost benefit analysis.

Protein is in everything. And all essential amino acids are in all whole plant foods. So just eat the appropriate amount of calories of them, and seriously, stop worrying. Protein deficiency is so incredibly rare and is always associated with starvation. Your risk is zilch: just eat enough.

I hope this has permanently put to rest your fears of not getting enough protein. Rest easy, you’re already getting enough (likely too much, as virtually all Americans including vegetarians and vegans get well over the recommended amount).

For more on this topic, check my YouTube channel this Thursday!