There is a widespread myth that we must carefully choose what we eat to avoid protein deficiency. But is protein deficiency a real threat or is it the protein overdose that we should be aware of? What is the recommended daily protein intake and how much do we consume? A comparison between the actual daily protein intake in a vegan diet and the amount of protein in a regular omnivorous or meat-eating diet will expose the truth and the myths of today’s protein mania.
Protein is associated with muscular and athletic bodies and people in developed countries seem to be in a race to get as much protein as they can. But protein deficiency is not an issue in the developed countries and not a threat to a healthy adult.
Protein deficiency is a rare nutrient deficiency (1)
A research published in 2018 shows that “the body can take incomplete proteins and make them complete by utilizing the amino acid recycling mechanism. Most amino acids absorbed from the intestinal tract are derived from recycled body protein.” The same author states that high levels of animal protein intake may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular diseases, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Other studies (2) mention that protein deficiency is common in developing countries due to malnutrition and poverty, especially regarding children in the second year of life (24000 children die of hunger each day) or in groups suffering from some diseases.
RDA – Recommended Daily Allowance/Intake of protein
- Infants 0-6 months: 9.1 gr/day
- Infants 6-12 months: 11 gr/day
- Children 1-3 y: 13 gr/day
- Children 4-8 y: 19 gr/day
- Male adults 9-13 y: 34 gr/day
- Female adults 9-13 y: 34 gr/day
- Male adults 14-18 y: 52 gr/day
- Male adults 19 – > y: 56 gr/day
- Female adults 14 – >y: 46 gr/day
- Pregnancy / Lactation: 71 gr/day
Therefore, for a healthy adult, the recommended daily protein intake is 0.8 grams per kg of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. Other researches (5) promote a higher dietary intake of 1.0, 1.3, and 1.6 g protein per kg BW (bodyweight) per day for individuals with minimal, moderate, and intense physical activity, respectively.
Daily protein intake in an omnivorous diet
A breakfast usually includes:
- 2 eggs * 6-8 gr each – min 12 gr protein
- An omelet- even if with vegetables- up to 20 gr
- One cup of cow milk – min 8 gr
- 2 rashers of bacon – 9.7 gr
- One slice of cheese – 7 -11 gr
- One sausage of 100 gr – 12 gr
- Greek yogurt nonfat 100 gr – 10 gr
- Cereals 100 gr = 6 gr
One slice of bread has from 1 to 4 gr of protein, a tomato and cucumber another 1 gr, a piece of cake will have up to 4-5 gr while 20 gr milk chocolate count 2.5 gr of protein. The breakfast alone seems to cover almost half of the recommended daily protein intake.
For lunch, the protein intake increases substantially:
- Vegetable beef soup – 20 gr
- Mediterranean Chicken Soup – 23 gr
- 100 gr chicken fillet – 31 gr
- 1 hamburger – 20 gr
- 250 gr beef (one steak) – 62 gr of protein
- Pork chops 100 gr = 24 gr
- Spaghetti Carbonara – 25 gr
- 100 gr white cooked rice = 3 gr
- French fries one portion 100 gr = 3.4 gr
- Salad, Desert, coffee etc. = extra protein
For dinner, people typically eat meat with vegetables (20-60 gr of protein), salads (the favorite chicken salad will contain approx. 20 gr of protein and protein is a tuna salad will range from 15 to gr of protein) pasta (with cheese added counts for 15-25 gr of protein), pizza or hamburgers, fish (grilled salmon – 20-40 gr of protein per serving) or seafood.
One should not underestimate the protein bars, snacks, chocolates, cappuccino, cafe latte and similar, milkshakes, sweets, creams etc. that he/she eats during the day, between the main meals. And of course, let’s not forget about the protein supplements, an industry worth billions and growing.
Overall, the amount of protein consumed in a meat-eating diet exceeds substantially the recommended daily protein intake.
When you are asking yourself if you are getting enough protein, be sure that in fact, you are having too much of it. And too much is never a good thing. From the other side, when one is asking where do vegans take their protein, he/she might be surprised to see that vegans take as much protein as they need, without exceeding the recommended intake and therefore enjoying the benefits of a balanced and healthy diet.
Daily protein intake in a vegan diet
- Chocolate banana pancake – 2.5 gr
- One cup of almond/soy/rice milk – 1/8/0.3 gr respectively
- Vegan tofu omelet – 14 gr
- Vegan chickpea omelet – 13 gr
- Peanut butter toast – 8 gr
- Oats cooked 1 cup – 11 gr
- Egyptian Breakfast (fava beans) – 19 gr
- + 10 gr of various nuts and seeds – 8 gr
The recipes are endless, but the above examples are enough to show that the vegan breakfast protein intake will range between 15 to 25 gr.
- Vegan Taco Soup – 12 gr
- Spicy Black Bean & Potato Soup – 12 gr
- French Vegetable Barley Soup – 5 gr
- One serving of lentils – no matter the recipe – 10 gr
- Vegan beans and salad – 10 gr
- Vegan red beans and rice – 14 gr
- Chili beans – 12 gr
- Cauliflower soup – 7 gr
- Vegan zucchini-broccoli lasagna – 23 gr
- Vegetable Risotto – 8 gr
- 2 roasted eggplant slices with ingredients – 5 gr
No need to mention more recipes, the point is clear. Estimated: 20 – 40 gr.
Dinner will not be much different – other recipes with similar amounts of protein: 10-25 gr per serving for a medium weight with medium physical activity.
Risks associated with chronic protein over-consumption
If you are having too much protein, you most probably feel intestinal discomfort and indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, unexplained exhaustion, headache, dehydration, irritability, etc.
According to researches (6), there are several risks of high protein intake: disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis, disorders of renal function (7, 8), increased cancer risk, disorders of liver function and precipitated progression of coronary artery disease. As Dr. Delimaris suggests in his study, “high protein diets (above RDA of 0.8 gr for an adult) are promoted intensively by the nutritional supplements industry and they are considered to be “the gold standard” by many athletes (especially bodybuilders) for muscle development and/or body fat loss. On the contrary, the overuse of protein supplements or high dietary protein intake could cause disorders to human health.
According to the case study done in 2013 and 32 studies (21 experimental human studies and 11 reviews), Dr. Delimaris advises that extra protein is not used efficiently by the body and may impose a metabolic burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver. Moreover, high-protein/high-meat diets may also be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease due to intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol or even cancer.
Some studies (9) suggest that the substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk. Adversely, some scientists (10, 11) outline that there is not enough evidence to state that white meat is less harmful than the red one and they recommend diets with a high proportion of plant-based foods for reducing CVD risk.
In a research published in 2014 (12), scientists compared the nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Healthy Eating Index 2010 (HEI-2010) and the Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS) were calculated as indicators for diet quality. And the outcome was as follows: “The vegan diet received the highest index values and the omnivorous the lowest for HEI-2010 and MDS. Typical aspects of a vegan diet (high fruit and vegetable intake, low sodium intake, and low intake of saturated fat) contributed substantially to the total score, independent of the indexing system used.” Scientific evidence published in December 2019 (13) confirms a similar outcome.