I grew up in a teepee in New Mexico and it's fair to say that my upbringing was different than most. We had an outhouse, no indoor plumbing, T.V. or telephone until well into the 90's.
Not surprisingly, I was raised on a vegetarian diet and my mom gave me dairy on rare occasions. I continued eating meat-free and started following a completely vegan diet in 2008.
I was never sick growing up. I had a short cold maybe once a year and a flu every other year that always cleared up quickly. I have never broken a bone and have only been to the Doctor a handful of times in my life.
Despite being a really healthy kid, whenever my family and I would visit my grandparents or my great aunts, they would express great concern over the fact that I didn't eat meat. They would urge my parents to take me to a doctor because surely I was protein deficient. My parents listened and thanked them for their opinions and then filled my plate with tofu, veggies and brown rice.
My grandparents and the rest of the crew who had protein concerns have all passed away, but If I could get together with them today and have a cup of tea or coffee, this is what I would tell them to ease their concerns. (And then I would wrap my arms around them and tell them how much I love them.)
8 Things I'd Tell My Grandparents About Protein
1. I would start by telling them that protein is made up of 20 different amino acids and these amino acids are the building blocks for every structure and function in the human body. I would agree with them that protein is very important and we definitely need it.
2. I would explain that each protein is made up of a different arrangement of amino acids and when we eat protein, our body breaks it down and puts the amino acids back together to form whatever proteins we need at that time. I would ask them to think about protein like the alphabet. The alphabet is made up of letters (amino acids) and those letters can be rearranged to form new words, just like amino acids can be rearranged to form new proteins. I would make sure this analogy was working for them before I moved on.
3. Next, I would let them know that when we consume proteins that have a similar amino acid arrangement to those in our body, we synthesize that protein very effectively. I would tell them that the amino acid arrangement in animals is most similar to ours so we are able to synthesize animal protein very effectively, which is why historically, protein has been considered the most "high quality" protein.
At this point they would start in, telling me that they knew they were right and that my parents did me wrong by feeding me "that tofu stuff" instead of pork chops.
I would simmer them down by offering them more black coffee and tell them that my story wasn't done yet.
4. Next, I would clarify that every single plant has protein, and unless someone is starving themselves, it's virtually impossible not to get enough and in the arrangement that our body needs by eating just plant food. I would build on this by explaining that we only need 8% – 10% of our calories to come from protein each day. Put in another way, we need 0.8 grams of protein each day for every kilogram, or 0.36 grams of protein each day for every pound we weigh.
5. I would then tell them that ironically, the diet that I eat and teach people about provides people with exactly 8%-10% of their calories from protein. I would pause to see if any light bulbs were starting to go off. From their reaction I would know exactly where to go next.
6. I would tell them that I weigh 135 pounds so that means I need 48.6 grams of protein per day, and If I ate 1 cup of garbanzo beans, 1/2 cup of quinoa and 5 oz. of tofu I would be set for the day. I would then have to explain what quinoa was and confirm that garbanzo beans are in fact the same beans that are in the antipasto salad at the Italian restaurant that they frequented for over 40 years.
7. I would end by hitting on the fact that Americans are getting too much protein, not too little. On average, Americans are getting 18% - 20% of their calories from protein (the majority of this protein coming from animals), and this is a conservative percentage. Even with this number being conservative, it's still is way too much.
8. I would gently tell them that too much animal protein taxes our liver and can lead to certain types of cancers and a slew of other health issues.
Finally, I would take a break and feed them a yummy lunch that they would never suspect didn't have meat or dairy in it. I would make sure they were well fed and didn't have any questions before I went into the next topic about why animal protein isn't so "quality" after all.
I would gear myself up for a tough audience, being grateful for every second of it.