easily avoid protein deficiencies Whether for environmental reasons, personal beliefs or health concerns, more and more of us are reducing our consumption of meat, fish and dairy products. It is entirely possible to be healthy with a diet low in animal proteins. However, it is crucial to ensure that our diet covers all our nutritional and micro-nutritional needs. When we change our diet, protein deficiencies are one of the factors to monitor because they are essential to our body and our needs change throughout life.
In this article, we will focus on understanding how proteins work, we will discuss the (discussed!) protein needs and we will see how to put together a balanced plate that protects you from protein deficiencies.
What is a protein?
Proteins are fundamental molecules of the human body. We distinguish between structural proteins and functional proteins. The first are the components of our cells and tissues. As for functional proteins, they are enzymes that enable biochemical reactions in our body. It should be noted that hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters are all proteins.
The word protein was created in 1839 by Gerri Jan Mulder from the Greek protein which means first. This means that proteins constitute the foundation of the cell and therefore of life. A total protein deficiency would lead to cell death and therefore our death as well.
Proteins are very large molecules formed from a juxtaposition of amino acids rich in nitrogen. And it is this nitrogen which makes all the difference between lipids and carbohydrates on the one hand and proteins on the other. A diet without nitrogen would result in a loss of 5/6th of muscle weight. All proteins, whether of bacterial, plant or animal origin, are made up of a group of 22 amino acids.
Among the amino acids that make up proteins, 9 are called essential amino acids because our body is not capable of manufacturing them. Only our diet can provide them. Some amino acids are present in very small quantities in certain foods 1 . We then say that this amino acid is a limiting factor in absorption for other amino acids. This is why we recommend a varied diet . Thus, the different amino acids are provided by all the foods consumed during the day and our body has the variety it needs to avoid protein deficiencies and function at its best.
Focus on an amino acid: tryptophan
This is not to review all the amino acids, although they are all important. Instead, we will focus on tryptophan which plays an indirect role in stress and sleep. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, so it cannot be synthesized by our body. Only our diet or supplementation can provide it.
Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin , the sleep hormone . That is to say, the chemical reactions producing serotonin cannot take place if the body does not have enough tryptophan.
However, a serotonin deficiency can cause nervousness, anxiety, dependence on alcohol, tobacco, drugs and of course, problems falling asleep and sleeping .
Also, tryptophan is often considered a natural anti-depressant. This is why it is recommended for sleep disorders or depression.
This example is enough to illustrate the importance of amino acids and therefore of proteins. If you suffer from protein deficiencies, you are probably deficient in tryptophan. Then serotonin will not be able to express itself correctly and as a result, this will cause problems with sleep, anxiety, stress that is difficult to manage, etc.
Protein deficiencies: what are my needs?
The daily intake recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) is 0.8g to 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight for a healthy adult. This means that for a 70kg adult without significant physical activity, the protein requirement will be 70g per day. Be careful of course, 100g of fish for example does not contain 100g of protein.
Protein needs then vary with age, sex and physical activity. Physical activity should not be confused with sporting activity. A person with a physical job may have greater needs than a sedentary person who goes for 3 one-hour jogs per week.
I have established groups based on age, gender and periods of life to give you an idea of the amount of protein needed in grams per day. This quantity must be multiplied by the person’s weight. A 62kg breastfeeding woman needs 62 x 1.40 = 86.8 or approximately 90g of protein per day.
How common are protein deficiencies?
Generally speaking, Western populations consume too much protein with a daily intake of around 100g of protein per day (i.e. on average 1.3 to 1.4g of protein per kg)6. This is therefore well above the nutritional needs of the general population. Despite this, some people risk being protein deficient. This primarily concerns very elderly people who lose their taste for meat products and consume almost exclusively sugary products that are very low in protein. People in serious financial difficulty may also consume too little protein.
The proportion of people with protein deficiencies is higher among vegetarians even if they remain uncommon (10% of vegetarian men and 6% of vegetarian women are said to be deficient compared to 3% and 1% for omnivorous men and women6). The results on vegan people have more uncertainties but they suggest a greater risk of protein deficiencies.
In fact, 16.5% of men and 8.1% of women who do not consume any animal products do not meet their protein needs6. However, it should be noted that these situations often happen to people in dietary transition and who do not yet have the right habits to return to a balanced diet.
In conclusion, if you regularly consume animal products and do not have health problems, it is very unlikely that you are protein deficient. If you are vegetarian or vegan, it is important to have a varied diet and be a little careful about your protein sources.
Proteins of animal origin: advantages and disadvantages
Proteins are present in many foods, whether of animal or plant origin. A varied diet normally covers our protein needs and does not require any special supplementation. We should not be deficient in protein with a balanced diet.
Meat contains protein but not more than fish or certain oilseeds. If we just consider protein intake, there is no nutritional reason to eat meat. The only benefit of red meat is its iron content, which is essential during growth and for women throughout their childbearing period (until menopause). This means that a man after 25 has no reason to eat meat.
On the other hand, meat is very acidifying for the body and produces a lot of waste during its degradation.
We can also question the benefit of eating fish. If we only analyze protein intake, I would say the same thing as for meat: there is no nutritional reason to favor fish proteins over plant proteins.
However, small fish (mackerel, anchovies, herring, sardines) are of great nutritional interest thanks to their omega 3 content. In particular, they are rich in EPA and DHA fatty acids which are essential for membrane fluidity and are also of powerful anti-inflammatories.
If you want to reduce your fish consumption, especially reduce large fish. They are also higher in heavy metals than small fish. Of course, the consumption of meat and fish has a significant impact on the environment, due to intensive fishing, pollution from livestock farming, etc. I limit myself to nutritional considerations in this article.
Eggs, effective against protein deficiencies
Eggs are considered the reference food. That is to say, it is the only food that contains all the essential amino acids in optimal proportions. Eggs are therefore a very interesting food. Additionally, eggs are inexpensive relative to their protein content, easy to cook and easy to transport.
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Plant proteins: nutritional benefits and limits
There are many foods containing plant proteins. I will classify them into several categories. We will distinguish legumes (peas, lentils, dried beans, etc.), cereals (buckwheat, millet, amaranth, etc.), oilseeds (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashew nuts, etc.) and soya.
Legumes are an interesting source of protein because they contain around 10g of protein per 100g of cooked food. I remind you that legumes must be soaked 4 to 12 hours before cooking in order to release the phytates they contain. These phytates are anti-nutrients that block the assimilation of nutrients. To avoid protein deficiencies with a vegetarian diet, legumes are an important food on your menu.
We also find more and more legumes produced in France, which represents a significant advantage for more eco-responsible consumption.
Cereals are also sources of protein that can complement legumes. Oats, for example, have an interesting protein content of 18g per 100g of oats.
I have long advised (like many nutritionists or naturopaths) to combine legumes and starchy foods during the same meal in order to increase their assimilation coefficient. Recent scientific studies2 demonstrate that this association must take place during the day and not necessarily during the same meal. With a balanced diet, we generally consume legumes and cereals during the day so this should not complicate the organization of your meals.
Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, cashews, etc. are foods with high protein content and are well known to athletes. In addition to these benefits, they are treasures of “good fats” and minerals. However, you must keep in mind their caloric value. We can also wonder about the origin of oilseeds because few crops are grown in France.
Soy is a legume rich in protein. Many products are made from this seed: soy drink, tofu, yogurt, soy proteins, soy flour, etc. Soy can replace meat in terms of nutritional quality.
Soy also has the advantage of being hypocholesterolemic, meaning it helps lower triglyceride levels. This is the opposite of meat products. Of course, phytoestrogens may be an area of question regarding soy, but that is not the subject of this article. Finally, as for oilseeds, we will favor soya grown in France when possible.
Protein deficiencies in vegetarians
We have seen that many plant foods are rich in protein. We can therefore ask ourselves whether it is desirable to replace all animal proteins with vegetable proteins.
A good diet is a varied diet containing eggs, small fish two to three times a week, and meat once for certain categories of people. It must be rich in plants, unsaturated fats and moderate in carbohydrates.
I see three main objections to removing all animal proteins and replacing them with plant proteins. I suggest you discuss them here.
Overconsumption of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are sugar molecules with more or less complex chemical compositions and varying glycemic indices. In addition, carbohydrates have a major impact on a fundamental hormone in our body: insulin. Insulin helps nutrients (including glucose) enter cells. Thus, insulin allows excess glucose to be stored in the form of glycogen in the muscles.
Plant proteins largely come from legumes or grains, which are much higher in carbohydrates than animal products. So a vegan diet can become too high in carbohydrates. Without nutritional variety and little physical activity, this can promote weight gain.
Iron absorption in plant proteins
The second objection to eliminating plant proteins concerns women throughout the reproductive period (from the first period to menopause). This objection is not linked to protein deficiencies but to iron.
It is very difficult to maintain optimal iron levels throughout your life. The absorption of plant iron (non-hemic) does not occur in the same way as animal iron. Supplementation is then very often necessary to prevent anemia. Eating red meat twice a month generally prevents this risk.
Prevention of muscle wasting in the elderly
The third limitation to a vegan diet concerns the elderly. From the age of 45 (and yes it’s very early!), enzymatic degradation occurs less well. It is therefore more likely that the body will have difficulty assimilating all of the nutrients present in food3. Also, from the age of 60-65, muscle wasting is more present and the risk of sarcopenia increases. When we associate faster muscle loss and greater difficulty assimilating plant proteins, we can therefore suggest consuming animal proteins to limit these harmful effects.
In addition, carbohydrate metabolism works less well with age4. This often explains the gain of fat as we age, even when practicing regular physical activities. So here we come to the first point on the disadvantages of a diet rich in carbohydrates.
After these considerations, it is up to each person to seek their answers and find their balance.
Protein deficiencies in athletes
The subject of vegetarianism/veganism among athletes is very vast and gives rise to vast debates: from milk protein supplementation (whey), through spirulina, to veganism… The situations are numerous and the conclusions science is not always clear-cut.
Some studies find no difference between the performance of vegetarian and omnivorous athletes following a high-protein diet (1.8g of protein per kg)5.
The same is true for milk protein supplementation compared to pea protein supplementation, no difference in performance was noted. It should be noted that these studies are generally carried out on a young and healthy population.
Additionally, a vegetarian diet may also have benefits. The consumption of vitamins C, E and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables is often higher among vegetarians, which could explain good sports performance. However, certain vitamins (B12 and D in particular) and nutrients (iron primarily) are often deficient in vegetarians and even more so in vegans.
For my part, I continue to think that our diet should be as varied, as local and seasonal as possible. I advise strongly limiting meat and dairy products and giving priority to sugar, the scourge of our Western civilizations. With a balanced diet, whether omnivorous or vegetarian, it is entirely possible to avoid protein deficiencies.
The best diet is yours, the one where you feel good in your body and in agreement with your convictions. Our body-mind balance is the primary factor in our health and well-being.
This article is for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied upon to make any decisions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is entirely at your own risk and responsibility!