Sunday, May 25, 2014

The protein question

I don't eat meat (at least not intentionally, though I believe I consumed about half my body weight in tiny flying insects while riding my bike through Lincolnville Center last week at dusk), and I eat almost no dairy or eggs. Invariably the question comes up about how to get enough protein on a plant-based diet, especially with intense physical exercise.

Many Americans have grown up with the idea that we need to worry about protein, that we're always at risk of deficiency, and that meat—or at the very least, eggs and dairy—are essential to good health and a balanced diet. I don't believe this is true. The standard American diet delivers far more protein that most individuals need. What it lacks are the whole, nutrient dense foods that support the body and keep it free from disease. Every body has different needs, and I think it's up to the individual to find his or her own way of eating that is healthful. However, I do think most people would benefit from less meat and more whole, plant-based foods.

Personally, I don't eat meat because I believe my body is healthier without it, because I don't want to kill animals, and because I believe a plant-based diet is better for the environment and the world in general. I feel committed to this part, but the rest of my diet is open to experimentation. What's working now is a diet of nutrient-dense whole foods that are easy to digest, anti-inflammatory, and alkaline-forming in the body.

What does that mean in real life? Vegetables of all kinds, no refined sugar and not too much of other sugars, whole grains eaten in moderation, nuts and seeds, other healthy fats such as coconut oil, some beans but not too much.

As my diet has become cleaner, my cravings have changed. When I'm eating for comfort, I still want to shove a whole bag of Little Lad's popcorn in my piehole on the way home from Fresh off the Farm, but when I'm eating for hunger, I want broccoli. Or whatever. My body knows.

When I'm training, I'm aiming for 100 grams of protein a day. I prefer to get this from whole foods, but I depend on prepared protein powders and bars to get a little extra boost without a lot of time and effort. It's not all tofu or rice and beans—protein is present in foods you might not expect. The salad alone has 32 grams! Here's a typical day, with protein content shown:

This sexy little salad has 32 grams of protein.
Chocolate-chia ball (2g)

Pineapple smoothie
1 c pineapple chunks (1g)
11 oz coconut water (1g)
2 c spinach (3g)
coconut milk (1g)
Vega one nutritional shake (15 g)

Kickass salad
mixed greens (2g)
1 c steamed broccoli (3g)
1 large carrot (1g)
1 red pepper (1g)
1/4 c cashews (5g)
1/4 c pumpkin seeds (10g)
Tahini dressing (2g)
2 T nutritional yeast (9g)

4T hummus (4g)
Sami's millet crackers (1g)
Vega protein bar (15g)

Dal with kale and quinoa
2c kale (5g)
1 c cooked quinoa (8g)
red lentils (13g)
onion (1g)
coconut oil for cooking

TOTAL: 103g

USDA recommends that active people get at least 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight—so, 56 grams for a 150-pound person. More if you're exercising. I notice that when I get plenty of protein, I'm less inclined to binge on high-carb foods. I don't feel as hungry.

Finally, a few resources that have shaped my own thinking about nutrition. The amazing Gena Hamshaw's Choosing Raw website is a treasure trove of recipes and intelligent perspective on a raw and vegan diet. Brendan Brazier was a professional Ironman who has developed plant-based yummy food products and cookbooks, with lots of info for athletes and interesting articles on his website, Thrive Forward. Finally, the documentary film Forks Over Knives is an accessible, entertaining, un-preachy look at the profound health benefits in a plant-based, whole foods diet. They also offer recipes and resources for changing eating habits.


What I did: My first long run without debilitating sciatic pain. I have still been really worried about whether I'm actually going to be able to do this. Wednesday's run was excruciating. Today's run was hurt, but only in a not-in-running-shape kind of way, not in a crippling kind of way. I ran 7 miles. My pace was slow, but I don't care. If I can add a mile a week on my long runs, I'll be fine for the race. This is a thrill and a huge relief.

What I ate: Oh, hell, I don't know. Everything.

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