Undeniably, protein is an important part of a healthy diet. Many Vegans and to some degree, Vegetarians worry about getting enough protein in their diets. This vital building block can be found in MANY food sources and many of those ARE plants. Do you really even know how much protein you SHOULD be eating?
Protein actually comprises about 16% of out total body-weight. Certain things like our hair and skin, muscle tissue (and connective tissue) are primarily made up of protein. It also plays a vital roll for our cells and bodily fluids. Even your DNA is partially protein. The same can be said for the enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones.
Our bodies are pretty efficient at reusing or recycling protein but we use great quantities of it just to LIVE. Protein is made up of Amino Acids; sixteen of them to be exact. There are nine that our bodies cannot make so we have to get them elsewhere. Meat and animal by products (eggs, dairy, cheeses etc.) actually have all sixteen amino acids. But vegetables and plant bases food such as whole grains need to be eaten in combination to achieve "whole" or complete proteins.
If you eat the S.A.D (Standard American Diet) it is virtually impossible for you to be protein deficient unless you have an underlying medical condition. The dairy consumption ALONE would put most Americans at 2 or 3 times the necessary daily intake. Protein requirement is also dependent upon factors such as age, activity level and size. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight each day. That means that a person weighing 150 pounds should be consuming 55 grams of protein per day. This formula can be used to determine your requirement based on your own weight.
There are some situations in which we may require more protein added to our diets such as pregnancy and lactation. Growing children, the elderly, post-surgery or severe stress (trauma) often need additional protein.
As you can imagine, there are supplement manufacturers SALIVATING at the thought of all the people they can convince of the benefits of protein powders, bars, pills etc. There are so many people seeking convenience in their busy lives that these preparations seem to make sense. I suppose if the choice is a quick protein shake or skipping breakfast, the former is the better choice. It may be beneficial immediatly after a workout (one needs to actually SWEAT during this session) when the body will absorb and use the protein rapidly. Protein supplementation may be beneficial to Vegans and Vegetarians as well. However, if you pay careful attention to your vegetarian diet and include a wide variety of plant protein sources you can guard against muscle loss from lack of protein. Remember: the first "fuel" the body uses when it thinks it is being starved is muscle.
Now, if you should chose to supplement your diet with protein shakes, bars, powders or pills; you are faced with the daunting task of selecting from an overwhelming number of products. You could always ask your doctor; assuming he/she has any idea whatsoever about nutrition! You can also pop onto the internet and research some of the ingredients on the labels (which is what I do for just about everything). The most widely used source of protein used in mixes and powders is WHEY. You may also see RICE, SOY or PEA. A lot of mixes actually contain a combination of protein sources.
WHEY protein is derived from MILK. That lets it out for the Vegans! It is the most commonly used supplement. Whey protein is easily absorbed and used by the body. However, if you have lactose intolerance or dairy allergies these products are not for you. Read the label to see which type of whey you are getting. The concentrated whey is the most widely used and least expensive. It can have anywhere from 30 to 85 percent proteing. You can see that is a very wide range. A good rule of thumb when choosing a protein powder is, the less expensive it is, the lesser the amount of whey protein you may be getting. Whey Isolate is the other form and is higher in quality. Containing 90% protein, it is VERY easily absorbed by the body. It generally contains less fat and lactose as well.
Rice protein is a great choice for Vegans, Vegetarians and people with allergies because it is hypoallergenic. It is derived from brown rice and actually is a complete protein with all essential and nonessential amino acids.
Pea protein is an excellent choice for Vegans. I has no gluten, lactose, cholesterol or anti-nutritional by products. It is a highly soluble protein which makes it very easy to digest. Pea protein is vegetable based since it is derived from yellow split peas. This form of protein is also hypoallergenic. Not to get overly technical but analysis of this protein reveals a "high biological value" of 65.4% which indicates the amount of protein actually absorbed by the body. High bilogical value proteins are also excellent for nitrogen retention and immunilogical support.
Soy protein is made from Soy flour. Similar to whey in that it comes in two forms; concentrate and isolate, there are some noteable differences as well. Soy protein mimics estrogen. Three cancer studies have found "estrogen dependant tumor growth increased as the amount of soy isoflavonones increased." These studies were conducted by the National Institutes of Health. There are also studies published in 2000 by the American Association of Cancer Research which compare soy to whey. "Whey appears to be at least twice as effective as soy in reducing both tumor incidence and multiplicity." When taken with the fact that soy protein seems to disrupt thyroid function, these factors are scaring a lot of people off soy proteins. For good and valid reasons!
Whether you choose to get your protein from animal or plant-based sources there are many options available. Even though animal proteins are concidered to be of "higher biological value", plant protein sources CAN be combined to achieve the same standards as an animal-based diet. Personally, I recommend avoiding soy but you need to make that decision for yourself.