Protein vs. Planet

by Aurea Dempsey

Protein vs. Planet

There’s no denying protein is having its moment. Seems every time we turn around, there’s a new protein powder or energy bar on the market. Still, if there’s one question those of us following a plant-based diet hear often, it’s not “Which is your favorite?” More like “How do you get enough?”
Thanks to Kathy Freston, these questions are coming to an end. A passionate vegan for years, as well as a bestselling author and media favorite who has appeared on shows like Ellen and Good Morning America, she’s on a mission to clear up the protein confusion once and for all.
Her latest book, Clean Protein: The Revolution that will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy—and Save Our Planet, co-authored with Bruce Friedrich, tackles myths surrounding different proteins, revealing how certain foods really affect both humans and the planet we live on.
Not only do the authors set the record straight on how to get enough protein, but they also explain the importance of choosing “clean protein.” These proteins are mostly whole plant foods. They’re easy to find and affordable. They’re also free of harmful chemicals. In a nutshell, they’re not just better for your body; they’re better for the planet too.

It’s about the ‘protein package’

According to Freston, “Clean protein is protein that’s free of contaminants and health concerns.” She says this goes beyond just looking at the protein itself. It means also looking at the entire protein package—for example, “how much cholesterol or saturated fat is embedded in your protein of choice, and whether or not it causes inflammation in the body.”

Freston says that when you incorporate clean sources into your diet, your body is fueled for optimum performance. Ever considered switching to a hybrid or fully electric car to reduce reliance on dirty fossil fuel energy? Switching to clean protein does the same thing for the body, while also having positive effects on the environment.

She says, “Think about experiencing all the benefits of a typical high-protein diet—stronger muscles, healthy hair, glowing skin—without any of the heart disease, diabetes and increased cancer risk. Same protein performance, but cleaner. That’s clean protein.”

A clean protein revolution is what our planet needs too. “The world’s population is rising. The demand for protein is growing, and the current system of raising animals for food is quite simply not sustainable,” Freston says. “The land and water cannot bear the burden—nor can human health.”

Plant-based sources of clean protein

What are these magic clean proteins, you ask? Think vegan protein powders, tofu and nuts, and you’re on track. However, Freston adds, don’t forget the everyday food staples that are likely in your pantry or kitchen already.

Imagine enjoying a lunch bowl of spinach and brown rice topped with a legume of your choice, along with an olive oil dressing, unlimited spices and seasonings like mustard, tahini or miso.

Just 1 cup of cooked spinach equals 5 g of protein, while 1 cup of cooked brown rice equals 5 g of protein and 1/ 2 cup of chickpeas equals 7 g of protein.

Put them all together, and you’ve got a delicious, easy-to-make (or order at most restaurants), protein-rich meal that also comes with fiber, vitamins and minerals. (Compare this to chicken or beef sourced from farms using antibiotics and hormones. Neither provides fiber. Both contain saturated fat and cholesterol.)

Clean it up!

Clean Protein: The Revolution that will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy—and Save Our Planet (Hachette Books, 2018) by Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich demystifies clean protein and includes recipes to help you cook with it.

Drop it like it’s hot

  • 17% lower levels of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions result from a predominantly plant-based diet (compared to a nonvegetarian diet).
  • 29% lower mortality rate has been reported for people who eat mostly or entirely plant based versus nonvegetarians.

How much protein do we really need?

According to the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, the current recommendation for adult protein intake is approximately 0.8 g per kg of body weight per day, or 0.36 g per lb. A 130 lb woman should consume around 45 g of protein each day, and a 180 lb man should aim for 65 g. Growing kids need more protein for development—starting with 1.5 g per kg each day when they’re infants and gradually decreasing to 0.85 g per kg in their teens.

Does this mean we have to get our calculators at every meal? “Not at all,” says Freston. “Protein is a natural component of vegetables, beans, grains and fruits. As long as you are getting enough calories, you will get enough protein. And if you’re an athlete, you’ll naturally eat more food, and protein comes along with it.”

How to shop like a pro

Along with stocking up on the basics (like dark leafy greens, nuts, legumes, grains, tempeh and beans, for example), Freston likes nabbing new vegan options like pea protein-based vegan sausages and burgers, almond-based cheeses and plant-based yogurts.

She says, “These are excellent transition foods for people moving away from animal foods. They are often high in protein and fiber, while lower in saturated fat.”

She acknowledges that while they’re not whole foods, they still have their place.

“True, they may not be as ideal as whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds,” she says, “but they make moving away from the old, traditional proteins much easier! I am a believer in progress, not perfection, so I highly recommend exploring the grocery shelves.”

Clean protein tips for the kids

For families looking to eat more clean proteins, Freston offers a wide variety of tips.

Choose foods that kids like—for instance, pasta made from chickpeas or lentils. There are also “chick’n” nuggets, pizza made with veggie sausage and nut butters for yummy sandwiches.

Make smoothies your best friend! Try blending some peanut butter, chia seeds and bananas into nondairy milk for something sweet and nutritious. You can also add your fave vegan protein powder and blueberries (the berries make everything purple and fun to drink).

Let your kids play an active role. Include them on your shopping trips and ask for their help in the kitchen. Your kids will feel empowered and more likely to enjoy their food. Plus, they’ll become more aware of the importance of treating animals well and keeping the environment clean, so they will likely feel excited about making clean choices.

So … next time you’re asked how you get enough protein? The short, easy answer might just be “Through hybrid sources for my health and the health of the planet. What’s in your meat?”

How planet-warming is meat protein production? Let’s put it this way: someone who bikes everywhere but eats a meat-heavy diet can generate nearly as many greenhouse gas emissions as a Prius per mile. Meanwhile, a vegan cyclist eating clean protein generates less than one-third of a Prius’s emissions per mile.

Snack on this: Kathy Freston’s favorite smoothie

Freston says, “If I have this smoothie, I feel set for the day no matter what else I eat or don’t eat. I’ve gotten my protein fix along with my fruit and veggie fix. And I’ve gotten a ton of omega-3s and fiber from the chia and flax.” Don’t forget her tip to make it a beautiful purple hue: add blueberries!

Blend together

  • 16 oz (or more) coconut water or water
  • 1 scoop plant-based protein of your choice (look for ones naturally sweetened with stevia to avoid added sugars or artificial ingredients)
  • Large handfuls of frozen strawberries, pineapple and broccoli
  • 1 Tbsp (or more) natural almond butter
  • 2 Tbsp ground flaxseed
  • 1 Tbsp chia seeds (mix in after the blend so the smoothie doesn’t turn to sludge!)

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