Nutrition Notes: The Power of Plant Protein

Americans love protein; in fact, most Americans eat twice the amount of protein recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Institutes of Health. (It recommends about 50 gm of protein per day for the average adult. For reference, a cut of animal protein the size of a deck of cards contains about 21 gm of protein) While the media and food marketing companies suggest that these high levels of protein make us strong and healthy, a growing body of science disagrees, reminding us that when it comes to nutrition, more isn’t necessarily better. While protein is critical for good nutrition, too much can cause problems, such as an acid-base imbalance, which can undermine bone and overall health. The food we eat profoundly impacts this balance.

Our bodies operate best at an overall pH of 7.35. When we eat foods that create acids (typically those that are high in protein and low in minerals), the body needs to buffer the acid in order to maintain its pH. The buffering process taxes the respiratory system and other organs, works the kidneys harder, and can draw calcium out of the body. In addition, research has shown that cancer development and growth is much greater in even slightly acidic conditions.

To keep your body in balance, choose a plant-based diet, specifically one that emphasizes nuts, beans, whole grains, and vegetables to replace some of the protein from meat and dairy. Plant proteins are naturally less concentrated, so the shift helps modulate the high-protein diets that so many of us consume. Try eating seasonally with fresh, local dark greens, many of which are richer sources of protein than you might think.

Here's a list of where foods generally fall on the acid-base balance scale.

Alkaline (Base)
Most alkaline: Dark green, leafy vegetables
Spices and green herbs
Root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips) / tubers (onions, leeks, garlic)
Winter squash (butternut, acorn, blue Hubbard, spaghetti)
Buckwheat flour and grouts

Neutral/Moderate Alkaline
Beans and all other legumes (such as lentils)
Nut butters

Grains and cereals (all related products: bread, pasta, etc.)
Fish /seafood
Meat (most acidic)

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Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is an author, nutritionist, Kripalu faculty member, and important voice in whole-foods nutrition and yoga.

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