Enough with the protein

Magazine recipes – in fact, a lot of ‘family helpful’ recipes – follow a pattern that seems to disregard all current advice regarding vegetables. This pattern is so deeply entrenched that I still catch myself following it when planning meals that involve other people. It goes like this: begin with protein, add vegetable for flavouring, place on top of starch. Dinner!

There are many people who feel that suggested daily serving amounts for vegetables are hard, or impossible, to achieve. Well, when you’re filling your plate with chicken and pasta, that’s likely to be the case. There’s only so much room to be had, both on the plate and inside of you, so something’s got to give.

It’s hard to quantify how much room one has for a volume of food, but I think we can all agree that reasonable limits on caloric intake are advisable. We also know that an excess of calories leads to weight gain, and a deficit to weight loss. But we often don’t differentiate between caloric sources based on their nutrient density. Ideally, we should be getting most of our calories from the most nutrient dense sources – not from so-called ‘superfoods’* necessarily, but from dark green or brightly coloured vegetables.

Everybody’s needs are different. Right now, I think we commonly get between 1600 and 1800 calories per day (you’ll notice that’s lower than the ‘standard’ 2000 calories listed on nutrition labels), and we’ve kind of hit weight loss stasis. However, since we need an arbitrary number as an example, let’s use 2000.

All foods can be mapped onto a graph that looks like this:



Sources of protein (and fat) are calorie dense, so you could say you’re getting more bang for your buck. But just think about this. A serving size of cooked chicken is 4oz, about the size of a deck of cards, or a standard burger patty (y’know, like a quarter pound). That’s about 165 calories. It’s highest nutrient content is B6 at 30% of your recommended daily intake, then a bit of B12, iron and magnesium. Pretty standard for most meats, with a little variation.

That’s all well and good, but you’re not going to eat 4oz of chicken all on its own. For one thing, it’s not very filling. Just stay with me, though.

Now, let’s get our hands on the same caloric value of dark green veggies. For the sake of neutrality, we’ll go with broccoli. One stalk of broccoli (about 150g) is 50 calories – you’d have to eat three stalks to come close to hitting the same calorie value as chicken. That’s about one pound of broccoli. Way more filling! And for nutrients you get potassium, vitamins A, C, and B6, magnesium, calcium and even a bit of iron.

What this demonstrates is that calorie dense foods are not necessarily nutrient dense foods. So complete proteins, like chicken for example, have a greater caloric density than nutrient density. That’s not to say that chicken lacks nutritious content, but that the same calories could be put to better use.

Take that, chicken.

“But Emily!” I hear you cry, “What about complete proteins for our muscles and organs?!”

Well, according to this article on Wikipedia, one can acquire more than adequate amounts of all essential amino acids by eating the equivalent of 2000 calories of baked potato. So, there’s that.

As for sources of ‘complete’ protein, it’s long been suggested that we don’t need to get all our nutrients, all at once, all the time in order to gain benefit from them. This is especially true for the so-called macronutrients of protein, fat and carbohydrate. Protein as a category is made up of 9 ‘essential’ amino acids (meaning we can’t make them, we have to eat them). And these amino acids are in virtually all foods you can name, just not always all together and in differing proportions. That includes vegetables.

This is similar to my bellyaching about a lack of good vegetarian recipes. There are recipes that are vegetarian by virtue of omitting meat, but that are otherwise significantly lacking in the nutrient department (I’m looking at you, vegetarian pasta dinners). There are recipes that are trying their darndest to simulate omnivorous foods for no obvious reason. And there are crunchy-granola hippie food recipes that are a bit too far-out for us normies.

It’s difficult to find a recipe (that isn’t a salad) that puts vegetables on the main stage where they can shine. Perhaps this is because such ‘recipes’ are comparatively easy to improvise for the kinds of people who write recipes, and are therefore unlikely to be written down.

Or just maybe we’re stuck in a collective, pervasive rut that has us thinking of meals in a certain way, which only serves to perpetuate this unhelpful pattern. And don’t misunderstand – I’m not going to advocate that all people everywhere drop animal protein altogether. All I’m saying is that maybe, if there were more tasty and hearty recipes that were mostly (or completely) made of vegetables, some people might sub them in for a midweek meal or two. They’re certainly cheaper, and – at least for me – are filling in a less painful way than meat-heavy meals.

Maybe such recipes have a bit of optional meat for flavour, or could offer a serving suggestion for those who want to include it on their plates.

My point is that most recipes start from the wrong end. If current nutrition guidelines suggest filling 1/2 to 3/4 of your plate with vegetables, it seems a bit silly to keep basing meals around meat.

*That’s a whole other post.