“Am I getting enough protein?” Most nutrition professionals would agree: this is the first question individuals ask upon making a plant-based shift. As growing numbers take interest in vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian eating, this question comes up more frequently than ever before.
Food companies over-hear it, too. Most go to great lengths – fortifying and heavily processing their plant-based products – to mimic meat’s protein totals and alleviate this common consumer concern. However, few brands have paused, considered our collective global eating habits, and questioned the question. Rather than resorting to drastic modification of whole-plant ingredients – KARANA responds instead by raising the equally-relevant but largely-unconsidered query, “But are you getting enough fibre?”
From where do these pervasive dietary doubts arise, and how has protein secured centre stage – arguably at the expense of other much-needed nutrients, like fibre? Let’s take a closer look…
With nutritional adequacy, calories are fairly straightforward, thanks to the trusty bathroom scale. But the nutrients themselves aren’t nearly as obvious. Needs vary from person-to-person. Likewise, signs of insufficiency — such as headache, fatigue, dry skin, and constipation — are easily mistaken for day-to-day body changes or symptoms of other health concerns.
To complicate matters further, we’re flooded with mixed messages from the media regarding the optimal amounts we should consume daily. Scientific research impacts public opinion, too. When a study suggests a nutrient’s potential benefits, certain ingredients become instant favourites. When experimental results reveal possible drawbacks, that same nutrient quickly falls out of fashion.
Food manufacturers capitalise on these dynamics – adjusting recipes in tune with the latest trends and promoting products based on the presence or levels of a given nutrient. With label language like, “Now with more __,” they instil the belief, “I need extra.” or the worry, “Maybe I’m not getting enough.” As a result, consumers develop understandable uncertainty about their ‘real’ requirements and how their usual food choices add up.
Protein is a prime example…
Alongside carbohydrates and fats, it’s considered a macro-nutrient. Together, these three contribute most to daily calories and therefore garner the greatest public attention.
Each of the macronutrients is valuable to human physiology. However, in recent decades, the public’s infatuation with protein has increased. Protein’s roles in bone and muscle growth, cell and tissue repair, and immunity are undeniably attractive. However, it’s the suspicions surrounding the other two macronutrients that elevated protein to the leader of the pack.
In the mid-1900’s, dietary fat was associated with bodily fat. Likewise, health organizations universally recommended fat avoidance to reduce heart disease risk. At the time, it wasn’t known that fats – in moderation – can support weight loss by prolonging satiety after a meal (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) nor that higher-in-fat regimes (like the Mediterranean diet) offer cardiovascular benefits. On the other hand, carbohydrates were shunned by popular weight loss diets and considered worrisome for their connection with diabetes. It wasn’t widely recognized that some carbohydrate-based foods curb cravings (7, 8, 9) and stabilize blood sugar levels (10, 11, 12).
Nonetheless, protein eventually emerged as the only macronutrient left with an unblemished reputation — one that consumers could eat safely and freely. By default, protein consumption rose. Nonetheless, the food industry’s persistent downplaying of carbohydrate and fat and over-emphasis on protein’s importance perpetuated the public’s fear of an underlying protein deficit.
The precise daily protein requirement is the subject of wide and heated debate, too. For example, the World Health Organization and the United States FDA assert minimum intakes should sit between 0.8-1 grams protein per kilogram (0.36-0.45 grams per pound) of bodyweight for healthy persons (13, 14, 15). Baseline needs increase for certain people, such as athletes or pregnant and breast-feeding women (14). Some sources suggest it’s safe to eat up to 2 grams per kilogram (0.91grams per pound) of body weight. While others argue that excesses burden the kidneys and compromise bone health (16).
So, are you getting enough? If you’re reading this now, chances are good that you are. Collectively, the world’s peoples consume about 30% more than the aforementioned average adult daily requirement. But the distribution of protein intake differs geographically. While protein malnutrition remains a genuine concern for underdeveloped populations, most wealthy nations eat ample. Some – especially those where meat consumption is prevalent – total nearly twice estimated baseline needs (18, 19, 20).
Yet, narrowing focus on any one macronutrient has nutritional implications: it displaces the other two. If we keep calories consistent, ramping up protein intake – by default – dials down carbohydrates and fats. Therefore, essential vitamins, minerals, and compounds found in carb- or fat predominant foods come up short, too. Similarly, to boost protein, food manufacturers rely on isolates, concentrates and texturates – additives made by extracting plants’ proteins but discarding their other useful constituents.
Such is the case with fibre…
Fibres are carbohydrate-based compounds inherent in plant-based foods – like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Given fibres’ abundance in the natural food supply, one would assume the average person consumes plenty. Yet, studies suggest the opposite.
How much fibre do we need? While guidance for optimal daily intake differs by gender, caloric intake and age, advice generally hovers between 25 to 30 grams of fibre per day (19,20, 21, 22). However, most individuals worldwide consume fewer than 20 grams per day.
What’s to blame for the disparity between recommendations and reality? Preoccupation with protein surely plays a part, but several other factors also contribute. Many people eat fewer overall carbohydrates to avoid gluten-containing grains, to adopt strict carb-restricted weight loss regimens – like Keto, Paleo, or Atkins – or to adhere to carb-controlled meal plans prescribed for Type II diabetes management (25, 26, 28).
Likewise, the world’s increasing dependence on processing has severely blunted consumption of fibre itself. To produce global dietary staples like white rice, white-flour breads, and noodles – whole grains are ‘refined’, stripping away their natural fibres. In fact, minimally processed, whole foods account for less than 40% of daily intake in some nations (27).
Furthermore, until lately, fibre’s nutritional significance was wildly underestimated. Long considered a calorie-free, non-nutrient, people paid less attention to it. For years, fibres were described as ‘undigested roughage’ tasked with escorting food through the GI tract. So, while proteins appreciate appealing wellness associations – we connect fibre with the toilet. It’s no surprise fibre might fall off the public radar.
However, in the last two decades, our understanding of fibre has grown. Scientists have identified multiple types of fibres, each with unique bodily functions. Despite its humble beginnings, recent research reveals that fibre’s value to human health extends well beyond waste removal (29).
- Nourish our gut microbiota – the beneficial microbes living in the GI tract linked with anti-inflammatory, digestive, brain, immune and cardiovascular benefits (30, 31, 32, 33).
- Slow and even reduce the movement of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, improving blood sugar stability (34, 35).
- Prevent the absorption of dietary cholesterol, thereby lowering cholesterol levels in the bloodstream (34, 38).
- Prolong feelings of fullness after eating, aiding with long-term weight control. (36, 37).
- Diets higher in fibre are associated with lower risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease — and a 15-30% decrease in all-cause mortality (39).
Yet, for dieticians and nutritional counsellors, fibre adequacy enquiries are comparatively few and far between. Unlike protein, most clients don’t actively seek high-fibre foods – let alone mind total daily intakes. And many are quick to correct suboptimal intake with supplements or fortified items – which usually offer but one fibre type – rather than whole-plant foods – which provide a blend of many.Ironically, overall, we seem to question whether we are “getting enough” of the nutrients we over-consume – like protein – but overlook dietary components we lack – like fibre. Perhaps this protein-fibre paradox is a call to zoom out… To look candidly at outdated but lingering nutrient misperceptions. To filter out food fads, unbalanced diet trends, and clever marketing and hone in on our own real-time needs. To acknowledge and fill in “true” dietary gaps. To align with brands, like KARANA, that share our preference for whole, nature-made, minimally processed ingredients. And to adopt a balanced, big-picture approach to our plant-forward eating efforts – one that nourishes comprehensively and tows the line between too much and not enough.