Perhaps the most common question people who eat a plant-based diet get is, “but where do you get your protein?” It’s not surprising since the word protein is often considered synonymous with animal food in Western culture. But consider this: where do the animals that humans eat for protein get that protein? The answer is simple – from plants.
The happy truth is that you can get all the protein you need on a plant-based diet. It’s not hard. Still, if you’re new to plant-based eating, it’s important not to assume that you’ll get everything you need no matter what kind of plant-based diet you are eating. Junk food vegans and fruitarians beware!
But before we go there, let’s talk a little bit about what protein does for us. Like carbohydrates and fats, protein is a macronutrient that plays a key role in our health.
Why protein is important:
- Making up about 20% of our body weight, protein is a primary component of our muscles, hair, nails, skin, eyes and internal organs, especially the heart and brain – so it is essential for structure and movement
- Protein is an important part of our immune system, especially for the formation of antibodies which help to fight infection and keep us healthy
- Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) make up enzymes, which are responsible for the chemical reactions that keep our bodies functioning
- Protein is an important part of hormones (like thyroid hormone, and insulin), which coordinate vital activities in our bodies and help to control our metabolism
- It acts as a carrier – e.g. the protein hemoglobin – performing the critical function of moving oxygen around the body
- Children need protein to build new cells as they grow; adults need protein for cell maintenance and replacement
With all these important functions, it’s easy to think – Whoa! Protein is so important, I’d better make sure I get as much of it as I can! – right? Well, no. Too much protein (in particular animal protein) can be just as harmful as too little. Excessive protein consumption is linked to osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease. And strangely, despite all the concerns of omnivores for the plant-based eater’s protein intake, most people in North America are consuming too much protein.
How much protein do you need?
This will vary from person to person, based on their ideal weight, activity level (very active people have slightly higher protein needs), age (growing children, teenagers and pregnant women have higher protein needs) and health (if you are sick or recovering from an illness your protein needs may be higher). But GENERALLY, the recommended protein intake for adults can be calculated this way:
- Divide your healthy/ideal weight in pounds by 2.2 lb/kg for weight in kilograms, then
- multiply ___kg x 0.9 to get your recommended protein intake for the day in grams
So, for a person whose healthy/ideal weight is 135 pounds (61 kg), the formula would be: 61 x 0.9 = 55 g
(from Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis, RD and Vesanto Melina, MS, RD)
That’s really nice, but what does that mean when you’re sitting down to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner? Well, you can look up all kinds of charts that break down the protein content in food and sit down with your mad scientist’s cap on and start figurin’ – or you can relax a little and go by these general guidelines:
- Aim for 3 servings of legumes/beans in a day (one serving is about ½ cup of beans, tofu or tempeh or ¼ cup of hummus/bean dip)
- Aim for 5 or more servings of vegetables a day, including cruciferous vegetables, greens and a variety of other vegetables (one serving is about 1 cup of raw or ½ cup of cooked veggies)
- Aim for 3 – 5 servings of whole grains (one serving is 1/2 cup cooked grains, or 1 slice of whole grain bread)
- Try to get one 1/4 cup servings of nuts/seeds each day (or 2 tbsp nut/seed butter)
- Aim for 3 servings of fruit each day.
(from Dr. Michael Greger’s The Daily Dozen)
All of these foods contain protein (and legumes, nuts and seeds are particularly rich in protein). And remember this, as long as you are eating a good variety of plant foods – enough to maintain a healthy weight – you can be assured you are getting enough protein.
Is it necessary to combine for complete protein intake?
Decades ago the suggestion was made that people who relied on plant-based foods to meet their dietary needs were required to carefully construct their meals to ensure that they were getting all the essential amino acids (aka “complete protein”) in one sitting. That myth has long been debunked. Our bodies are so much smarter than that — in the digestive process proteins are broken down into the amino acids that make them up, and then our bodies draw from that amino acid store to rebuild the specific proteins they need at any given time. Again, the emphasis is more appropriately placed on ensuring that we are regularly eating a good variety of plant foods to meet all our protein needs.