As a plant-based eater, one of the things I hear all the time is “Where do you get your protein?”  With high protein dietary approaches like Paleo and Keto in the limelight, I also see a huge emphasis on protein intake: protein shakes and bars especially.  Since protein is a nutrition buzzword, let’s take a look at it.  By the end of this article, you will understand

  1. What protein is
  2. Why protein is important for your good health
  3. How much you need
  4. Where you can get quality protein.

What is Protein?

Protein is an essential nutrient, which means that without it, you can’t survive. Protein is contained in every part of your body: bones, muscles, skin, hair, fingernails, blood, organs, eyes and is second in volume in your body only to water.  

Why do I need Protein?

It’s a simple but critical reason: the body requires protein in the same way it requires carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.  Because protein is a major component in bones, nerves and other organs it makes sense that we need protein for the physical structure of our body.  However, protein is involved in many body processes as well — enzyme production, cellular repair, cellular growth, hormone production, general energy requirements.  When we lack adequate protein, our growth is affected as well as our bone structure and bone density, muscle strength and stature, brain health and general body chemistry.  This is important stuff, so let me fill you in on the science and then we’ll talk about how to get enough protein for optimal health.

 

Understanding Protein

Protein is made up of amino acids.

There are 20 different amino acids:

  • 10 can be manufactured in the body so we don’t need to get them from food
  • 10 cannot and must be obtained from food sources — these are the ones called “Essential” amino acids because it is essential that we get these from food sources.

The University of Arizona’s Biology Project gives the following summary:

“The 10 amino acids that we can produce are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. Tyrosine is produced from phenylalanine, so if the diet is deficient in phenylalanine, tyrosine will be required as well.

The essential amino acids (that we cannot produce internally) are arginine (required for the young, but not for adults), histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These amino acids are required in the diet.

Plants, of course, must be able to make all the amino acids. Humans, on the other hand, do not have all the enzymes required for the biosynthesis of all of the amino acids.”

Enough of the right stuff

The failure to obtain enough of even 1 of the 10 essential amino acids has serious health implications and can result in degradation of the body’s proteins. Muscle and other protein structures may be dismantled to obtain the one amino acid that is needed. “Unlike fat and starch, the human body does not store excess amino acids for later use the amino acids must be in the food every day.”(Biology Project)

So, we can make certain amino acids and not others.  The ones we can’t make MUST be consumed from dietary sources or the body WILL BREAK DOWN its own protein sources to get what it needs.  This is one reason why people can lose muscle when on very restrictive diets or when they are sick and cannot eat.  The body breaks down muscle to get the supply of amino acids needed for critical functioning.

 

You Complete Me

Now, you may have heard the term “Complete Protein.” Complete proteins are proteins that are made from the 10 Essential Aminos (the ones that your body cannot make on its own.)  Complete proteins are most commonly found in animal foods, like meats, eggs, and fish, but there are plant sources too.  We will get to sources in just a minute but it’s good to know that you have options and a variety of sources.

The main take away from this lesson is that Amino Acids are the building block of proteins.  There are 10 aminos that we absolutely need to get from foods.  Aminos are crucial to the regulation and maintenance of the body because the body not only uses them for critical functions but is also structurally comprised of protein.

How Much Protein do I Need?

Now that we’ve covered what protein is, what it does and we understand a bit about it, let’s cover how much protein we need.  The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is calculated by age and weight; gender can be a factor during the teen years and during pregnancy and lactation.  I created the chart below to make it easy to see where your needs fall.

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Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) based on body weight, include age-related adjustments for the extra protein needed for growth
(USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine)

For adults, the basic calculation for daily protein requirement in grams is
Body weight in pounds x .36 = grams of protein needed per day 

Got Super Powers?  You know who I’m talking about… all the pregnant ladies, breastfeeding moms and athletes?  Well, then the numbers adjust!  People who call upon their bodies to do Super things require approximately double the amount of protein that the rest of us do.  The great thing is that caloric needs increase for these bodies as well.  Focusing on eating a variety of whole foods will ensure that you get the increased calories as well as fats, carbs, and proteins.  When we get down to the sample menu, you’ll see how very easy it is to get to the increased protein numbers as calories increase.

Am I getting enough protein?

The money question!  Thankfully, it’s easy to answer and really simple. Regardless of whether you eat meat or don’t, getting enough protein usually isn’t an issue.  The issue becomes the quality of the protein and making sure that you don’t get TOO MUCH. 

  • Meat eaters typically consume SIGNIFICANTLY more protein than is required. 
  • Plant-based eaters, even strict raw vegans can consume more than enough protein daily. 

Am I getting too much protein?

What’s the problem with too much protein?  Well, there are a couple of things. 

  1. The first is that excess protein puts a strain on your kidneys. 
  2. The second is that if more protein is consumed than the body needs for building, maintaining and repairing tissue it will either be converted for use as an immediate energy source if there is not enough glucose(from carbohydrates) or it will be stored as fat. 

We don’t want either of those things… we want balance! 

When looking at dietary approaches like Keto, Atkins, and Paleo, consider what the extra protein load can do in your body and whether a protein heavy approach feels right for your body.   For balance, the key is to choose your protein sources wisely.  Clean, lean proteins are best.  Plant-based proteins provide the added benefits of significant fiber, micronutrients and complex carbohydrates (all of which are necessary for overall balanced health).

What are the best sources of protein?

Animal

The most common sources of complete balanced protein, as mentioned earlier, are animal foods like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.  These sources come with a cholesterol load as well as any environmental toxins that the animal consumed — so things like hormones, pesticides, systemic illness suffered by the animal all become a factor. 

Plant

Most plant proteins are missing one or more of the essential amino acids, but that doesn’t cause problems unless you are only eating one vegetable all the time and nothing else.  Because we naturally have meals with multiple elements where one item is deficient another will have the missing piece, so eating a variety throughout the day will ensure that you get what you need.  Plant sources can come with pesticide loads if they’re not organic and the level of nutrients may vary depending on the growing season.  

The idea of “complete protein” needing to come from single food sources or needing to be specifically combined in plant-based meals is no longer regarded as true.  Though there are a few superstars in the plant world that are complete BALANCED proteins: Quinoa, Hemp, and Soy.  These are foods that contain fairly equal levels of the 10 essential amino acids.  Other plants still contain the 10 essential amino acids, but not in balance like quinoa, hemp, and soy.

It’s not like this is a secret; this data has been publicly available from the USDA for decades, and now the USDA’s database is even online.*

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Amino acid need from the World Health Organization, food composition from the USDA nutrient database.
The analysis is for each individual food all supplying calorie needs (closest to the “low active” category for a 5’11” 181lb. 25BMI male, as per the FDA).

What to Eat In a Day

Here is a sample daily menu that easily provides 82 grams of protein.  Protein values are approximate, but you will get the idea.

What to Eat Grams of Protein Added Benefits
Green juice    or smoothie 2+ grams of  protein Lots of   micronutrients
1 cup quinoa   + 1 Tbsp nuts 13 grams of protein Manganese,   magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, healthy fats
Apple or   Celery   + almond   butter 8 grams of protein
(1 gram from apple or celery, 7 from nut butter)
Flavonoids,   polyphenols and fiber to help regulate blood sugar, pectin, vitamin C, micronutrients//vitamin   K and calcium, B vitamins in celery; healthy fats, vitamin E, B2, magnesium,   potassium, copper
Salad with   ½ cup black   beans, ¼ cup hemp seeds 19 grams of protein
(1 from 2 cups of romaine and spinach greens, 7 from beans, 11 from hemp)
Vitamins   A, K, C, Calcium, fiber, healthy fats, omega 3, folate, molybdenum
Veggies +   ¼ cup hummus 12 grams of protein Micronutrients,   fiber
Broccoli   stir fry + 4 oz tempeh   + ½ cup brown   rice 28 grams of protein
(6 from 2 cups broccoli, 20 g in 4 oz tempeh, 2.5 g in 1/2 cup brown rice)
Isothiocyanates   (cancer-fighting compound), Calcium, vitamin C, K, A, fiber, zinc, probiotics

As you can see, it’s not hard to rack up the protein using plant sources.  If you choose to use animal proteins, know that a little goes a long way:

What to Eat Grams of Protein Added Benefits
1 cup   milk 8 grams of protein calcium
3 oz   meat 21 grams of protein  
8 oz yogurt 11 grams of protein Calcium,   probiotics

 

The Bottom Line

You can easily get enough protein by consuming a variety of real whole foods in the form of fruits, vegetables.  Not 100% veg?  Lean meats, dairy, and fish are all sources of complete protein but they are concentrated and present added cholesterol into the diet as well as the possibilities of contamination from ingested hormones and antibiotics.

Commercially hyped protein powders, shakes, and bars… likely won’t hurt you, but also likely won’t help you.  If you are very active or need an occasional meal replacement, then consider a product that is as close to whole food as possible and one that does not contain genetically modified soy.

Ultimately, eating a balanced diet full of greens, beans, fruits, and veggies is a healthy way to go because you will be fueling your body with nutrient dense, low calorie, high fiber foods that are rich in amino acids.  According to nutrition and health expert, Dr. Joel Fuhrman in his groundbreaking book Eat to Live, “almost any assortment of plant foods contain about 30-40 grams of protein per 1,000 calories.  When your caloric needs are met, your protein needs are met automatically.  Focus on eating healthy, natural foods; forget about trying to get enough protein.”  Eat well, eat real, eat a variety of rainbow-colored natural foods… Whatever you choose, choose smart for a healthy body.

 

Want to learn more?  Check out these resources:

  • references for protein in vegetables chart
    Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition (PDF), World Health Organization (2002). Recommendations on p. 126. Recommendations are an “average requirement” of 0.66 g of protein per kg of ideal body weight, and a “safe level” of 0.86 g/kg.
    USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (accessed August to December 2009)
    FRUIT: Average of Apples, Pears, Grapes, Bananas, Plums, Oranges, Grapefruit, Watermelon, Strawberries, Peaches, Nectarines, Cantaloupe.
    VEGETABLES: Average of Broccoli 27.2%, Carrots 8.7%, Celery 17.3%, Corn 13.4%, Cucumber 17.3%, Green Beans 21.6%, Lettuce icberg 25.7%, Mushrooms white 31%, Onions 12.4%, Peas 28.8%, Potato 10.8%, Spinach 49.7%, Tomato 19.6% (accessed December 2009)

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