Author’s note: This is part 3 in our 6-week Plant-Based 101 series. Follow the links to read Part 2: 6 Proven Ways a Plant Based Diet Supercharges Your Health or Part 4: 21 Plant-Based Protein Sources.
Is it just me, or does it feel like everyone’s obsessed with protein? We’ve got protein bars, protein shakes, and even protein water. (All I have to say about that last one is ew.)
What’s more, most of us were taught that protein comes from animal foods like meat, milk, chicken, and eggs. So it’s no wonder that people often worry about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet.
To add to the sport, even if you aren’t worried about protein, you probably have friends and family members who are sure you’re going to wither away if you don’t eat meat.
So, how much protein do you really need? Can a plant-based diet supply it? I’ll be tackling these questions asap, but first I need to cover some basics. Specifically, I want to talk about what protein actually does in your body (more than just muscles!) and dispel a few myths.
What exactly is protein?
Along with carbohydrates and fat, protein is one of the three major nutrients your body needs to survive. It’s critical to the structure and function of every cell in your body. Proteins also make up enzymes, certain hormones, and even molecules that transport substances around the body. Your skin, hair, nails, and (of course) muscle are also mostly protein.
How much protein do we really need?
Given how important it is to survival, it’s not too surprising that the body is really good at recycling protein. We only need enough to replace what we lose each day, which isn’t much.
In fact, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for both men and women is 0.8g/kg body weight, or 0.36 g/pound body weight. (You can determine your personal protein RDA with this handy calculator.) That means a 125-pound woman needs only 46 grams (1.6 ounces) of protein a day.1 That’s about the weight of a golf ball.
Moreover, the RDA covers the needs of more than 97% of the population. So while a few people need more, most people will be eating more protein than they need if they consume the RDA.1 (Of course, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need extra protein.)
Where do you get protein on a plant-based diet?
In school, most of us learned the food groups or the food pyramid, which taught us that protein comes from meat, milk, eggs, and fish.
And that’s true.
However, what your teacher probably didn’t tell you is that protein is found in every unprocessed food on the planet, including all whole plant foods. Yes, there’s protein in lettuce, bread, potatoes—even oranges and grapes.Protein is found in every whole plant food on the planet - even grains and fruit. #PlantBased #VeganProtein Click To Tweet
If you’re eating unprocessed plant foods (not drinking soda or mainlining sugar), you actually can’t get away from protein. It’s simply everywhere.
So when someone looks at your vegan meal and asks, ‘Where’s the protein?,’ you can truthfully answer “all over my plate!”
But what about complete protein?
Okay, so protein is in everything. But maybe you’ve heard that most plant protein isn’t complete. Is that true? (And what is a “complete” protein, anyway?)
Well, proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Your body uses 20 different types of amino acids, but only 9 are essential in the diet. Your body can make the rest on its own.
By definition, a complete protein contains all the essential amino acids in roughly the same proportions that humans require. Perhaps unsurprisingly, animal proteins are more similar to human proteins than plant proteins. Since they’re more like human proteins, animal proteins are usually more complete. However, that doesn’t make them better. In fact, let’s assume that the more complete a protein is, the better it is. By that logic, the ideal protein source for humans is… humans.
In all seriousness, though, you do need to get enough essential amino acids. Luckily, plant-based foods contain all the essential amino acids the body needs, although some contain more of certain amino acids and less of others. However, if you’re eating a variety of whole plant foods every day and adequate calories, you’re covered. No need to eat foods in special combinations!
What’s more, protein from plants usually comes packaged with healthy things like fiber and phytonutrients. Protein from animals, on the other hand, tends to bring along saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which are linked to chronic disease. This isn’t to say there aren’t times when animal protein might be necessary for people with certain health conditions. It’s just not necessary—or beneficial—for most people most of the time.
You’re a protein pro!
Now you’re ready to teach protein 101! You know that
- Your body needs protein to function properly
- Because protein is so critical, your body’s really good at recycling it
- As a result, the RDA for a 125-pound woman is only 1.6 ounces of pure protein per day
- Protein is found in every whole plant food on the planet—even grains and fruit
- As long as you’re eating a variety of whole plant foods (and adequate calories), you can easily get enough protein and all the essential amino acids your body needs
That said, some plant foods are richer in protein than others. To find out which pack the most protein, click here for 21 Plant-Based Protein Sources. I guarantee there will be some surprises—even if you’ve been plant-based for years.
You might also want to check out this month’s 2-Pounds-of-Vegetables-a-Day challenge. The theme? 5-Minute Veggies!
You can also try these delicious recipes packed with natural, plant-based protein. (Look ma, no protein powder!)
- Blueberry muffin power smoothie
- 10-Minute Black Bean Tacos
- Secret-Ingredient Chocolate Silk Pie (Soy free with 5 grams of protein per slice)