Protein for a Plant-Based Diet

Ahh, the age-old question. “How/where do you get protein on a [vegan, vegetarian, plant-based] diet? The answer may surprise you: we get it from… plants. 😉 Yep, real-life, actual plant foods. You know, vegetables, whole grains, beans & legumes, nuts/seeds, even fruit.

blog cover for protein for a plant-based diet blog post

The Breakdown of Protein

Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: protein is absolutely an essential nutrient. We need it, okay? Proteins are made up of amino acids, of which there are 20. Our bodies only synthesize 11. This means we need to eat the other nine from foods. (In case you’re wondering: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine are the ones we can’t make.)

Amino acids, and thus protein, are responsible for building, maintaining, and repairing our muscle, connective tissue, and skin. An adequate intake of protein through our diet is essential to maintain cellular integrity, function, health, and reproduction.

But How Much do we Neeeeeeed?!

There are some terms to get to know, to really understand how much protein we need in our diets: the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) and the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). Recommendations for our macros & micros typically come from these.

gif of muscled man dumping protein powder into his mouth
(Note: I actually recommend NOT doing this 👆)

EAR – a nutrient intake value that is estimated to meet the requirement of half the healthy individuals in a group. The EAR of protein for both men and women between the ages of 19-50 is 0.66g/kg/d. So, in other words, a 154 lbs (70kg) man* would require 46g protein per day, while a 125 lbs (57kg) woman* would require 38g protein per day. (*These are commonly used reference weights.)

RDA – the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97-98%) healthy individuals in a group. The RDA of protein for both men and women between the ages of 19-50 is 0.8g/kg/d. So for our same man and woman as above, would be 54g protein per day and 46g protein per day, respectively.

So please note that these are based on “healthy” individuals and are averages. So no, not a one-size-fits-all recommendation for every single person in existence. But, generally, your need is going to fit somewhere around these averages. That being said…

How Much Protein are We (Actually) Eating?

Enough. More than enough. Like seriously- almost double the amount as described above. In a study comparing the nutrition profiles of diets ranging from non-vegetarian (omnivorous) all the way to strict veganism, each group was averaging over 75g protein daily. Yes- even those eating only plant-based foods are easily surpassing the upper range of recommend dietary protein.

Protein deficiencies are virtually unheard of in the US. In fact, less than 3% of men and women between the ages of 19-50 years consume less the EAR of protein. So we really don’t need to worry about not getting enough protein. (Stay tuned to find out what nutrient we should be concerned about.)

Okay, So Why Does It Matter Where We Get Protein?

Alright, my friends. What additional nutrient do plant sources of protein have that animal sources do not? It may be the most common nutrient deficiency in the US, considering less than 3% of the population consume the minimum recommended amount…. FIBER!

It’s fiber, people. Not only can you get more than enough protein from plants, but also an essential nutrient for digestive (and whole body) health.

High-protein, low carbohydrate diets have long been touted for their ability to improve health and weight management. These diets typically mean high animal protein and not enough plant foods. You may initially feel better on this type of diet if it means you’re cutting out large amounts of breads, sweets, and processed junk foods. However if you’re not consuming enough whole plant foods (spoiler alert: Americans aren’t), it also means you’re losing out on fiber and the formation of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in your gut, which are anti-inflammatory. High animal protein diets have also been shown to increase N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) which are known carcinogens.

So What are Some Plant Sources of Protein?

Below is a list of 15 protein-packed plant foods. Notice you can find protein in grains, beans/legumes, nuts, vegetables, and even fruit. Consuming a diet rich in diverse plant foods

infographic of 15 high protein plant foods

If you’ve been plant-curious or feeling run down & wanting to make a change- check out what I offer!

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