We're going to answer the question every plant-based eater receives when they break the news of their dietary choice to their friends - 'but how will you get enough protein?'
Protein the Word
The word protein comes from the Greek 'proteios' which means 'of prime importance' which easily explains how we've made the leap from necessary to of prime importance for this particular nutrient.
In the western world the biggest nutrition concern floating around in regular conversation seems to be protein. Hardly anyone focuses on whether you're getting enough magnesium or potassium or iron. People are concerned with consuming enough protein (for example, have you ever heard of magnesium cookies or potassium snack bars?). Why is that? What's so special about protein that makes us so afraid we're not getting enough?
Protein the Molecule
Let's get technical here: a protein is any of a group of complex organic macromolecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and usually sulfur and are composed of chains of alpha-amino acids (so says dictionary.com). Basically they do most of the work in your cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of your body’s tissues and organs. Depending on the sequence of amino acids that make up a protein in your body, that protein can be responsible for fighting off infection in the form of antibodies, assist in the formation of new molecules as enzymes, transmit signals to coordinate growth hormones, provide structure and support for cells, and transport and store atoms and small molecules within cells throughout your body. So, yeah, proteins are important.
Protein the Nutrient
But how do we make the leap from proteins within our body to the proteins we consume? How do the proteins we consume become the proteins that help our body function? Well, we've gotten super science-y so let's take a step back and simplify it. Certain elements found in proteins - amino acids - are essential building blocks for our cells, as we've said, but animals (and we're including humans in this category, for science reasons) do not naturally create all 20 of the standard amino acids - we must consume them.
Aha! So, when we consume proteins they just magically become the essential amino acids we need to help our cells function? Short answer - yes. Not magic so much as biology, but you get the idea. The trick is, of course, understanding that you can't eat just one type of 'protein-rich' food and get all the amino acids your body doesn't naturally make - you have to eat a variety of food to make sure you cover all your bases.
Okay, sure, but again, aren't there plenty of minerals and other nutrients we must consume in order to maintain optimal health? Why are we so focused on protein?
Protein the Necessity
Let's float a theory here. Sometime after 1838 when a Swedish scientist (Jons Jacob Berzilius,
yes that's his name) gave proteins their name, an early German nutritionist (Carl von Voit) hypothesized that protein was the most important nutrient for maintaining the structure of the body, because it was generally believed that "flesh makes flesh." As further discoveries of the different types of proteins came about, studies showed that under starvation conditions the body could use proteins, particularly those found in muscle, to support the body's continued life.
Wait, back up - starvation? Yep. All that talk about building up muscle and bulk by eating more protein? That's based on the theory that our bodies are using the protein from our muscles for energy - which only actually happens when we're starving for nutrition.
How does that apply to you, you might be asking? Well, three reasons. First, there's the misconception regarding how much or how little protein we actually need in our daily diet. Second, there's not understanding that the quality and variety of our food, and our protein in particular for this discussion, rather than just the quantity is important. The third reason has to do with understanding our overall nutrition and where our information generally comes from.
We won't go into great detail in this article but we will mention, just to get you thinking about it, that the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) sets the standards of information that the general public in the U.S. receives regarding nutrition. It's important to note that the primary focus of the USDA is to promote the agricultural sector and is largely funded by businesses and organizations in the beef industry, poultry and dairy producers as well as some fast food and processed food manufacturers. This means the Food Pyramid and My Plate are produced with the USDA's sponsors in mind and therefore your nutrition is a secondary concern.
But starvation though?
If you are eating regularly than starvation isn't really a concern for you, right? Not exactly. We're talking about your body starving from malnutrition rather than lack of food and sadly a good portion of the U.S. has this problem. Just because you're eating doesn't mean you're feeding your body.
For instance, let's say you're on a diet to lose weight and you've decided to cut out all starches (we're talking about grains such as oats, rice, bread, pasta; and beans, peas, corn, bananas, potatoes). Starchy foods are actually a major source of energy for your body, converting the carbohydrates into usable sugars or glucose. Even if you continue to eat the Standard American Diet's typical accepted amount of 2000 calories per day you may find yourself sluggish, tired, hungry and irritable. These are signs that your body is missing certain necessary nutrients. In plain terms, you are malnourished and in essence, starving.
Protein-Deficiency is Legit-ish
But isn’t there a condition in which protein-deficiency plays a part in fatalities? While, yes, that condition (known as kwashiorkor) does exist, it kills less than 5 people a year so the chances of you being affected are slim to none. Most people who die with a protein-deficiency die due to overall malnutrition (about 6 million people worldwide). Something you might want to keep in mind is that more people die each year due to an overabundance of protein consumption than a protein-deficiency (that's about 2 million people in the U.S. alone) in the form of heart disease, cancer and diabetes (check out our references below for further information).
So, how much protein should we be consuming on a regular basis? If you look at the Standard American Diet Food Pyramid or the USDA's My Plate you'll notice that the suggested amounts of protein per day are 2-3 servings. What's a serving? Somewhere between 2 and 6 ounces, according to the USDA's charts. The World Health Organization states that a healthy diet contains about 10% (and up to 15%) of calories from protein. With a diet of 2000 calories you're looking at 200-300 calories of protein per day.
But is that enough? Is it too much?
The Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) says that we actually get too much protein, around two times more than what we really need and instead of consuming 10% of our daily calories in protein it should be closer to 5%. They advise using the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) protein formula, which is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for the average adult. So now, in addition to a little science, here's a little math. You can go at this particular problem in two steps: first, you divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to find your weight in kilograms (150lbs/2.2 = 68.18kg) and then multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8 grams to come up with your RDA standard maximum protein requirement (68.18kg x 0.8g = 54.55 g).
So, how does this translate into what we can actually eat? What is 55 grams worth of protein? Where do I get my daily protein intake from?
Flesh Makes Flesh?
Usually when people think of protein they're concentrating on the animal-based options - eggs, meat, poultry, fish. Occasionally people will remember that beans have plenty of protein too. But does this mean that in order to get our daily recommended amount of protein we have to eat something fleshy?
Nope. In fact, a 30 year study referenced in the documentary Forks Over Knives, not to mention several books and online articles, shows evidence that consuming protein from animals in excess of 5% of your daily calories leads to higher risks of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The same amount of protein consumed from whole food plants can actually decrease your risk.
Well, if that's true, does that mean we're destined to just eat beans to get our daily intake of protein? That sounds pretty gassy.
No, in fact, protein can be found not only in legumes, but also greens, grains, other vegetables and even fruit. Protein is in everything that is edible because it’s the structural building block that holds the food together. In actuality, as long as you are eating regular meals of whole plant-based foods you will never have a need to supplement your diet with extra protein (protein bars, protein powder, protein cookies - they're all unnecessary).
Here's a list of 20 examples of plant foods you can consume to obtain the essential amino acids and get your recommended daily amount of protein for a healthy diet. Remember, variety is key so mixing and matching these foods daily covers all your amino acid bases.
To Sum It All Up
The take away of all this? Protein is important but not more important than all other nutrients. You only need 5% of your daily intake to be protein and since protein is in everything edible, you can get all of your protein from eating a plant-based diet. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables will cover all the essential amino acids you're not naturally making within your body. If you're a stickler for the details and your counting calories and grams, you can calculate the maximum amount of grams of protein you need to consume daily by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2 to come up with your weight in kilograms and then multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8.
Learn something new? We hope so. Think we missed something or got something wrong? Let us know. Give us your thoughts in the comments below.
If you'd like to know where we got our information look below for a sampling of our references.
Corry, J., and Wendel, B. (producers). Fulkerson, L. (director & performer). (2011). Forks Over Knives [motion picture]. United States: Monica Beach Media.
Dawn, Laura. "How Much Protein Do We Actually Need?" Happy & Raw. https://www.happyandraw.com/how-much-protein-do-we-actually-need/
McLees, Heather. "Are We Eating Too Much Protein? A Scientist Makes the Connection Between Protein and Cancer." Onegreenplanet.org. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/t-colin-campbell-protein-and-cancer/
National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine. "What Are Proteins and What Do They Do?" Genetics Home Reference. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/howgeneswork/protein