There are tons of vegan memes about protein floating around the internet. Mostly due to the fact that it’s a super common question asked of those who eat plant-based. “Where do you get your protein?” The sad fact is, the meat industry has done a really good job in making people believe that they need to eat meat for protein. This, my friend, could not be further from the truth. That’s what this post is all about. We’re talking plant-based protein. How much you need, where to get it, and the difference between animal sources and plant-based sources. Let’s get to it.
What Is Protein?
First, let’s start with the basics. Protein is one of the three macronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fat). These 3 macronutrients are present, in varying amounts, in nearly every food we eat. It is required for many processes but is most well-known as a building block of body tissues and muscles.
Protein is made up of amino acids chains. We use about 20 different amino acids, but we make 11 of these ourselves. The other 9 amino acids are considered “essential”, meaning we need to obtain them through diet. As such, they are critical to overall health. This, however, is where we, as a society, got off track with protein. You can have too much of a good thing, and protein is a prime example of this. It’s important to note here that all essential amino acids can be found in plant foods. In fact, small amounts are present in almost all plant foods, including the ones you wouldn’t expect, like fruits and vegetables.
For a nutrient that is essential to survival, we don’t need nearly as much as we’ve been led to believe. The protein requirement for an adult is 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of healthy body weight. Notice this is based on healthy body weight, not necessarily current body weight. So, you would do this calculation based on your ideal weight. Taking this into account, someone with an ideal body weight of 120 lbs (approx. 54.5 kilos) would require about 44 grams of protein per day. Athletes can require a little more, up to 1-1.5 grams per kilo depending on how strenuous their sport.
Now, I talk about standardized requirements as this is what helps to ease people’s minds. Realistically though, you do not need to be counting your protein intake, nor would I suggest it. The actual average requirement is closer to 0.66 g/kg but was increased to 0.8 g/kg in order to cover individual variations. This amount is so easy to obtain that, as long as you’re consuming sufficient calories from whole plant foods, you’ll easily get enough.
You’d never know it, based on society’s obsession with this nutrient, but we as a species, don’t require all that much protein, even compared to other mammals. If you compare the protein content of human breast milk to all other mammals, human breast milk contains the least. Our breast milk contains about 8.5 grams of protein per litre, whereas the other great apes range from 9.2 g/L to 11.6 g/L. Cow’s milk, on the other hand, contains 33.6 g/L. Almost 4 times that of human milk. You must remember, human breast milk is biologically designed to provide all of a baby’s nutritional needs during a period of rapid growth and development. This speaks volumes about human protein requirement.
The problem with bad information is, once it gets some press, it’s really hard to squash. For decades people will go on believing things that have been disproven. Whether because they missed the updated information, or simply ignored it due to their cognitive dissonance.
One such example of bad information is that plant-proteins are inferior to animal proteins. This was based on a super old study in which they fed baby rats a diet of plants, and they did not grow very well. Surprise surprise, they didn’t do well on human breast milk either. Why? Because baby rats need A LOT more protein than we do. Their babies grow 10x faster than human babies. Remember above when we talked about the amount of protein in human breast milk (8.5 g/L)? Well, rat breast milk contains 86.9 g/L of protein, about 10x that of human breast milk. So, the issue was not with the quality of plant proteins, it was about the protein requirements of the subjects (baby rats).
Another myth floating around is the idea of complementary proteins. The thought was that plant protein was ‘incomplete’ and had to be combined with other sources in a meal to make complete protein chains. This was later proven wrong, as all plants contain the essential amino acids in varying amounts. As I’ve said before, your body is an extremely efficient machine. It does not waste these vital nutrients. Instead, it recycles amino acids leftover from different body processes. It also keeps a store of free amino acids that can be used to do all the protein combining for us. Basically put, this is not something you need to worry about.
Animal Sources vs Plant Sources
Now that we’ve debunked some common protein myths, one might think that protein is protein, right? Wrong. The source of protein makes a huge difference in the body. In a recent post on calcium, I mentioned that it’s important to consider what comes packaged with the food you are ingesting for specific nutrients. In the case of animal protein, it comes packaged with saturated fats, cholesterol and little to no fibre. This is a combination that sets you up for heart disease and poor health. On the other hand, plant proteins don’t contain any cholesterol, are full of fibre, and most are very low in saturated fat. They also come packaged with antioxidants and phytonutrients that help us heal and fight off disease.
There is also a difference in how these proteins behave in the body. Animal proteins are very pro-inflammatory, while plant foods fight inflammation. Consumption of animal proteins also causes levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1) to rise in the body. IGF-1 is a hormone that is important to growth, but in an adult, high levels are not encouraging normal cell growth anymore, as we stop growing in our teens. Instead, high levels of IGF-1 promote growth and proliferation of cancer cells in the body. So, consuming animal protein increases our risk of cancer. Luckily for us, consuming plant foods helps to lower IGF-1 levels, reducing our risk for certain cancers.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
So, back to that question most plant-based eaters get asked at some point. Where do you get your protein? Easy! On a plant-based diet, you get your protein from the same place that the animals do, PLANTS! We’re just cutting out the middle-man and getting it directly from nature, instead of from the flesh of animals who have consumed it.
All plants contain some amount of protein, so you really don’t need to sweat it. You can get lots of protein from beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, quinoa and other whole grains. You’ll also find it in nuts, nut butters, and seeds like hemp seeds. If you like adding nutritional yeast to your foods, good news, it’s high in protein! Even vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts and potatoes contain good amounts of protein.
To give you an idea: A simple peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread with a glass of soy milk comes in around 25 grams of protein. This is more than half of the RDI for women in a meal that takes all of 3 minutes to put together.
A cup of tofu comes in around 20 grams of protein.
A third of a cup of pumpkin seeds comes in around 15 grams of protein.
The point is, protein is everywhere and you don’t need to sweat it. Protein deficiency is not something we see in those who consume adequate calories. In fact, a recent study showed that on average, both vegetarians and vegans consumed about 70% more than the daily requirement. So, relax! You can get plenty of protein on a plant-based diet, without even trying.
The Bottom Line
When all is said and done, society’s pre-occupation with protein is really unnecessary. We really don’t need as much as we’ve been led to believe, and getting enough requires little-to-no effort. Plant-based sources are not inferior to animal sources. In fact, they are more protective to your body and healthier for you. There are plenty of protein-rich plant foods, which makes covering your needs on a plant-based diet super easy.
Instead of worrying so much about protein, perhaps people should look more closely at their fibre intake. The vast majority of people don’t get even close to the recommended daily intake of fibre each day. But that’s a topic for another day, and perhaps a future post.
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Feature image: Photo by Chelsea London Phillips on Unsplash