WHERE DO VEGANS GET PROTEIN?
This is probably the most common question I get asked when I talk to people about eating a plant-based diet. Most of us don’t know a lot about what nutrients are in our food, yet nearly everyone has been taught their whole life to put protein on a pedestal- without really knowing what it is. The glorification of protein is largely a part of a highly successful campaign to encourage the consumption of meat and dairy. Despite popular belief, it is possible to get plenty of protein on a plant-based diet, and without all the negative side effects of animal products. So let’s start at the beginning.
What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient (along with fat and carbohydrates) made up of amino acids strung together. Some amino acids are produced naturally by our bodies (non-essential amino acids) while some we need to ingest through food (essential amino acids). There are 20 amino acids in total which combine to make a variety of different types of protein.
Why do we need it?
Protein is used by every cell in our body and plays many important roles. It is the major building block of muscle and tissue and is used to produces hormones and enzymes used throughout the body, which affect everything from mood to brain function to heart health.
How much do we need?
A rule of thumbis to eat .8g of protein for every kilogram of body weight. To find your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
So, if you weigh 150 pounds:
150lbs/2.2 = 68.18kg → 68.18kg x 0.8g = 54g protein/day
Athletes and those who exercise frequentlycan round up to 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
150lbs/2.2= 68kg → 68.18kg x 1g = 68g protein/day
It’s not necessarily important to measure how much protein you’re eating unless you just happen to be curious. It’s important to note that our bodies cannot storeor use extra protein, so there is little benefit to piling on the protein and potential risks including nutrient deficiencies, kidney problems, and weight gain as a result of the body storing excess protein as fat.
Which is better: animal or plant-based protein?
Animal protein is often promoted as superior because it is a ‘complete’ protein, meaning it contains the full range of amino acids needed by our body. In reality, there is no significance to the ‘completeness’ of the protein we consume. Our bodies are able to take amino acids from a variety of plant-based and assemble them into different proteins as needed. Our bodies are experts at giving us just what we need, so the surest thing to do is eat a wide range of nourishing plant foods and let the body take care of the rest.
Another apparent benefit is that you get more protein by volume with animal foods, a draw for those who feel they need to eat as much protein as possible. This issue with this is that focusing in on protein rich foods without considering other nutrients or looking at the diet as a whole leads to misguided food choices.
Let’s break it down….
- A 4oz hamburger patty contains 20g of protein, 182 calories, 13g of fat including 6g of saturated fat (the “bad” kind of fat- more on this another day), a good amount of Vitamin B12 and negligible amounts of other nutrients.
- To get the same amount of protein from kale, you would need to eat 8 cups of cooked kale, which would come to 290 calories, with just 4g of fat, 21 grams of fiber, 75% daily value of calcium, and over 100% daily value of iron, manganese, and vitamins A, C and K.
Now I’m in no way suggesting you eat this much kale in a day!!! The point is just that if you focus only on protein-rich foods, you often end up eating too much of foods that are low in nutrients and high saturated fat, while ignoring other nourishing foods that are key to good health.
This also illustrates that you can literally eat an insane amount of fruits and vegetables and not gain weight because they are so low in fat, calories and protein.
One last way to drive this point home is to compare a day of food for a typical meat-eater vs. a vegan.
- BREAKFAST: 2 EGGS, 2 SLICES TURKEY BACON, 1 PIECE TOAST, 1 SLICE CHEDDAR CHEESE, 1 ORANGE
- LUNCH: ROMAINE SALAD WITH CUCUMBER + 4OZ GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST
- SNACKS: ¼ CUP ALMONDS, 1 BANANA, 1 POWER BAR
- DINNER: 4 OZ GRILLED SALMON, 1 CUP BROWN RICE, 3 CUPS RAW SPINACH, SAUTEED
- DESSERT: ½ CUP CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM
- CALORIES: 2000
- PROTEIN: 142g
- FIBER: 28g
- FAT: 75g (25g saturated)
- CHOLESTEROL: 635mg