If you are considering changing to a plant-based diet, you may be concerned that your diet will be lacking in protein. It is very likely that you are presently accustomed to meat providing the bulk of your protein intake.
Protein is essential for our bodies to function healthily, and a prolonged lack will cause a range of health concerns. However, abstaining from eating meat, by switching to a plant-based diet, does not mean you will be protein deficient.
The suggested intake of protein for adults, or the RDA – Recommended Dietary Allowance – is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day - so for a 65kg woman, the optimal amount would be 52g of protein per day and for a 75kg man, the optimal amount would be 60g of protein per day.
In western diets, we eat up to 70 to 130g of protein per day – which is well in excess of the optimum amount. Most westerners eat animal foods at least 3 times a day, for example bacon for breakfast, chicken subway for lunch, spaghetti bolognaise for supper.
A meal isn’t considered complete without it – “its missing protein!” But let’s look at this widely held belief objectively:
Point 1 - not even a lion or a tiger, a true and powerful carnivore, eats animal flesh 3 times per day. And certainly, no primate, our closest genetic relatives, eats flesh 3 times a day. And yet we do!
Point 2 - When was the last time you encountered someone with protein deficiency? In fact, what is protein deficiency called? Chances are you haven’t met anyone with Kwashiorkor, because this condition is associated with severe malnutrition, generally only found in areas of famine or poor food supply, such as in countries of the developing world.
In the developed world it is believed that less than 3% of population is protein deficient – but more than 97% is fibre deficient. What should be of much greater concern is that we eat unbelievably low levels of fibre. And yet there are many studies showing that eating fibre is very important to long term health. Luckily for anyone adopting a whole food plant-based diet, you are pretty much guaranteed to be eating lots of health-benefitting fibre!
If you have been doing any searching on the Internet for plant sources of protein, you may have come across the term “complete proteins” and “incomplete proteins”.
Foods that contain all the essential amino acids we need, and are readily available for the body to use, are commonly termed “complete proteins”.
On the other hand, foods that are classified as “incomplete proteins” are ones that don’t supply us with all the amino acids we need. However, eating a diet rich in variety, it is possible to ‘complete’ our amino acid needs.
Meat based proteins have higher levels of certain amino acids, making them more “complete”. However, plant based proteins are high in an amino acid called Glutamic Acid, which is excellent for lowering blood pressure.
Meat based proteins are higher in Branch Chained Amino Acids, which is good for body builders because (1) it increases IGF-1 (which is a growth hormone so it causes growth in our muscles); (2) there are high levels of Leucine which stimulates muscle protein synthesis (the process of repairing damaged proteins and building new proteins – also key to growing muscles).
But here is the catch – Aging Studies and Cancer Studies show that high levels of Leucine and high levels of IGF-1 leads to premature aging, cellular death and cancer. They might make us have more muscle in the short term, but likely unhealthier in the long term.
There is a great deal of scientific data definitely which points towards the fact that animal protein is associated with weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and longevity problems. In addition to this, animal protein also has cholesterol and saturated fat associated with it – both of these are known to cause a number of other health issues and disease.
On the other hand, studies of bioavailability of plant based protein is excellent. Plant protein is free of cholesterol and saturated fat. In fact, most plant based athletes don’t concentrate on protein at all, they feel great, they have less acid in their bodies so they’re not having to buffer acid by taking calcium from their muscles, and they generally feel good! Their muscles stay big, and don’t fluctuate in size.
As a plant-based dieter, you don’t really need to worry about counting your protein intake. If you are eating a varied plant diet, you will most likely be meeting your protein needs as well.
Attempting to calculate protein consumption can be bewildering. Some sources quote protein as a percentage of caloric intake, others simply as protein per weight of food type, such as grams per pound.
Generally, food types high in protein are also higher in calories. For example, almonds provide 96 grams of protein and 2629 calories per pound. By comparison, apples provide only about 1 gram of protein and 236 calories per pound. From this example, it can be seen that it would be impossible to obtain adequate protein on a diet of only apples.
Most foods have protein – even broccoli has protein in it! But for plant-based dieters, protein needs can easily be achieved by eating servings of ‘plant protein sources’, such as buckwheat, chia seeds, hemp seeds, beans, chickpeas and lentils. Other excellent sources of protein also include edamame beans, legumes, garbanzo, black and pinto beans, nuts & seeds.
Tempeh, 32 grams protein per cup
Soybeans, 28 grams protein per cup
Raw oats, 26 grams protein per cup
Tofu, 22 grams protein per cup
Pinto beans, 22 grams protein per cup
Lentils, 18 grams protein per cup
Black beans, 15 grams protein per cup
Chickpeas, 12 grams protein cup
Quinoa, 11 grams protein per cup
Soy milk, 10 grams protein per cup
Peanut butter, 8 grams protein in 2 tablespoons
Green Peas, 8 grams protein per cup
Spinach, 6 grams protein per cup (cooked)
Brown rice, 5 grams protein per cup (cooked)
Avocados, 4 grams protein per cup
Essentially, what is important when your diet is plant-based, is to eat a broad range of foods. The amino acids missing from one food will be obtained from another. These different amino acids combine in the body to form needed protein. What must be guarded against is a lack of diversity in consumption. Providing dietary sources are sufficiently diverse, protein synthesis can easily be achieved from a plant-based diet.
The medical and/or nutritional information on this website is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please seek medical advice before using diet to treat disease.