Where do you get your protein with a plant-based diet?

Excerpted and adapted from The Plant-Based Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide To Transition To A Healthy Lifestyle and Achieving Your Ideal Weight

If you follow a plant-based diet, or eat in a way that is even remotely  vegetarian, I’m betting that the question, ‘Where do you get your protein?’ is nothing new to you. Let alone if you eat card-carrying vegan-style.

Advertising and lobbying by the big boys of beef, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products are to blame for the repeated question, “What about your protein?” which is grounded in the marketing-driven push for high-protein foods. It is not grounded in the rules of good nutrition.

Is protein an important nutrient in the human diet?  Of course.  We need those aminos, baby!

Yet over and over again it has been demonstrated that we get all the amino acids we need in a varied whole-foods, plant-based diet.

The only cases of protein deficiency are in those diets deficient in calories, period.  And unless you are a fruitarian – eating ONLY fruit – or you are severely falling short in your caloric needs each day, it’s time, once again, to lay this groundless concern to rest. It’s time to put the protein pedestal on tilt.

2 answers to the “Where do you get your protein?” question:

Here are 2 simple, friendly replies to have at hand when the question, “What about protein?” or the more ubiquitous, “Where do you get your protein?” lands in your lap.

1)  Reply #1:  The truth about human dietary protein requirements is that we only need 10% or less of our daily calories from protein, which you can easily get with a plant-based diet.  The World Health Organization puts it even lower at a minimum daily requirement of 5%.  

According to the T. Colin Campbell Foundation at Cornell University, we can determine our protein needs by comparing how much nitrogen we consume to how much we lose each day by testing urine samples. Why nitrogen? It is unique to protein.  So when we measure protein, so we’re actually measuring nitrogen as an index of protein intake.

Protein is turning over constantly as we synthesize new protein and eliminate old protein.  It needs to be replaced on a daily basis. According to  nitrogen balance experiments, the amount of protein required for a normal human beings to meet the losses that normally occur is called the minimum daily requirement (MDR). The amount of protein we need is only 5%–6% of total calories, which, by the way, is the same amount of protein found in human milk.

Researchers add to that number two  statistical adjustments to assure that the larger population, which in reality has varying need for proteins, will get enough. This is how they arrive at the recommended daily requirement (RDA).

The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight.

For me, that means 138 lbs x 0,36, which comes to about 50 grams.

I can easily score 50 grams of protein in one day by eating simply:

  • 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal (9 grams protein)
  • 1 cup of black beans (15 grams of protein)
  • 2 cups of raw spinach (1 gram protein)
  • 1 cup of brown rice (5 grams protein)
  • a large stalk of broccoli (7 grams protein)
  • one medium potato (3 grams protein)
  • 1 cup kale (2 grams protein), and
  • one cup of lentil soup (10 grams protein)

….Oops! I’ve overshot my 50 grams protein by 2 grams at 52.

Yet the calorie count is modest:  lentil soup (185 calories), 1 1/2 cups oatmeal (300 calories), 1 cup black beans (227 calories), 1 cup brown rice (215 calories), 2 cups spinach (7 calories), large stalk broccoli (98 calories), and one medium potato (128 calories) = 1160 calories.

The 52 grams of protein calculated with the food list above equals a caloric load of 208 (52 x 4 calories per gram).  208 divided by 1160 = .17, which for our purposes means that actually protein comprises 17% of the calories from these food choices, even more than the WHO low margin of 5%.  Filling in the rest of the day’s calorie requirements with fruits, vegetables, possibly more starchy vegetables and whole grains, nuts, and seeds easily tips one into the balance of more protein than required.

The point is, see how easy it is to get adequate protein on a diet that includes none from meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products?

2)  Reply #2, the ‘complete proteins’ argument is a myth and needs to be put to rest once and for all.  The fact is, all plant foods contains all of the essential amino acids.

This myth is a carry-over from Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, which was actually written to make a contribution to ending world hunger.  In later editions, Ms. Lappe corrects her earlier oversight and adamantly states that all plant foods typically consumed as sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids, and that humans consuming sufficient calories are virtually certain of getting enough protein from plant sources.

Proteins are actually composed of amino acids. 12 of these amino acids are manufactured by the human body. Another 9 aminos, called essential amino acids, must he obtained from the food that you eat. Most animal products, such as meat and dairy products, contain all of the essential amino acids and have been designated as containing complete proteins in abundance. Most proteins from vegetables also contain all 9 essential amino acids, but 1 or 2 may be low in a particular food compared with a protein from most animal sources. Beans, are rich sources of all essential amino acids.

The old ideas about the necessity of carefully combining vegetables at every meal to ensure the supply of essential amino acids has been totally debunked. After  observing populations of strict vegetarians who were healthier and lived longer than meat-eaters, nutritionists now realize that all essential amino acids may be obtained from a variety of vegetables or grains eaten over the span of a day or two.

This is not news, especially if you have been following a healthy vegan diet for some time. But frankly protein-mongering is so rampant that the more sources of research and threads of enlightenment we can direct friends, family, and legislators to, the better. Arm yourself with the facts. Don’t get caught without an answer when someone asks you (and they will if they haven’t already!), ‘Where do you get your protein?’


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