Diets can be a lot like fashion. Fads come and go. Everyone wants to be on the latest diet. And governmental nutritional guidelines change like hemlines.
Nowhere is this truer than when we discuss the subject of protein.
Let’s clarify a few misconceptions beginning with how much protein:
How much protein do we really need?
No doubt about it. We definitely need protein; protein is contained in all our cells and is the building block of muscles, hair, nails, organs, skins, tendons, enzymes, hemoglobin, antibodies and much more. But just because protein is crucial to our health, does not necessarily mean that ‘more is better’. (In fact some argue that too much protein can even promote serious ailments like kidney disease, cancer, osteoporosis and kidney stones.)
And the common wisdom about ‘how much protein is enough’ is always evolving. At the beginning of the last century, people were told they could never get enough protein. Around the 1950s, high protein diets started to emerge and people were encouraged to eat as many as 100 grams per day. Today the recommended dose is less than half that—42 grams per day.
So how to calculate how much protein you need?
Everyone’s needs are different, but for example, a 160-pound person needs 58 grams of protein per day. A 130-pound person needs about 47 grams.
Here is a simple 2-step process for calculating your protein needs:
- Step One: Divide your current weight by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.
- Step Two: Now multiply that number by 0.8*. The resulting number is exactly the number of grams of protein you need each day.
* For people who engage in intense workout routines, you multiply that number by 1.2 (up to 1.5). Given that athletes and workout enthusiasts naturally eat more calories, the higher protein requirement will be easily met by their higher daily caloric intake, as long as a whole food, plant-based diet is followed.
How can you get enough protein when you are eating a plant-based diet?
So now we’ve solved the issue of how much protein you need. But where do you source your protein from? And is it possible to get enough when you adhere to a plant-based diet?
One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that ‘plant-based’ means low (or no) protein. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, protein is everywhere in a plant-based diet. And while some plant-based foods (like beans and nuts) have much more protein content, protein can still be found in virtually all plant foods including fruit and vegetables.
Many wrongly believe that only animal proteins can provide us with the essential amino acids we need to build muscle and body protein. The reality is you can get all the essential amino acids you need from a varied diet of beans, lentils, grains and vegetables.
The moral of the story is that even if you’re on a whole food, plant-based diet, you don’t need to count or measure proteins. As long as you’re getting enough calories from whole foods, you’re most probably getting plenty of protein.
Another misconception was that you had to ‘complement’ plant foods (i.e. they had to be eaten together) in order to get your full protein value. However current research suggests this is not the case. Any single whole natural plant food, or any combination of them, if eaten as one’s sole source of calories for a day, would provide all of the essential amino acids and not just the minimum but far more than the recommended requirements.
If you’re worried about “complete proteins,” all you need to do is add lots of variety to your diet. As long as you’re eating from the broad spectrum of plant-based foods, you’ll get all the amino acids that complete the protein chain.
Where most people are falling short is not protein—but it is fiber.
If you are sourcing your protein from animal foods, you might be getting lots of protein, but zero fiber. And not only do you miss out on fiber, you miss out on vitamins, minerals and hundreds and hundreds of phytonutrients.
The good news is that if you are eating a plant-based diet, almost all plant-based foods contain fiber. Whole, plant-based foods are, of course, the highest in fiber.
Plant-based proteins do an infinitely better job of meeting nutrient requirements than animal foods. Plant-based proteins are also less concentrated, making it unlikely that you’ll take in too much protein. And plant-based proteins are of higher quality because in addition to all essential amino acids, they deliver the fiber and phytochemicals that are missing in animal proteins.
In summary, plant-based foods are the best source for your nutritional needs—including protein!