Plant-Based Protein 101 | Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN

A recent report advised people to get the majority of their protein from plant sources. While this advice is nothing new, it grabbed headlines nonetheless. Here is a quick introduction to the basics of plant-based protein.

Why do experts recommend predominantly plant-based eating plans?

In terms of nutrition, plant-based protein foods tend to also contain other health-boosting nutrients including vitamins, minerals and fiber. Animal-based protein foods also may contain some vitamins and minerals but they contain no fiber and some are rich in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. Countless studies conclude that eating mostly plant-based is linked with better overall health across a wide variety of populations.

Additionally, it’s much less resource-intensive to produce plant-based foods. It’s no secret that climate change is having a serious impact on our world and that we’re struggling to feed our rapidly growing population. There will be 10 billion people on the earth by 2050 and in order to feed everyone, we need to make some major changes to way we produce food. Instead of feeding animals massive amounts of plant foods, we can eat a fraction of the amount of plant foods ourselves and be more efficient with resources. This is called eating lower on the food chain.

Bottom line: Getting most of your protein from plant-based foods is a good idea. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat any animal-based proteins. If you’re vegan, cool. If you’re not, consider treating animal-based proteins like condiments or once-in-awhile foods.

If you feel triggered by this discussion, it’s probably a sign you’re dealing with some disordered eating. Consider reaching out to a non-diet dietitian for help.

What is Protein?

One of the three macronutrients, protein provides energy and building blocks for our body. Many people associate protein with muscles but there’s a lot more that protein does in addition to building muscles, including providing structure for bones, skin and hair, enzymes and more. There are literally thousands of kinds of proteins.

Protein is made of 20 different amino acids, of which there are 9 that are essential to humans, meaning we cannot make them so we have to eat them.

All essential amino acids can be found in plant foods.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

Meat eaters love to ask vegans where they get their protein and vegans love to talk about how protein deficiency doesn’t exist in the United States. Well, what does a protein deficiency look like? How would you know if you’re eating enough protein to support your body’s functions? While it’s true that many people effortlessly eat enough protein, some people do not.

If you’re following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate (or the Plant Plate), you’re likely getting enough protein. But if you’re following a diet or restricting any foods, there is a much higher likelihood you might not be getting enough protein (and lots of other important nutrients).

Research shows, on average, vegans and vegetarians consume enough or more than enough protein. The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Vegans should eat slightly more than this (like 0.9 g/kg) because plant protein foods are not digested as well as animal protein foods. This equates to about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So if you’re a 150 pound person, that equates to about 60 grams of protein, which is not hard to come by.

We don’t need to count grams of protein. If we’re eating enough and eating balanced, protein won’t be an issue.

Individuals who are highly active or have certain health conditions need more protein. It’s best to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to get personalized recommendations.

Where Can I Get Plant-Based Protein?

The good news is protein can be found all throughout the plant kingdom. Some foods, such as lentils and soy, are great sources of protein while others, such as fruit, contain very little protein.

Here are two main rules of thumb to remember when it comes to plant-based protein.

Eat enough calories. This way your body can use protein for building, structure and other critical functions and not for energy. The last thing you want is your body breaking down its own tissues. In other words: don’t diet. Eat when you’re hungry and eat enough so that you’re comfortably full.

Eat at least 3 servings of legumes daily, which includes:

  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Soyfoods (tofu, tempeh)

Legumes are particularly rich in the amino acid lysine, which is limited in other plant foods. They’re also super affordable, a great source of fiber and overall wonderfully nutritious foods.

There is no need to “combine proteins” but you should eat a variety of protein sources daily. In addition to legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains diversify the amino acids you’re eating.

Click here to get my FREE list of 12 Plant Protein-Rich Meal Ideas!

Resources:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
TheVeganRD.com
Vegan for Life
VeganHealth.org
Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group

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A Vegan Dietitian's Guide to Plant-Based Protein

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