Confused about Plant-Based Protein? Read this.

I want to share a little bit with you about protein. Even if you are not considering switching to a plant based, or even a predominantly plant based diet, it is still good to know some basic information on this important macronutrient. 

First, lets look at how much protein you actually need. Where does our information about protein and our daily needs for it come from?  

The levels of adequate intake for nutrients were set by the government in 1847, and were then updated again in 1974. These levels were set to be adequate for 99% of the population. (Pregnant women, The elderly and the ill will require amounts outside of the RDA) These levels were set by finding the levels that our bodies needed, and then by adding a “margin of error” to those values. This means that they determined the amount of a certain nutrient that the average person needed to avoid a disease state, and added a percentage to that number to allow for errors in their measurements.  The amount of protein that a person needed was only 5% of overall calories. After adding the margin of error, their recommendation for protein was 10-35% of overall calories.

Keeping these numbers in mind, that means that the average adult male needs between 50-60 grams/day, and the average woman needs between 40-50 grams per day.  Not very much!  To give you an idea, a head of Romaine lettuce has almost 8 grams of protein, a pomegranate has 5 grams, and a banana has 1.5 grams. This demonstrates that if you are eating adequate calories from raw and or cooked plant based foods, you will easily be able to meet your daily protein requirements.

Lets look at an example of a simple salad, and how many grams of protein you would get from it:

  • 1 head of lettuce – 7 grams
  • 1 beet – 1.3 grams
  • 1 carrot – 0.6 grams
  • 1 rib of celery – 0.4 grams
  • ½ cucumber – 1 gram

 Dressing of:

  • 1 tbsp Tahini – 3 grams
  • 1 lemon juiced – 0.2 grams

This would give us 13.5 grams of protein in one little salad!

There have been countless studies done now, that proves that eating a lower protein diet, one that is in the range of 5-10% of calories, is much healthier for the body.  You can read more about these studies “Diet For A New America” by John Robbins.

To prove this point a little further, there has actually never been a reported case of isolated protein deficiency in the world. There is not even a name for protein deficiency.  Kwashiorkor is the disease that most people believe means protein deficiency, when in fact it is a wasting disease caused by general malnutrition – meaning not enough food overall – not just a deficiency of protein. So, in short, so long as you are eating enough food in general for your body, you will never have a deficiency of protein. Studies have shown that if you ate nothing but potatoes, you would meet your needs for protein. You would obviously have other nutritional deficiencies, but your protein needs would easily be met.

One other issue we must talk about when considering protein is amino acids. 

There are 20 amino acids that humans need.  12 of which your body can produce or “synthesize” on their own from the foods that you ingest.  The other 8 are known as the “essential Amino Acids” because your body is not able to make them on its own, and thus you must ingest them through your diet.

It was once believed that you needed to obtain all 8 of those essential amino acids within one food.  Foods that contained all 8 essential amino acids were called “complete proteins” and those that contained only a few of the 8 essential amino acids were deemed “incomplete.”  Meat and dairy were deemed essential parts of our diet during this time, because they were complete proteins.  It was believed that plant foods were inferior, because they often lacked one or more of the essential amino acids.

Now we know that if you take in all the essential amino acids over the course of a week, your body is able to synthesize all the protein strands that you need.  You do not need to take in all at essential amino acids in the same meal, or even in the same day.  Amino acids are the exact same, whether they are ingested from a plant source of from an animal source.  Also, no matter which source we take them in from, our bodies still have to break down the protein chains (the chains that connect the amino acids) and build them back up together to suit the human form.

One condition that may lead to a deficiency in protein in an individual who is eating enough food, are those who have absorption issues. Individuals who have damaged intestinal tracts, or other malfunctions of the digestive system can be low in protein, as well as other nutrients.  This is not the foods fault, but a symptom that the body is damaged and needs some healing. Usually, a Naturopathic Doctor will work with someone who has absorption issues to repair the gut, and often they will prescribe a probiotic regimen, as well as recommend that the person eat more fermented foods. 

So, in summary, as long as you are eating enough calories overall, from a wide range of sources, and you do not have an underlying absorption issue, you should never have a problem meeting your protein requirements.

There are some people who have specific food requirements or food sensitivities that make it more challenging to meet all nutritional requirements on a totally plant based diet, so it’s just important for you to take the time to learn about your body and what optimal health and wellness means for you as an individual person. 

For more plant based protein sources, read our additional articles:

Top 10 Plant Based Protein Sources

Plant-Based Protein in a Nutshell (6 Key Sources + 15 Recipes)

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