Some Americans are obsessed with protein. Vegans and Live Vegetarian are bombarded with questions about where they get their protein. Athletes used to eat thick steaks before competition because they thought it would improve their performance. Protein supplements are sold at health food stores. This concern about protein is misplaced. Although protein is certainly an essential nutrient which plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it. In reality, we need small amounts of protein. Only one calorie out of every ten we take in needs to come from protein. Athletes do not need much more protein than the general public. Protein supplements are expensive, unnecessary, and even harmful for some people.
How much protein do we need? The RDA recommends that we take in 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram that we weigh (or about 0.36 grams of protein per pound that we weigh). This recommendation includes a generous safety factor for most people. When we make a few adjustments to account for some plant proteins being digested somewhat differently from animal proteins and for the amino acid mix in some plant proteins, we arrive at a level of 1 gram of protein per kilogram body weight (0.45 grams of protein per pound that we weigh).
Since vegans eat a variety of plant protein sources, somewhere between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per kilogram would be a protein recommendation for vegans. If we do a few calculations we see that the protein recommendation for vegans amounts to close to 10% of calories coming from protein. [For example, a 79 kg vegan male aged 25 to 50 years could have an estimated calorie requirement of 2900 calories per day. His protein needs might be as high as 79 kg x 1 gram/kg = 79 grams of protein. 79 grams of protein x 4 calories/gram of protein = 316 calories from protein per day. 316 calories from protein divided by 2900 calories = 10.1% of calories from protein.] If we look at what vegans are eating, we find that between 10-12% of calories come from protein. This contrasts with the protein intake of non-vegetarians, which is close to 14-18% of calories.
So, in the United States it appears that vegan diets are commonly lower in protein than standard American diets. Remember, though, with protein, more (than the RDA) is not necessarily better. There do not appear to be health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease.
It is very easy for a vegan and live vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some, and often much, protein. Fruits, sugars, fats, and alcohol do not provide much protein, so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein. However, not many vegans we know live on only bananas, hard candy, margarine, and beer. Vegans eating varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to maintain weight.
What about combining or complementing protein? Doesn’t that make the protein issue much more complex? Let’s look at a little background on the myth of complementing proteins. Protein is made up of amino acids, often described as its building blocks. We actually have a biological requirement for amino acids, not for protein. Humans cannot make nine of the twenty common amino acids, so these amino acids are considered to be essential. In other words, we must get these amino acids from our diets. We need all nine of these amino acids for our body to make protein.
Some people say that eggs, cow’s milk, meat, and fish are high quality protein. This means that they have large amounts of all the essential amino acids. Soybeans, quinoa (a grain), and spinach also are considered high quality protein. Other protein sources of non-animal origin usually have all of the essential amino acids, but the amounts of one or two of these amino acids may be low. For example, grains are lower in lysine (an essential amino acid) and legumes are lower in methionine (another essential amino acid) than those protein sources designated as high quality protein.
One of the questions that I always get asked is… “So where do you get your protein from?” Most people think that the only rich sources of protein come from animal products. However, there are protein sources from vegetables, beans, grains and seeds which contain a higher amount of protein than animal sources.
Below are some examples of rich vegetable sources of protein.
Quinoa – a seed from the Goosefoot plant, dating back to at least 3000 BC. It continues to be a staple food for many native inhabitants of the Andes. Usually considered a grain because of its cooking characteristics, the color varies from ivory, pink, brown, red to almost black depending on the variety. Quinoa is very high in protein – 1 cup contains 22.3 grams, as well as a number of vitamins and minerals including 102 mg of calcium, 15.7mg of iron, 357 mg of magnesium, 697 mg of phosphorous, 1258 mg of potassium, and 5.6mg of zinc. It is also considered a complete protein, as it contains all 8 essential amino acids
Hemp seeds – one of the most nutritious seeds we can eat, great sprinkled over salad, added to smoothies or shakes. one 3 Tbsp serving contains 11 grams of protein, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, phosphorous, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Tempeh – a highly nutritious food made from fermented soybeans, tempeh has been a staple in Indonesia for over 2000 years. A serving contains 20.6 grams of protein, as well as good amounts of calcium, phosphorous, manganese, potassium, zinc, iron and copper.
Almonds – one of the most nutritious nuts, to help improve our health and prevent illness and disease. Almonds are alkaline, which means that they help our bodies maintain a healthy alkaline environment, as opposed to an acid environment which is the perfect breeding ground for auto-immune illnesses and diseases such as cancer. One serving (about 20 almonds) contains 6 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 207 mg of potassium, 84 mg of magnesium, 147 mg of phosphorous, 1 mg of zinc, and the daily requirement of Vitamin E.
Beans – are known by many people to be a rich protein source, yet they also have the 8 essential amino acids, as well as a high content of vitamins and minerals. As to the amount of protein, depending on the beans, a one cup serving contains: Soybeans (29 grams), fava beans (22 grams), lentils (17 grams), red kidney beans (16 grams), black beans (15 grams), black-eyed beans, garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas), and lima beans (14 grams).
Alfalfa Seeds: Alfalfa seeds are sprouted and consumed for their 1.3 g. Sprout alfalfa seeds by soaking them in water and rinsing them periodically until the young alfalfa plants decide to pop out of the seeds.
Artichoke: Cool, boil and drain artichokes. Eating them provides 4.18 g of protein.
Asparagus: Regardless of whether it is canned, cooked, frozen or raw, asparagus contains a hearty amount of protein, with four spears giving 1.54 g.
Avocados: One ounce of raw avocado contains 0.6 g of protein. Avocados have a distinct taste that can liven up salads.
Peas: Split peas are another protein-loaded food, with a cup of split peas containing 16.35 g. Split peas also have a lot of fiber and are beneficial for the heart. Green peas have around 8 g of protein.
Beets: One cup of beet greens has 3.7 g of protein. Beets themselves contain 0.84 g.
Banana: Bananas have a high protein content compared to other fruits, with a cup of bananas containing 1.22 g.
Blackberries: Blackberries are another fruit that has a healthy dose of protein. Blackberries contain 1 g per cup.
Corn: Corn contains around 5 g of protein per 1-cup serving.
Lentils: Lentils are some of the most protein-packed vegetables around, with 1 cup of lentils containing almost 18 g. Lentils are also significant sources of fiber, fantastic for the heart and provide more iron than most other vegetables.
Other vegetables with protein include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, garlic, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, parsley, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Fruits that contain protein are apples, apricots, blueberries, cherries and grapefruit.
Comparing the amount of protein per serving:
Soybeans = 29 grams; Quinoa = 22.3 grams; Tempeh = 20.6 grams; Hemp seeds = 11 grams; Almonds = 6 grams; Corn = 5 grams
Chicken = 33 grams; Beef = 7.7 grams; Turkey = 6.9 grams; Fish = 6.6 grams
Although animal products have protein, they also have lots of bad cholesterol and saturated fats which do nothing to promote health. Actually, numerous studies have linked animal consumption to serious illnesses and diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. The China Study by Colin T Campbell is a good reference book.
And how much protein do we need on a daily basis?
Although the amount varies according to the degree of physical activity, an average person requires about 56 grams of protein each day. To work out the exact amount your body needs, multiply 0.8 grams of protein for every 2.2 lb of weight. So if your weight is 140 lb, you would need 51 grams of protein.
Imagine, if you have 3 Tbsp of hemp seeds in your breakfast smoothie or sprinkled over cereal, 1 cup of quinoa, 1 cup of black beans, 1 cup of corn for lunch, and 20 almonds as an afternoon snack, this adds up to 59.3 grams of protein.
As you can see, it’s not difficult to reach your daily protein requirement especially if you choose high quality whole foods, fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and seeds.
Next time someone asks you where you get your protein… you have the answer!!
I recommend eating a variety of unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day, so that if one food is low in a particular essential amino acid, another food will make up this deficit.
Even if you ate only one food and not the variety of foods typical of a vegan diet, you would probably get enough protein and essential amino acids. Remember, almost all protein sources of non-animal origin contain all of the essential amino acids. You would have to eat a lot of the protein source (if there was only one source of protein in your diet) to meet essential amino acid needs.