Hands down the most common question any vegan gets is “Where do you get your protein from and how much do you have per day?”. From a young age we are led to believe we need more protein than we can actually utilise in a healthy manner.
The more I have studied nutrition and read about metabolism and chronic disease, the more I have realised that protein is far from the be all and end all when it comes to achieving optimal health and our obsession with it has unfortunately come at the cost of of the quality of our overall dietary pattern.
Don’t get me wrong, we need amino acids (protein), and in particular we need to get the essential amino acids from our diet, however this is easily achieved and there are certainly more important nutrients that the general population should be considering. What’s really important to understand is that all of these essential amino acids that are required for protein synthesis originate in plants.
The claim that certain plant foods are “missing” specific amino acids is demonstrably false – Mariotti et al 2019
That’s right, all essential amino acids are produced by plants (see image below). So as humans we can either consume them by going direct to the plants or by eating an animal (an animal that ate plants directly or ate another animal which somewhere down the food chain got its essential amino acids from plants).
What’s true is that the amino acids in plants are in different ratios to those found in animal products, but more and more research is actually telling us that this is incredibly healthful. As you eat a plant-based diet that has just a modest amount of diversity (e.g not living off just rice, or just nuts), and eat enough calories for your body size and exercise levels you will get all of these essential amino acids that your body requires.
Now you know how to respond next time someone says ‘plant proteins are incomplete and thus don’t contain all the essential amino acids our body requires’.
Now that we have cleared that up let’s take a look at how much total protein we actually need and where you can find it on a plant based diet.
The RDI of protein for inactive persons aged between 19-70 is 0.84 grams per KG (0.38g/lb) of body mass for men and 0.75 grams per KG (0.34g/lb) of body mass for women (1). As we get older than 70 years of age, our protein requirement does go up.
Based on this and looking at science on protein and disease, I have put together a few macronutrient tables, which I find works for most people, and will give you a guide on the amount of protein you should aim for based on your activity level, physical goals and calorie target.
The Nutrient Reference Values set by the Australian Government advise the below with regards to the upper limit of protein intake per day:
No upper limit was set as there are insufficient data. However, an upper limit of 25% protein as energy is recommended which is why I recommend this for those who are VERY active. Otherwise you simply do not have the need for such levels of protein and as a nutrient it will be inefficiently utilised compared with eating more clean carbohydrates.
If anyone is telling you to jump on a diet that is well over 25% of calories from Protein then they are not considering your long term health and the consequences of excess amino acid concentration in your body and the associated chronic illnesses that will be significantly increased. Although animal protein is considerably worse in excess than plant protein (due to it’s amino acid make up) there’s no reason to consume any protein in excess. You may be thinking “What about the Keto diet”? There is no population that has been studied over time to conclude that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet is healthy in the long term and from what we know about proteins, they are strongly linked to causing cancer and ageing at high levels. In contrast, we have the ‘blue zone‘ populations to look at as populations that have displayed longevity, and at the core of their diets they stick to a largely plant-based, whole food diet without excessive protein.
In short, pretty much every single whole plant food contains protein but here is a list of some of the major ones!
To help visualise this let’s look at a scenario for an 85Kg male like me that is doing regular, moderate exercise per week including some running and strength training. My calorie aim is around 2,500 – to calculate your total calorie requirements checkout my macronutrient/calorie blog. For me, based on my activity level I need roughly 125g of protein per day. This can easily be achieved with 20% of calories coming from protein which falls below the max 25% of calories from protein that is recommended as safe. So I am comfortable that I am able to build muscle while allowing enough room in my diet for sufficient calories from extremely health promoting food groups such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Meal wise this could look something like the below to achieve this protein level. This is a regular day of eating for me that illustrates how 125g of protein is easily achieved.
TOTAL Protein: Approximately 125-150g of protein (note there will actually be slightly more protein than this as all your veggies you add to these meals also contain protein. I.e 3 grams of protein per 1 cup of Kale).
This is just one quick example of how easy it is to get the protein required for an 85Kg male that’s doing regular moderate exercise including strength training. To see the common foods I buy each week, including plant-based sources of protein, read this Vegan tips for maximising lean muscle gain and also my grocery tips and supplement blog. If you truly want to thrive and build lean muscle it’s best to use protein shakes as ‘supplements’ and aim to get AS MUCH of your daily protein from whole foods. This means more of your protein is coming packaged with fibre, unrefined carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and phytochemical which is likely to better when it comes to living more years in good health.
Lastly, for those of you who are not right into your training and just want to live a healthy plant-based diet, I wouldn’t stress too much on calculating your protein target. Just stick to eating according the the Plant Proof food pyramid and as long as you are consuming 3-4 serves or more of legumes per day you will easily be consuming enough protein.
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