Vegan Protein

One of the biggest sources of confusion for many of my clients is in regards to protein. Folks worry that they won’t get enough protein eating whole food, plant-based (WFPB) vegan, and they’ve usually been warned by friends and family about this. It turns out, though, that there’s a lot of misconceptions about protein, how much we really need, and what our bodies use protein for.

What is Protein and Why is it Important?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients our bodies need, along with carbohydrates and fat. Made up of long chains of amino acids, proteins are held together by peptide bonds into different structures. There are only 20 different amino acids which combine in different combinations to make up over 100,000 different proteins in our bodies. Of the 20 amino acids, there are nine that we only get from foodthese are called essential amino acids; the other 11 can be made by the body.

Once we consume proteins, the body works to break the peptide bonds holding the amino acids together so they can be absorbed and utilized to make new proteins your body needs. Note, if you eat collagen, you will not be necessarily depositing that collagen as collagen in your bodyyour body breaks down the collagen into its individual amino acids and then uses them to build whatever proteins your body needs, which may or may not be collagen! Thinking we need to eat a specific protein to deposit that exact protein in our body would be like eating an eyeball expecting to grow a new eyeballit just doesn’t work that way.

Energy comes from carbohydrates and fats, not protein. The optimal diet, according to the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine (PCRM), is made up of high carbohydrate, low fat, and adequate protein.

How Much is Adequate Protein?

The formula for how much protein we need is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight). So a 150 pound person requires 54 gram of protein a day. The USDA‘s recommended daily allowance (optimal amount, not minimum) of protein is 56 grams for men and 46 gram for women, calculated right from this formula. Those populations with the highest longevity subsist on a diet made up of only 10% protein.

What if we Get Too Much Protein?

According to the PCRM, from evidence-based medical studies on humans, chronic overconsumption of protein contributes to osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, heart disease, and obesity.

Is Protein Deficiency an Issue?

Protein deficiency is extremely rare in the United States. The bigger issue is too much protein. If you are eating enough calories, you are getting the protein your body requires.

What about the Difference Between Animal- and Plant-based Protein?

Animal sources contain exceedingly high amounts of protein, more than our bodies need. For example, a small, 6-ounce steak has 70 grams of proteinimmediately exceeding the recommended daily allowance of protein for an adult. The Standard American Diet is far exceeding the amount of protein required in the daily diet. But beyond the high amounts of protein, animal products are laden with cholesterol and saturated fats we don’t want, and completely lacking in antioxidants and fiber, dietary components necessary for human health.

Plants are full of proteins! Surprised? Where do you think plant-eating animals get their protein? Herbivores get their protein from the plants (grass, grains, etc.) they eat. The largest mammals, elephants, gorillas, cows, are all herbivores and do not suffer from protein deficiency. You will probably be surprised at the amount of protein in common plant foods:

Even apples and bananas contain protein! Apples have nearly 0.5 gram of protein for a cup of sliced apple, and there are 2.45 grams per cup of mashed banana. You can see how protein can quickly add up with plant foods. You can look up protein content of any food at the USDA Food Composition Database.

Not only do plants contain proteins, they are full of carbohydrates, our bodies’ preferred energy source, along with antioxidants and fiber missing from meat, dairy, and eggs.

Complete Proteins Vs. Incomplete Proteins

Years ago when scientists were first studying protein, they observed that most plants do not contain all nine essential amino acids (soy, quinoa, chia seeds, buckwheat, hemp, and flax seed are all plant foods classified as complete proteins with all nine essential amino acids). However, this should not be a deterrent to eating a plant-based diet, as remember, a WFPB diet includes a variety of plant products. All plants contain a varying amount of essential amino acids. While one may be lacking in one essential protein, another will be bursting with it, therefore you are getting a diet rich in complete essential proteins by including a variety of plant foods in your meals.

Resources on Protein

There are a lot of great resources about protein available out there:

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