When the topic of a plant based diet comes up, the most talked about concern is protein. If you are at a barbecue and not eating meat, someone is sure to ask you where you get your protein.
Proteins are compounds derived from chains of amino acids and have various functions in the body eg structural (hair/muscle), enzymes and antibodies.
Quality vs Quantity
Quality: In total there are twenty different amino acids which come together in various combinations to make protein. Our bodies are unable to make nine of these. These nine amino acids are called ‘essential amino acids’ and must come from our diet. Meat which comes from muscle tissue, contains all nine of these essential amino acids. Each of these essential amino acids can be found in plant foods. Therefore the quality of your protein intake on a plant based diet can easily be equivalent to a diet which includes meat.
Quantity: People on a plant based diet are often asked ‘how do you get enough protein?’ But most people don’t know how much protein the body actually needs.
The estimated average requirement for protein is 0.5-0.6g/kg of body weight protein per day. The recommended intake ( which covers two standard deviations i.e 98% of the population) is 0.8g/kg of body weight per day which is 8- 10% of our total daily calories intake coming from protein.
So even if you ate only potatoes (not recommended), you would still get easily enough protein on a plant based diet!
There are often questions about athletes and body builders eating a plant based diet. There are many world renowned athletes that are plant based. Just increasing protein can increase the chance of harmful effects from too much protein, however eating more is the key. We instinctively feel more hungry when we exercise. Nature has ensured that if we eat more whole foods we will still be getting the perfect amount of protein for our bodies (8-10% total calories).
More info on Protein
Other concerns are around combining amino acids. This was made trendy in ‘A Diet for a Small Planet’ by author Frances Moore Lappe. Who claimed that plant proteins needed to be combined in a meal to get all eight essential amino acids at once. The author has revised her opinion since writing the book. She states now to agree with new scientific evidence stating that as long as all eight essential amino acids are consumed at some point in the day the body can store amino acids for later use.
There are some nutrition experts who feel the essential amino acid lysine needs particular attention for people eating a plant based diets. Lysine is only high in certain plant foods. The recommended daily intake of lysine is 38mg/kg day of body weight. Therefore it is important to try to include around three servings of some lysine rich foods a day.
|Lysine rich food||Lysine in a typical serve|
|Tempeh||(1/2 cup) 754mg|
|Seitan||(85g serve) 656mg|
|Lentils||(1/2 cup) 624mg|
|Edamame beans||(1/2 cup) 577mg|
|Black beans||(1/2 cup) 523mg|
|Quinoa||(1 cup) 442mg|
|Soy milk||(1cup) 439mg|
|Pumpkin seeds||(1/4cup) 360mg|
|Peanut butter||(2 Tablespoons) 290mg|
If you are still unsure if plant eaters can get enough protein to grow big and tall one only needs to look at nature. Most of the world’s largest animals like the elephant and hippo are plant eaters!
Tips for protein
Eat three servings of lysine rich foods a day eg a peanut butter sandwich, lentil soup, soy milk smoothie, ¼ cup pumpkin seeds on your salad…
If you exercise a lot you don’t need protein potions, just eat more whole plant foods.
Get creative with nuts, lentils, seeds and beans.