One of the first questions I get when I tell people that I’ve switched to a mostly plant based diet is “What about protein!?” Most people associate dairy and meat with protein and don’t realize how much protein is actually in plants. After watching Forks Over Knives and now that I’m reading The China Study, I’ve learned more about why Americans (and most 1st world countries) are so obsessed with filling up on plenty of animal based protein.
The human body needs protein to survive, not only to build muscle but also to build every structure in our bodies – from our nails to our organs to our skin. The word “protein” was coined by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1838 (source) and ever since, has been considered the most important nutrient that our bodies need. You will be hard pressed to find an exact number of grams of protein that your body needs each day since there are so many schools of thought on this topic, but the general consensus is pretty high, especially for athletes. When I was training for Ironman, I went to the doctor and the first thing she told me to change when I told her I was training for 140.6 miles was to eat more protein, specifically lean meat and low fat dairy. I even wrote a blog post about it. I ultimately decided that I needed about 108 g of protein per day. Another calculation of daily protein requirement that I found is that we need about .37 grams per pounds of body weight, putting a 140 woman at a need for about 51.8g/day.
However, Dr. Campbell argues, as a result of seventy-grant-years of peer-reviewed research he and his colleagues have conducted, that human beings actually need much less protein than typically recommended and that all of the protein required by the human body can be, and should be, obtained from plant-sources. The 10 year China Study which is discussed in the identically named book and the documentary Forks Over Knives, revealed an astounding link between the consumption of animal protein and disease, specifically cancer, heart disease, brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, kidney stones, osteoperosis, and autoimmune diseases such as MS, rhueumatoid arthritis, and Type 1 diabetes. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, the documentary and book have changed my diet completely and I am now following a mostly plant based diet.
How Do You Get Enough Protein From Plants?
Although Dr. Campbell argues that we need less protein than typically consumed by the average American (the average American consumes 15-20% of their calories from protein whereas we need more like 10%), we still do need to consume protein to function and flourish. In order for protein to be built by the human body, a chain of 20 amino acids must be formed. It is helpful to think of the protein chain as a string of brightly colored beads and each amino acid is assigned a unique colored bead. The strand will not be complete until it contains one of each of the twenty beads.
Eleven of these amino acids are formed naturally in the human body (called non-essential) and nine must be consumed via our food (called essential). The most efficient method of obtaining protein is to eat something that contains all 9 of these essential amino acids. The most efficient meat to eat in this case would be human flesh. Gross huh? Well if we’re going from an efficiency standpoint, that’s it. Since human flesh is obviously not appealing (or feasible), humans opt to the next best thing – animal flesh. Animal meat as well as dairy and eggs contain all 9 essential amino acids and are therefore considered “complete proteins.” Most plants, however, do not contain all 9, although there are some exceptions (soy and quinoa). Although it seems like it’s more work to get your protein from plants, in the long run it is much more beneficial for you to do so. And the good news is, your strand of amino acid beads doesn’t have to be built with just one food at a time and you don’t even need to build a complete strand all at one meal. By eating a wide variety of plant based proteins, you will have no problem getting enough complete protein strands. If at one meal you are missing a few beads of lysine, you can make up for it in your next meal or two and have no issues. Since most plant-based foods are only missing one or two of the essential amino acids, it’s not hard to create complete proteins.
An argument for a different day, soy is not my number one choice for protein, despite it’s “complete protein” status, due to a slew of possible health concerns, including infertility in women and it’s affect on the absorption of other nutrients when consumed. The good news is, soy’s sprouted friend, tempeh is devoid of these risks and is a great source of plant-based protein.
So how do I get my protein? Here’s a list of some of the best plant-based protein sources:
- Black Beans
- Ezekiel Bread (made from sprouted grains and legumes)
- Garbanzo Beans
- Broccoli (more protein per ounce than steak)
- Kidney Beans
- Brown Rice
- Peanut Butter
- Sweet potatoes
The good news is, if you are eating a diet that has a variety of the foods above as well as other fruits, grains and vegetables, you will get the protein you need. If you are an athlete, you will get the additional protein you need because you will naturally increase your calorie intake, thereby increasing the amount of protein you eat.
A Sample Vegan Daily Diet
Here’s an example of what I eat in one day, including protein content and if significant, lack of essential amino acid. If an amino acid is mentioned as being absent, the remaining amino acids are present.
- 1/2 cup Coach’s Oats oatmeal, measured dry – Coach’s Oats ( 9 g- low in methionine + cystine)
- 1 cup almond milk (1 g)
- 1/2 banana (1 g – low inmethionine + cystine)
- 1 ounce almonds (6g – low in lysine and methionine)
- 2 pieces Ezekiel bread (10g – a complete protein)
- 2 tbsp hummus (2g)
- 1/4 avocado (1g)
- cucumbers, tomato, spinach, onion and roasted red peppers (~1g)
- 1 cup quinoa black bean and apricot salad (~8g – a complete protein)
- 1 cup grapes (1g)
- Luna bar (9g)
- 1 cup brown rice (5 g – low in lysine)
- 1 cup homemade lentil curry (18 g, low in methionine + cystine)
- 1 cup broccoli (3 g)
Total grams of protein: 75
The above is a very typical day for me and I’m getting well over my daily requirement. On days where I have a more strenuous workout, I’ll actually eat more than listed above and as long as I’m eating fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains, I’m adding to that protein total.
Names of 9 Amino Acids:
- Methionin + Cysteine
- Phenylalaine + Tyrosine
No Meat Athlete- list of vegetarian protein and amino acids: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-protein/
The China Study: http://www.thechinastudy.com/
Self’s Nutrition Calculator (indicates which amino acids are present in every food): http://nutritiondata.self.com/