Guest post: powering up on plant protein
By: Lucette Talamas, MS, RD, LDN
One of the most frequent questions asked when transitioning to a plant-based diet and reducing/eliminating animal sources is “can I get enough protein?”
The answer is – yes, protein intake has been found to be adequate in vegan and vegetarian diets as long as the caloric intake is adequate.
What is protein?
Carbohydrates, fats, and protein are three macronutrients the body needs for energy and maintenance of the body’s structure and systems. While usually associated with muscles, protein is required for structure, function, and regulation or the bodies tissue and organs, including skin and hair. Protein is needed for a wide variety of functions in the body that involve enzymes, messenger proteins like hormones, and antibodies that work to maintain health.
All protein sources are made of amino acids. Different protein sources are made up of different amino acids. Protein from a variety of plant foods supplies enough of all the essential amino acids your body needs. In addition, each protein source contains unique vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, B6, B12), vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium.
How much protein is needed?
The amount of protein needed depends on age, gender, height, weight, and amount/type of physical activity. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Active individuals can increase protein intake to 1.2 – 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight, depending on the type of exercise, duration, and intensity. Vegans may need 1.0- 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to compensate for plant-based protein digestibility. Older adults may also benefit from a higher range of protein intake to combat the decline of muscle and strength that happens with the natural aging process.
A balanced diet is made of about 10-35 percent of calories from protein. Here are a couple helpful conversions:
- 1 gram (g) of protein = 4 calories
- 1 ounce of protein = 7 grams (g) of protein
Most people usually eat enough protein but can focus on selecting leaner varieties of meat and increase the variety of protein foods selected. Choosing more plant-based protein instead of meat can help to cut back on saturated fats while increasing fiber which is beneficial for heart health.
Healthful Protein Sources
- beans including dried or low sodium canned black, kidney, or white beans, peas (chickpeas and split peas) and lentils (brown, green or red)
- nuts and seeds like peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and any nut and seed butter
- fish and shellfish like trout, shrimp, salmon, scallops, sardines, tuna, mackerel
- low fat dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt
- unprocessed, lean meats (lean cuts of beef and pork), turkey, chicken
- fortified soy beverages, tofu, and soybeans
- whole grains like oats, quinoa, wild rice, brown rice
Not all protein sources are created equally. Of the 20 amino acids that make up protein, nine are essential amino acids which means that the body cannot create them so they must be supplied through the diet. These nine are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. All animal, seafood and soy protein sources are ‘complete’ protein sources because they contain all nine essential amino acids.
‘Complementary’ proteins are plant-based protein food combinations that provide all nine essential amino acids. A common example of a ‘complementary’ protein is combining any bean and grain (i.e. rice and beans). Over time, we have learned that it is not necessary to consume ‘complementary’ proteins at the same meal as long as a variety of plant-based protein sources are consumed throughout the day.
Therefore, it is important for vegan and vegetarians to include a variety of plant-based protein sources in order to consume all essential amino acids throughout the day. In addition, it is important for vegan diets to include tofu, tempeh, soy, lentils, seitan, beans and legumes which are plant-based sources of protein high in lysine (an essential amino acid usually in short supply).
Do I need a protein supplement?
Most people usually eat enough protein through food if meeting their daily caloric goals, so protein supplements are usually not needed. If whole food protein sources are not available, then third-party tested protein powder with high-quality ingredients may be a practical alternative to help meet protein needs.
Protein powders are convenient, especially for those strength-training, but not better than whole food protein. It is important to note that like other dietary supplements, protein powders are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety or efficacy.
About the Author:
Baptist Health Registered Dietitian, Lucette Talamas, is one of our favorite people to talk to when we have questions about healthy living, a plant-based lifestyle or anything else nutrition-related! Learn more from Lucette and other Baptist Health team members at their online workshops. You can follow her at @miamidietitian and Baptist Health @baptisthealthsf on Instagram.