“Where do you get your protein?” This is perhaps the most common question asked of vegans. “From all whole plant foods” is how I answer. Still, some think that eating plant foods don’t offer enough protein for optimal health, and therefore feel that we need to eat animal protein as well. But, plant foods do have protein, and enough of it if you consume a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and seeds.
Amino acids are the basic components of protein. Together, these components equal 22 different amino acids. Our bodies make most of these amino acids, but nine of them can only be supplied in our diet and are referred to as essential amino acids (EAA). When we consume foods with protein, the amino acids derived from these foods become fluids which our bodies then use to build and maintain muscles, bones, and replace cells and enzymes. Without amino acids our bodies wouldn’t function properly, which is why having enough protein in our diet is so important.
Many still think that animal protein is superior to the protein in plant foods, with essential amino acids. But, all amino acids are derived from vegetation. Even animal protein comes from the vegetation that the animals consume, and so it is plant-based foods that are the source of all essential amino acids.
The American Diabetic Association suggests eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains to provide all your amino acids and meet your protein needs.
How Much is Enough?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is depends on your age and gender. Adult women need approximately 46 g of protein per day, and adult men need approximately 56 g per day. And, since it’s recommended that we get 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, you can calculate the specific amount of protein that you as an individual need each day. Just weigh yourself on an accurate scale at the beginning of the day with an empty bladder, convert your weight from pounds to kilograms by dividing your weight by 2.2 (sincere there are 2.2 lbs per 1 kg), then multiply that amount by 0.8. For example, I weigh 120lbs, and this divided by 2.2 equals 54.5 kg, multiplied by 0.8 gives me 43.6. Thus, I need about 44 g of protein each day. I can then compare my RDA number with the amount of protein in grams that I eat in a typical day’s diet, to see if I’m meeting the RDA for protein. To determine how much protein is in the food, I need to read labels or look to a database of nutrients provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Below is a list of some plant foods and the approximate amount of protein that the U.S. Department of Agricultre shows information on, measured in grams. If I have oats and berries for breakfast, sunflower seeds for a snack, lentils and quinoa for lunch, either an orange or almonds for a second snack, kidney beans, brown rice, broccoli or romaine for dinner, and an apple for dessert, I will have had roughly between 54 and 70 grams of protein, which is more than enough for one day. I don’t worry about getting the exact RDA amount of protein each day, since it’s okay to have a little more one day and a little less the next.
• 1/4 cup of almonds has approximately 7.4 grams of protein
• 1 medium apple has approximately 0.3 grams of protein
• 1 medium banana has approximately 1.2 grams of protein
• 1 cup of bean sprouts has approximately 10.1 grams of protein
• 1/4 cup of almonds has approximately 7.4 grams of protein
• 1/4 cup of almonds has approximately 7.4 grams of protein
• 1/2 cup of berries has approximately 0.4 grams of protein
• 1 cup of broccoli has approximately 10.6 grams of protein
• 1/2 cup brown rice has approximately 4.5 grams of protein
• 1/4 cup cashews has approximately 5.2 grams of protein
• 1 tablespoons of flaxseed has approximately 3.8 grams of protein
• 1 cup of garbanzo / chickpeas has approximately 14.5 grams of protein
• 1 cup of kale has approximately 2.2 grams of protein
• 1 cup kidney beans has approximately 15.4 grams of protein
• 1 cup of lentils has approximately 17.9 grams of protein
• 1/2 cup of millet has approximately 4.2 grams of protein
• 1 cup of navy beans has approximately 15.8 grams of protein
• 1/2 cup of oats has approximately 3.0 grams of protein
• 1 medium orange has approximately 1.2 grams of protein
• 1/4 cup of pine nuts has approximately 8.2 grams of protein
• 1 cup of pinto beans has approximately 14.0 grams of protein
• 1 medium potato has approximately 2.8 grams of protein
• 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds has approximately 8.5 grams of protein
• 1/2 cup quinoa has approximately 3.0 grams of protein
• 1 cup of romaine lettuce has approximately 0.9 grams of protein
• 3 tablespoons of sesame tahini has approximately 8.1 grams of protein
• 1 cup of soybeans has approximately 28.6 grams of protein
• 1 cup of spinach has approximately 1.6 grams of protein
• 1/4 cup sunflower seeds has approximately 8.0 grams of protein
• 1 medium sweet potato has approximately 2.0 grams of protein
It is possible for vegans to not get enough protein. It’s suggested that 1 out of every 10 calories you take in be derived from protein. For most Americans, 15 to 20 percent of the calories they consume come from protein, which is 4 to 8 times their daily requirement. For most vegans, 10 to 12 percent of their calories come from protein. If the caloric intake of a vegan is insufficient, however, they may not be getting enough protein. Anorexia, depression, poverty, and a lack of appetite due to an illness could be the cause for not getting enough calories and protein. It’s also possible for vegans to not get enough protein if the plant foods that are higher in protein are not being included in their diet, due to most of their caloric intake being from soda, chips, french fries, candy and other junk foods, or because they live in an area where there are few vegan options, or they are picky eaters who eat nothing but salad, or they avoid the higher protein foods due to digestive problems.
It is recommended that we consume at least 5 fresh raw fruits and vegetables a day, and vegans often consume more than this. And the vegans who include beans, grains, nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables and other vegetables in their daily diet are most likely meeting their RDA of protein.
Meat-eaters can easily eat more protein than what is recommended by the RDA. Consuming enough protein is essential for optimal health, but more isn’t necessarily better. Too much protein is thought by some to alter calcium absorption, which can lead to kidney disease and osteoporosis. Some also feel that too much protein can lead to liver damage, dehydration, and gout. And yet, there is evidence on the other side of the fence as well, which suggests that higher protein diets are beneficial for appetite reduction, lean muscle preservation, and fat loss. Since I’m not on a high-protein diet, I’m not overly concerned as to how much protein is too much protein. I am concerned, however, over what kind of protein is best for human consumption; animal or plant-based?
It’s true that beef, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, are high in protein, which makes it easy for those who consume these foods to meet RDA standards. But, human beings are not carnivorous animals. A wolf is carnivorous, with sharp teeth for ripping apart meat and a stomach that is able to completely digest animal protein. Your human stomach can’t fully digest meat; it leaves amounts of undigested meat to pass into your long intestinal tract. But, your stomach and intestine knows how to completely and quickly digest vegetable protein.
Much of the farmed meat of today is full of antibiotics, sedatives, growth hormones, and chemical feed mixtures or GMO (genetically modified organism) feed. Meat and fish that isn’t wild game or wild caught, or isn’t labeled organic and non-GMO can bring toxins into your body, cause food allergies, and perhaps lead to one or more various and perhaps serious illnesses. But in all fairness, GMO plant foods that are not organic may be just as bad. Which is why reading labels and buying organic produce is so important.
What I find most interesting is that animal protein raises blood cholesterol levels, while plant protein lowers it. The American Heart Association makes it known that lower levels of cholesterol reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. So, it would make sense for doctors to prescribe a plant-based diet to those needing to lower their cholesterol. Some may also need a prescribed cholesterol lowering drug. I would like to think that a drug be prescribed as a last resort, but I have a feeling that it’s often considered even before seeing if a plant-based diet is enough in and of itself. U.S.News reported in an article by Angela Haupt titled, Health Buzz: America’s Most Popular Drugs, that the top 10 most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States include painkillers, anti-diabetes pills, statins used to treat high cholesterol, and blood-pressure-lowering drugs.
Transitioning over to a vegan diet may at first cause digestion problems, especially when consuming beans and cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, cress, bok choy, and broccoli). But, your body will adjust as you continue on the diet because it will produce more enzymes, which help to process food. At first, try small quantities of the foods that bother you, and chew your food well, which gets the digestive process going. Dr. Don Colbert, in his book Toxic Relief: Restore health and energy through fasting and detoxification, suggests that those with a sensitive gastrointestinal tract often do better to separate fruit from vegetables when eating or juicing. If pain, bloating, gas or diarrhea occurs after eating or drinking a juice to next time omit one of the fruits or vegetables so to identify which is causing the problem, and avoid the that one in the future. If you choose to reintroduce problem food, do it gradually (not every day) and with small portions.
“Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot” is a schoolyard saying and song about the ability of beans to contribute to flatulence (a release of accumulated gas). This is a healthy normal function where by the intestines dilutes carcinogenics and stimulates beneficial bacterial growth. It’s great for good health, but embarrassing in social settings.
The two main things that cause gas are fermentation of carbohydrates that reach the large intestine, and swallowing air. You can reduce the amount of air you swallow by eating slowly, avoiding carbonated beverages and beer, and not chewing gum or sucking on candy. As for the other, don’t over eat, which will prevent small amounts of undigested food ending up in the colon. And, take an enzyme such as Bean-zyme to help break down carbohydrates before reaching the colon. Also, eat beans regularly to encourage the growth of bacteria flora which are efficient in completely digesting bean sugars and reduce gas. Start with small portions, once or twice a week, then increase the portion size over time. A small amount of lentils or split peas can be added to soups, stews, and salads, for example, and later larger beans can be included and eventually consumed more frequently.
If you didn’t know before, you know now that it’s possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet. Does this make you want to become vegan? If so, remember that being vegan is a little more complex than simply eating vegetables. The good news is, you don’t have figure it out on your own. Today there are numerous books available on the subject of being vegan, which can help to make the transition a little easier. Just look to your local library or buy books such as these:
Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet
by Jack Norris, Virginia Messina
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Living, Second Edition (Idiot’s Guides)
by Brenda David, R.D. and Vesanto melina, M.S., R.D.
Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
by Brenda Davis, Vesanto Melina
Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet, by Brenda David, R.D. and Vesanto melina, M.S., R.D.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Living, Second Edition (Idiot’s Guides), by Beverly Lynn Bennett and Ray Sammartano.