Sources Of Protein: Everything You Need To Know About Plant Based Protein (Part 1 of 3)

organic fruit and vegetablesWritten By Becki Andrus

One of the most common questions that people ask me is “If you don’t eat meat every day, how are you getting enough protein?” This is the first part in a series of blog posts to help you to understand what protein is, why it is essential, and how protein works– especially if you don’t eat meat on a regular basis.

Preface: I realize that we have to sift through a lot of conflicting health information, especially when it comes to the topic of protein.  My goal with this series of articles is to help you to understand the truth about protein, and debunk some of the common myths that are so prevalent in our society.

You can consider this blog post series your guidebook to protein, bookmark it and refer back often!

Types of Protein & Why Protein Is Important

The first point that I would like to establish is that protein is very important for healthy living– much of our bodies are made up of protein. Some vegetarians write off the protein debate because they don’t think that it’s that big of a deal, but this is false. Protein is essential for growth, repair and strengthening the body.

Protein is literally the fundamental building block for our bodies, so it is necessary to eat protein every day. Our muscle, bones, hair, blood, skin and nails all contain protein. Our body uses protein to build new cells, build tissue, and maintain everyday bodily functions. Many of the basic processes such as digestion, moving, and growing require protein.

There are various types of proteins that our bodies utilizes daily, a few of them include:

  • Insulin – to regulate blood sugar and metabolism
  • Hormones – All of the hormones in your body are a form of protein, hormones have various functions in our daily lives
  • Collagen & A-Keratin – Grows and repairs connective tissue, hair, and skin
  • Haemoglobin – Manages the oxygen in the blood
  • Myoglobin – Manages and stores the oxygen in your muscles
  • Myosin – Helps the body to grow and repair muscles
  • Fibrinogen – Defends the body against infection

All of these protein types are essential for the human body to be healthy and well. If you want a more in-depth outline of how proteins work, you can read this protein information on Wikipedia.

Amino Acids = Protein

Not all proteins are created equal, and (as you can see above) there are different types of proteins that are necessary for living. Each of those proteins can be made from amino acids, the amino acids are basically the building blocks that makeup the protein.

All together, there are 22 amino acids that humans need– 13 of which can be made by the human body, but the other 9 amino acids must be acquired through the food that we eat. The 9 amino acids that must be obtained through food are known as the “essential amino acids.”

The reason meat is commonly categorized as the “best” protein is because meats contain high amounts of all of the essential amino acids, so they supply the body with the missing building blocks that it needs. It’s basically a 1-stop-shop because all of the amino acids can be gained by eating 1 food item.

The problem with these complete proteins (i.e. meats) is that they contain high amounts of saturated fats, and low amounts of fiber… which can lead to illness and disease.

On the other hand, all of these essential amino acids can be found in plant-based foods, but they are known as “incomplete proteins” because they do not all contain the 9 essential amino acids. Plant foods contain various amino acids, but not all of them in 1 source.

So, in order to get the necessary amino acids it is VERY important that you eat a variety of whole foods. Protein can be found in vegetables (especially green colored vegetables), fruits (small amounts), nuts, seeds, and whole grains. (More on this later…)

Note: The only essential nutrient that cannot be found in plant-based foods is vitamin B12. But, this vitamin can be obtained through dairy products (such as milk, eggs or cheese), Red Star nutritional yeast, or supplements.

Even though B12 is a bit off-topic for this blog post (since it is not a protein), I thought it would be appropriate to mention B12 since it is the only nutrient that can not be obtained from plant foods.

The human body actually stores vitamin B12 and only uses a very small amount each day, so supplementing with occasional dairy or small amounts of meat can be a sufficient way of getting the B12 that you need. I add a little bit of cheese to some of my recipes, eat yogurt (Greek yogurt and plain yogurt), and choose to eat meat on an occasional basis to get the vitamin B12 that I need.

Why Plant Protein Instead of Animal Protein?

There are countless studies that show that animal protein (ie meat and dairy) can lead to poor health. Researchers are finding that high consumption of animal protein can lead to life threatening diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke. High consumption of meat can also cause other diseases such as osteoporosis, kidney problems, and liver problems.

Suggested Reading: These are some resources that show the correlations between animal protein consumption and disease.

  • The China Study is a fascinating read detailing an in-depth research study that was done on the effects of animal protein and health. There are many correlations that were made between animal proteins and diseases such as cancer, heart disease, etc. Be prepared to spend some time reading through scientific information and looking over the charts and graphs in the book– and your eyes will definitely be opened to the health implications of eating a diet full of meat and dairy.
  • The Oxford University’s Department of Public Health conducted a study that showed that eating meat 3x per week or less could save approximately 45,000 lives per year in the UK.
  • The American Cancer Society suggests that one of the best cancer prevention strategies is eating high amounts of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and limiting meat consumption.
  • According to the World Health Organization, in Westernized countries at least 30% of the cancer cases can be correlated with food choices. Additionally, it has been found that vegetarians are 40% less likely to get cancer. You can read the full report here: Cancer Facts

These are just a few sources that talk about the link between animal protein and disease, there are countless other studies and sources out there that come to the same conclusion.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The amount of protein needed is debated, various sources claim different amounts of protein are necessary. The basic protein amount that most people default to is the RDA’s suggested protein intake, and here are their recommendations.

Based on their report, a female 14 years of age and older needs 46 grams of protein each day, and males 19 years of age and older need 56 grams of protein per day. They suggest a little more protein intake for intense athletes, women during pregnancy, etc. Regardless of the protein recomendation source, most organizations suggest around 10% of total calorie intake.

Side note: The reason I am referencing the RDA is because that is the source that most people refer to when they are talking about the food pyramid. I personally do not follow those guidelines, because in order to achieve optimal health more fruits and veggies are needed and less dairy/meat is needed (based on the research that I have done). Remember that the big business of meat/dairy have strong influences in government and national boards.

So for example, let’s consider what it would take for a female to intake the recommended 46 grams of protein per day. Here would be a plant-based meal plan that would more than easily satisfy her protein requirements:

Breakfast
1/2 C bowl of oatmeal – 5g protein
1/8 C raisins – .5g protein
1/2 C chopped fresh fruit – .5g – 1g protein (depending on the fruit)

Snack
1 Apple – .5g protein
1/4 C Almonds – 6g protein

Lunch
2 slices whole wheat bread – 7g protein
2 TBS natural peanut butter – 10g protein
2 TBS natural fruit spread – 0g protein
10 Baby carrots – 1g protein
18 Cucumber slices – 2g protein

Snack
1 Clementine – 1g protein

Dinner
1/2 C brown rice – 2g protein
1/2 C black beans – 7g protein
3 C spinach (salad) – 3g protein
1/2 C tomatoes (salad) – .5g protein
1/2 C bell pepper (salad) – .5g protein
1/8 C walnuts (salad) – 2.5g protein
1/8 C feta cheese (salad) – 2.7g protein

Obviously there would be a few other ingredients added here and there for seasoning, salad dressing, etc– but we are just looking at the protein amount for the basic ingredients. The meal plan listed above provides 51.7 grams of protein… which EXCEEDS the recommended daily allowance!

Even if you were to decrease some of the nuts (almonds or peanut butter) and increase the vegetable intake, you could still easily meet the RDA protein requirements.

When I started following a mostly-meatless lifestyle, I tracked my protein intake for the first few weeks to be sure that I was getting enough protein. I often eat more raw/fresh produce than what is listed above (I try to eat 60-80% raw), and even though I was replacing some of the cooked foods with raw vegetables I was STILL getting plenty of protein.

When I realized that a varied diet filled with whole foods could easily satisfy the “protein requirement” I stopped tracking my protein intake. Now, I just focus on eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

My daily eating habits usually consist of large quanitites of fresh fruits and vegetables, beans every day, a small amount of nuts every day, supplemented with whole grains. Eating these foods in their natural form will provide sufficient nutrition.

Tomorrow will be part 2 of this 3-part blog series. I will be talking about: 1) Whether more protein = better protein, 2) High-protein low-carb diets, and 3) Soy protein. Don’t miss out on the rest of this blog series, subscribe to my RSS feed in order to receive updates when new content is posted.

Also, if you enjoyed this information, please help me spread the word. I would appreciate it if you could take just a moment to share it with your friends and family on Facebook, Twitter, or via email. Thank you!

Photo credit: val’sphotos

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