I’m often asked how I get enough protein on a plant-based diet. Before making the switch to a whole food, plant-based diet, I had the same question. For a long time, I was under the impression that animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy were the best sources of protein. I knew that nuts and beans had some protein, but I never thought of vegetables, whole grains, and seeds as good sources of protein.
Our bodies reply on about 20 different amino acids to build proteins. Many of these amino acids can be synthesized when we need them, but there are nine essential amino acids that our bodies are not able to produce on their own. Animal-based proteins like meat, dairy, and eggs represent “complete proteins,” meaning they contain the nine essential amino acids.
However, from a nutrient-to-calorie ratio perspective, these foods don’t land in the nutrient-rich category, especially compared to plant-based, nutrient-rich alternatives. Additionally, animal-based sources of protein are naturally high in saturated fat, and saturated fats have been consistently linked to higher levels of cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
Most plant-based foods (with the exception of hemp, soy, and quinoa), are not complete proteins, but if you eat a wide variety of whole, plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds), you can easily obtain all of the essential amino acids throughout the course of your day. You might find yourself consuming a greater volume of food due to the lower calorie-to-volume ratio of plant-based foods, but this just means that you have greater opportunities to consume a diverse range of nutrients.
There are a handful of protein recommendations out there. Which one should I follow?
I realize there are conflicting opinions out there about protein requirements. The World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Institute of Medicine all have varying viewpoints about how much protein is too much or too little. Fortunately, their daily protein intake recommendations fall within a reasonable range:
- WHO: 0.83 grams for every kilogram of bodyweight
- Institute of Medicine: 0.8 grams for every kilogram of bodyweight
- CDC: 56 grams for men; 46 grams for women
To calculate your protein requirements using the WHO’s recommendation, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 and then multiply by 0.83. Based on this calculation, my daily requirement is around 46 grams of protein.
As you can see from the basic meal plan below (not including any snacks), it’s quite easy to achieve my 46 gram target while eating a balanced, whole food, plant-based diet.