Plant-Based Protein: Truths, Myths, and Best Sources
*Written by Adele at Nutriciously
It seems the world is obsessed with protein. People drink protein shakes before their workout. Body builders chow down on chicken, tuna, and eggs in order to get desired results. Plant-based eaters are constantly asked where they get their protein, and nearly every processed health snack references protein value as a reason to buy.
It’s no wonder, then, that when one chooses the plant-based lifestyle, protein intake often comes to mind.
Vegans and vegetarians are (unsurprisingly) more under fire from the protein hype, due to the common misconception that protein is only obtainable from animals foods. Thankfully, this view is becoming increasingly outdated, but we’re still having to field questions left, right and center about our protein sources.
When somebody first transitions to a plant-based diet, it’s easy for them to feel confused. They may ask questions like:
“Where can I get my protein from?”
“Do I need to take a protein powder?”
“What about ‘complete’ proteins?”
“How can I be sure I’m getting enough?”
The good news is, plant-based eaters definitely don’t need to worry about their protein intake. If you’re wondering about protein, hopefully, this article will provide you with everything you need to know.
How much protein do we really need?
It’s easy to see why protein has become such a big focus in modern diets. Sure, it’s incredibly important, being used for various jobs within the body. Protein forms the ‘building blocks’ of life and is used to:
- Build skin, hair, nails, cartilage and tendons, keeping them strong and healthy
- Form essential enzymes, antibodies and hormones
- Renew cells regularly
- Transport nutrients around the body
In the US, the daily reference intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight. If you weigh 60kg, for instance, your recommended intake would be 48 grams which really isn't that much.
And as it happens, protein does not have to be the focus of every meal for you to get enough. Of the 22 amino acids our bodies need, only nine of them cannot be created by the body. We call these ‘essential’ amino acids.
There’s actually a lot of overlap when it comes to ‘sources’ of these essential amino acids. Which means variety in your diet is so much more important than how much of one particular food or macro you eat. The greater the assortment of foods, the greater the odds are of you getting all of the essential amino acids your body needs.
“Where can I get my protein from?”
Vegans don’t need to worry about where they’re getting their protein or whether they’re getting enough protein because it can be found in every single whole plant food. Yep, that’s right - even those fruits and veggies you’re eating contain some grams of protein.
Plant-based protein has been shown to be much more beneficial to the body than animal protein. This is because it also contains healthy accompaniments of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals...in other words, they are “package deal” foods.
Animal protein, on the other hand, is devoid of fiber, which leads to poor digestive health, weight gain, and cardiovascular disease. It is also typically higher in fat and cholesterol which are major risk factors for chronic diseases, including heart disease.
Animal protein also comes with an increased cancer risk due to their higher proportions of essential amino acids. This causes our bodies to produce higher levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor-1 which can lead to cancer growth.
One of the proteins found in dairy, casein, is also strongly linked to several types of cancer.
Some examples of plant-based protein sources
The examples listed above are mainly whole, unprocessed sources of protein. Minimally processed foods like tofu, seitan, or whole grain flours are still healthy and can be included in a well-rounded plant-based diet.
While nuts and nut butters offer a good amount of protein as well, they are also high in fat. Therefore, they shouldn’t be used as your main go-to protein source, ideally. Instead, enjoy them sparingly as a protein-boosting addition to smoothies or salads.
The dangers of too much animal protein
Despite what the bodybuilders might tell you...you can eat too much protein. This might seem a crazy concept in a world that’s always telling us how important it is, but more recent studies are now highlighting the negative effects of eating too much protein from animal sources.
In a New York Times Op-Ed, Dr. Dean Ornish talks about the myth of high protein diets. He references a study which found a 75 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among ‘heavy consumers’ of animal protein under the ages of 65.
In other words, those who got 20% of their calories from animal protein were more likely to die from a chronic disease.