How much protein do I actually need?
There are certain people who will need more protein, such as those who are pregnant or nursing, and athletes. But for the average person, the U.S. recommended daily allowance of protein is .36 grams per pound of bodyweight.
To do the math, multiply your body weight by .36. If you’re 140 pounds, for example, that comes to about 50 grams of protein daily.
What does that look like in your diet? A quarter-pound burger has about 28 grams protein. That and couple of eggs and you’re already getting close to the maximum amount of protein your 140-pound frame needs.
But can a bodybuilder or athlete get enough protein from plants?
- Bodybuilder Alex Dargatz won the 2005 World Bodybuilding title, after five years on a vegan diet. Read about Dargatz and other vegan bodybuilders here.
- For more than five years, Michael Arnstein has been not just a vegan but a fruitarian – someone whose diet is almost entirely fruit-based. Crazy, right? Apparently not. Arnstein is also a frequent top-finisher in long distance races, and has even won several 100-mile trail races, including the HURT 100 in Honolulu, Hawaii, in January, getting the fifth-fastest in the race’s history. Read more about Arnstein here.
How does a vegan or vegetarian get protein?The thing to know is that protein is made up of amino acids. And amino acids are found in many plant based foods, including legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Our bodies need to break down the complete proteins that we consume into amino acids so that we can get the nutrients we need from them. The body then essentially rebuilds the amino acids back up into protein once again. The theory then is that, by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, they will collectively provide us with all the same amino acids we would get from a single meat source, and that consuming it this way is easier on the digestive system by eliminating the need for it to break the protein down into amino acids.
It is important though to remember that while animal protein sources are generally complete, most plant-based proteins are not. Each one will have some of the amino acids you need, so you’ll need to combine a variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet to ensure a complete package of the amino acids your body needs. You needn’t eat them all at the same time; just vary your diet intelligently (with planning) throughout the day and you’ll end up with the protein you need.
Best sources of protein from plant-based foods
Some of the best sources of vegetable protein are lentils (about 18 grams of protein/cup), Chickpeas (12 grams/cup), Black beans (about 15 grams per cup), and quinoa (9 grams/cup). Quinoa is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids.
Also look to tofu, soy beans, nuts or nut butters, and unprocessed grains like oats, rice, amaranth, and spelt.
Here are some unique but valuable plant-based sources of amino acids that you may not have considered:
- Hempseed – Hemp is known as a terrific source of omega oils and antioxidants, but it also contains 20 amino acids – one of the few plant-based foods that are a complete protein source.
- Spirulina and chlorella – The superfood spirulina is extraordinarily dense in protein, giving you 7 grams of it in a single tablespoon. Chlorella, another superfood, also gives you a great deal of protein, providing all the essential amino acids that your body can't manufacture. And both contain a broad variety of other nutrients.
- Chia seeds – Chia is a primo source of calcium, potassium, antioxidants, omega-3 oils, fiber, and – you guessed it – protein. It’s consider a complete protein too, comprised of as much as 21% protein.
- Bee pollen – the nutrient-rich pellet made by honeybees – possesses the nearly all the nutritional substances we need for survival and health, including B-complex, amino acids, and more accessible protein per ounce than that of any animal source.
For more information from the USDA on protein sources, check out choosemyplate.gov.