Where Do You Get Your Protein?

This is the question that is frequently asked of vegan or plant-based eaters. I will often ask the person a question in reply: “How much protein do we need?” They usually have no clue and respond, “I don’t know, but it is a lot!” The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 0.8grams/kg (0.36 grams per pound of ideal bodyweight). The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 10-15% of calories from protein. This correlates with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines published by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion which cites 46 grams for a sedentary female and 56 grams for a sedentary male (based on a 2000 calorie/day intake). These recommendations vary some with the amount of activity, with athletes and body builders needing up to 1.2-1.5 grams per kilogram. So, for most adults, 50-80 grams of protein per day is what is needed.

Many believe that eating meat and other animal products is the only way to obtain protein. Some are amazed to hear that plants have protein!  A balanced plant-based diet provides very sufficient protein. Beans and whole grains are some of higher protein containing plant-based foods. Here are some examples of the protein content of common plant-based foods:

  • 1 cup of cooked beans or lentils = 15 grams
  • ¾ cup of tofu = 15 grams
  • 2 cups of cooked quinoa = 12 grams
  • 2 cups of chopped broccoli = 5 grams
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter = 16 grams 
  • 1 ounce of walnuts = 4 grams 

Those six items provide 67 grams of plant protein and 1,264 calories. So, achieving  2000 calories (or more) a day would easily give us the protein that we need.  

Despite previous beliefs to the contrary, eating a variety of plant foods will provide “complete proteins” and you do not have to be concerned about eating all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) at each meal as your body can store and combine the amino acids. While some plants are low in one or more of the essential amino acids (EAA), we should not rely on a single food for protein. With a varied diet, we can get all of the amino acids that our body needs from plants. Many of the animals that are commonly eaten for meat (e.g. cows) rely on plants to provide these essential amino acids, so there is no reason that we can’t likewise get our EAA directly from plants. 

So you see, it is a myth that plants don’t have protein and that plant-based eaters have to worry about getting enough protein. Google “vegan body builders” and take a look at those athletes and then see if you are still concerned about getting enough protein from eating plants!  It is actually quite easy to get more than adequate protein eating a balanced whole-food, plant-based diet!

By Michael C. Hollie, MD