Proof There's Plenty Of Protein In A Plant-Based Diet
When first getting into a plant-based diet, the number one most common concern is protein. Now that you’re not eating meat or dairy, where will you get it, and how will you get “enough”? Seems like a reasonable question, right?
Well, first of all, most people don’t even know how much protein they’re supposed to get in a day, so let’s start there. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is currently 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight (or 0.36g per lb). For a relatively active adult, this is only about 10% of your daily calories — some nutrition experts argue that our baseline needs are even lower. The average American exceeds this, consuming around 16% of his / her daily calories in the form of protein. The current protein obsession is needless (and many would argue that it’s dangerous, too. But that’s a topic for another day).
…And what about vegetarians or vegans? Do they fall short on their protein needs? A study of over 71,000 participants following a variety of dietary patterns found that those eating semi-vegetarian, pescevegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and “strict” vegan diets ALL had about the same daily intake of protein as the average meat-eating American! Even without meat and dairy, they got more than enough.
Less than 3% of the American population actually has a protein deficiency, and this is almost always in cases of extreme calorie restriction. This is because if you are eating enough calories, you will automatically be taking in enough protein. In 99.9% of cases, this is how it works (if you have a condition that affects your body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients, you may have an issue, but then again, you would already be aware of this). Our bodies work beautifully with nature this way — they WANT us to survive. No over-thinking and critical planning necessary.
How is all of this possible, you might ask? Where is the protein coming from, if not from eating meat and dairy? Well, protein is one of the three macronutrients that are present in all plant foods (the other two being carbohydrates and fats). Let me reiterate this; in ALL unrefined plant foods, all three macronutrients are present. There is protein in black beans, and in bananas, and in broccoli. In fact — not that I am recommending this! — if you got your entire supply of daily calories from broccoli alone, you would end up getting 42% of your calories from protein that day (4x the recommended amount). The only foods that don’t contain all three macronutrients are highly refined foods like oil, which is purely fat; protein powders, which are purely protein; and sugar, which is purely carbohydrate. This is one of many reasons that it’s best to stick to whole, unrefined foods over processed foods as much as possible.
Okay, so if protein is essentially a non-issue, then is there anything you should worry about? As I mentioned above, you will consume enough protein (and other nutrients) as long as you consume enough calories. Probably the single most common reason that eating a plant-based diet seems to fail for someone is because they are not eating enough food in general. Unrefined plant foods are much lower in calorie density than the processed and high-fat foods typical to the Standard American Diet, so when you are eating a diet of whole plant foods, there is no need for portion restriction. You should eat when hungry, and stop eating when full. Again, our bodies are smart. We need to give them credit! Listen and eat intuitively :)
And while plant foods are not very calorie-dense, they are very nutrient-dense. This is why in comparative studies similar to the one noted above, those who eat meat-free diets (which typically means eating more nutrient-dense plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) have higher intakes of nearly every nutrient. To be specific, this includes fiber; vitamins A, C, and E; B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and folate; calcium; magnesium; iron; and potassium. And it gets better! Not only do those eating plant-based diets take in more of the good nutrients we need for optimal health, but they consume less of the harmful components of food like saturated fat and cholesterol. Pretty amazing, right?!
So, try not to worry too much about protein, or even other common nutrients of concern like iron and calcium, but do make sure that you eat enough.
The other thing I’d say to focus on is finding foods that you enjoy. A plant-based diet won’t be sustainable if you don’t like what you’re eating! Don’t try to eat something just because you heard it was particularly healthy, or a “superfood.” Yes, some foods have higher concentrations of some nutrients over others, but all unrefined plant foods are nutrient powerhouses — they’re all superfoods! If you hate kale, don’t eat it :) Maybe you love swiss chard, so try that! And maybe you don’t like bananas; that’s okay too! There are thousands of other sources of potassium — I assure you, you’ll be fine. Be adventurous in trying new foods, be patient in finding what works best for you, and follow your taste buds. There’s no one perfect way to eat a plant-based diet. If you find foods that you love, you’ll enjoy the food you are eating and that is what will bring you success.
Have fun with it! And remember, if you need a break from cooking, or are looking to really take your plant-based wellness to the next level, we have just what you need.
P.S. If you’re eating an entirely plant-based diet, the one nutrient that you should supplement is B-12. It’s made by bacteria in the soil, not plants or animals, and in our hyper-clean world where we no longer eat dirt-covered veggies, we should supplement just to be safe. You need just 2.4 micrograms per day, but it is important.