Plant Based Protein

The ever awesome Robyn Chuter from Empower Total Health has gifted us with her immense plant based knowledge yet again this month! This time, smashing that horrid question us veggie eaters detest hearing "Where do you get your protein from?" - Next time you get bombarded with that question send them here;

 Where do you get your protein?

That’s the question that every vegan or vegetarian gets sick of hearing! Most people think that meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are the only good sources of protein on the planet, so vegans must surely all be suffering from protein deficiency.

The short answer to this questions is that we get all the protein we need from plants, and as long as eat enough of a reasonable variety of plant foods to meet our energy needs, it’s impossible to suffer a protein deficiency.

But if you want the longer, more sciencey answer, here it is:

All proteins are built from compounds called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that are necessary for the growth and function of mammals, including humans. Of these, 11 can be made within our bodies, from other compounds. These are known as nonessential amino acids as it’s not essential to consume them in our diet. The remaining 9 cannot be made within our bodies. These are called essential amino acids since we – and all other mammals – have to eat them ‘ready-made’. These essential amino acids are all made by plants (as well as by bacteria).

What this means is that every protein found in the bodies of lions, whales, dogs, rats, horses and us humans, contains amino acids that were ultimately derived from plants. Without plants there would be no proteins – since all proteins are built from a mixture of essential and nonessential amino acids – and therefore no animals, including humans.

How much protein do we need, anyway?

Most people grossly overestimate how much protein they need, and therefore worry that they couldn’t possible get enough protein on a vegan diet. In fact, most people require at most only 0.8-1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Even men who regularly run or work out with weights, need at most only 1.2 g of protein per kg of body weight; female athletes require about 15% less than male athletes.

Let’s do the maths: a man who weighs 70 kg and runs for 30 minutes, 4 times per week would need 56-70 g of protein per day. A typical day of vegan meals might consist of:

Food intake

Protein (g)

Breakfast: ½ cup rolled oats cooked with ½ cup water and ½ cup soy milk, topped with 15 g almonds and ½ cup blueberries = 14g

Morning snack: 1 banana, 10 almonds = 4g

Lunch: 4 cups salad of spinach, rocket, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, cucumber, capsicum and avocado, with ½ cup hummus and ½ can 4 bean mix = 24g

Dinner: 2 store-bought lentil burgers, with 4 cups of mixed vegetables = 30g

After-dinner snack: 1 cup stewed rhubarb and apple topped with 30 g walnuts = 6g

Total: 78 g

As you can see, it’s ridiculously easy to meet – and in fact exceed – your protein needs on a vegan diet. People with a heavier build or higher activity naturally tend to eat more than those who are slighter or less active, so there’s absolutely no need for anyone to worry about protein, or take protein supplements, as long as they are eating enough food to satisfy their appetite, and eating a good variety of plant foods.

But aren’t plant proteins incomplete, or low quality?

You’ll often find plant proteins described as ‘incomplete’ or ‘lacking’ in one or more essential amino acids. This is completely untrue. All plant proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, but some have lower proportions of certain amino acids than are found in the flesh of animals, including humans. This might be a problem if you could only ate 1 type of food, day in, day out, but in Australia we have access to a huge variety of foods, all with a different mixture of amino acids.

Our bodies maintain an ‘amino acid pool’ consisting of amino acids that we’ve absorbed from food, and reclaimed from the ‘recycling’ of our own body proteins. The composition of this pool remains remarkably constant no matter what you eat, because your body simply retains more of the amino acids that came in in lower amounts from the last meal you ate, and dumps the ones that are in oversupply.

As a result, there’s no need to carefully select ‘complementary proteins’ in each meal, such as beans and rice or peanut butter and wheat bread. The idea of protein complementarity was popularised in the 1971 book Diet for a Small Plant by Francis Moore Lappé, but Ms Lappé acknowledged in the 1991 revised edition of her book that she misunderstood the biochemistry of protein at the time she wrote the first edition, and she no longer recommends paying attention to complementary proteins.

And as for quality, we should judge the quality of our proteins by the company they keep. Animal proteins keep company with saturated fat, cholesterol, animal hormones (such as IGF-1 in dairy products, which promotes a wide range of cancers), haem iron (which is linked with an increased risk of diabetes and bowel cancer) and fat-soluble chemicals such as PCBs and alkylphenols (hormone-disrupting chemicals). On the other hand, plant proteins keep company with fibre, antioxidants, and a wide range of beneficial phytochemicals which protect us against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and a host of other conditions.

The bottom line is that if you eat a variety of plant foods each day, according to your appetite, you need never worry about getting enough total protein, or any individual amino acid.

So when someone asks you “Where do you get your protein?”” you can answer ‘Straight from the source – plants!”

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