Do Plant-based Diets Provide Enough Protein?
We've all heard the argument that plant-based diets don't provide us with enough protein - but is it true? It turns out that animal protein isn't the only way to get our bodies everything they need.
Protein is just one prong of the macronutrient trinity, along with lipids (fats) and carbohydrates. Proteins are essential nutrients for the human body, providing energy and building blocks (amino acids) for all sorts of body tissues. Though best known for their importance in maintaining and building muscle, proteins play a crucial role within all of our cells as major structural components and in hormones, coenzymes, our DNA and much more.
Learn more about amino acids.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Proteins and amino acids are crucial to our health, but how much do we actually need to take in each day? The recommended daily intake is just 0.83g per kilogram of bodyweight per day for an adult.1 For a 60kg female this equals a daily recommended intake of a mere 49.8g of protein, while a male of 80kg should aim for a daily intake of 66.4g of protein. For children, pregnant or breastfeeding women these recommendations are slightly higher, as they need more protein to fuel growth - either of themselves or of their child.
While most plants contain protein in varying amounts, there are some that are positively bursting with it, making meeting these protein needs on a plant-based diet surprisingly easy. Tofu, tempeh and seitan are often considered the stars of the protein game, containing between 20g (tempeh or tofu) and 28g (seitan) of protein per 100g. Legumes (such as lentils) and beans are also excellent protein sources, serving 10 to 13g of protein per 100g. Whole grains and nuts are often overlooked sources of protein but they are worth considering, with oats (17g per 100g), pumpkin seeds (33g per 100g) or walnuts (15g per 100g) - all helping us reach our daily recommended intake of protein.
Plant Based Protein vs. Animal Protein
While our bodies can produce some amino acids all by themselves, there are nine of these building blocks which we cannot produce and need to obtain through our food. These are called the ‘essential amino acids’, and our diets must include enough of each of them in order to maintain our health.
Some critics argue that plant-based proteins aren’t ‘complete’ - meaning they don’t provide all the critical amino acids our bodies need – and therefore are of lesser biological value than animal-based proteins (which generally include a wider range of amino acids within them). While it is true most individual plants do not contain the full portfolio of essential amino acids, all the essential amino acids can be found in plant-based foods, so this problem can be easily solved by simply combining two or more plant-based protein sources throughout the day.
Research shows that rather than meeting all nutritional needs in every single meal, it is sufficient and sustainable to consume all necessary amino acids throughout the day.2,3 However, as an exception to the rule, there are indeed some plant-based protein sources that contain all nine essential amino acids, such as quinoa, soy, and even potatoes.4,5
Is Protein-Deficiency A Real Threat For Plant-Based Eaters?
Most people considering reducing the amount of meat in their diet worry about meeting their daily protein needs: “but where will I get my protein from?” is one of the most asked (and worried about) questions, and the idea of protein deficiency on a plant-based diet still bothers many people to this day. Is protein deficiency a real threat, though?
Protein deficiencies are very rare in industrialised countries. Illnesses resulting from prolonged inadequate intake of protein are usually associated with a general malnutrition, which is often found in developing countries. Studies show that once you meet your recommended number of daily calories, you will most likely consume enough proteins automatically.1
In places where a diversity of foods is easily accessible, meeting the daily recommendations for protein and essential amino acids can be perfectly possible without eating meat, especially when combining a wide variety of plant-based protein sources (which is advised). Of course, it might take some planning in the beginning and maybe even meal-prepping. Here’s some plant-based meals to give you some inspiration:
Plant-Based Protein Meal Plan
So when creating a plant-based meal plan, it’s totally possible to meet your protein needs! Here’s some inspiration for protein-packed meals throughout your day:
Around 1 cup of oats with a cup of soy milk and a spoon of nut butter will set you up for a great day and provide over 20g of protein.
A bowl of whole-grain pasta with a lentil-based bolognese and some pumpkin seeds will add another 20-30g of protein to your calculation.
Fancy a snack?
Go for a handful of almonds that provides you, amongst other nutrients, with 5-10g of protein on top - depending on the size of your hand!.
What about a hearty soup with some tofu, chickpeas and veggies? Count around 25g of protein for that. Or, even easier, two and a half slices of whole grain bread with hummus will serve the same amount.
This is just an example of a delicious day of plant-based food that provides you with a ton of vitamins, minerals, fibre and an impressive ~80g of protein.
Do you have a plant-based diet? What are your favorite plant-based protein sources? Let us know in the comments below!