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Protein — Can you get enough on a plant-based diet?

by Okanagan Nutrition

Undoubtedly, the most common thing those who follow a plant based diet get asked is, “Where do you get your protein?”. This question most often comes from those who eat meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy — and fair enough! If you take a look at our food environment — recipes, grocery stores, cooking television shows — most all of it is centered around animal based protein. Meat being the star of the meal was certainly how I grew up.

So can us plant based eaters get enough protein?

Absolutely! When eating adequate calories from a variety of plant based foods you can easily meet or exceed the recommended protein intakes!

Lets break down some of the basics!

What is protein and why do we need it?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients, the others being carbohydrates and fats.

Protein is known as ‘the building block of life’ as it is found in every single cell in the body including bones, cartilage, muscle, skin and blood. Not only are proteins important for the structure of our cells, adequate amounts are needed for the production of signalling hormones, enzyme reactions for metabolic processes and support of our immunity (ability of our body to protect us from illness).

If protein is the building block of life, what are the building blocks of protein?

Amino acids (AA’s)! There are some (9 to be exact) that we call essential AA’s and others we call non-essential AA’s. Essential AA’s cannot be made by the body, meaning that we have to get them from the food we eat, while non-essential AA’s can be made by our bodies.

Foods that contain all 9 of the essential AA’s are known as complete protein. While most plants may be low in one or two of the essential AA’s, all amino acids, essential and non-essential, are made by plants!

A word about lysine …

Lysine — one of the 9 essential AA’s — is the shortest in supply in a 100% plant-based diet. It is the one AA that plant-based eats should be extra mindful of in terms of getting enough.

What are the best sources of lysine? Legumes like beans, lentils and tofu.

Just how much protein do we need in a day?

It is important to remember that the following recommendations for protein are based off of the ‘average’ individual. Depending on your age, lifestyle, activity or general health, your protein needs may be higher or even lower than what is recommended. Work with your health care provider and dietitian to decide what is best for you!

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein has been set at ~0.8 grams per kg of your body weight (0.4 grams per pound of body weight), however, the consensus among nutrition professionals is that this number should really be somewhere closer to 1.0 gram per kg of body weight (0.5 grams per pound of body weight).

I would generally recommend that those following a 100% plant-based diet should aim to get as close to 1.0 gram per kg of body weight protein per day as possible.

Why?

Because plants are full of fabulous fibre! Even though this is GREAT, the fibre makes the protein in these foods just a little more difficult for your body to digest and absorb.

Uncooked pinto beans

What plant foods contain protein?

Technically, all plant foods contain protein, some are just better  sources of the stuff. For example to equal the 20 grams of protein in 1 cup of tofu, you’d need to eat about 25 cups of spinach ... unlikely!

Legumes like tofu, lentils and beans, are the best sources of protein in the plant-based diet. But other sources include whole grains, nuts, seeds and to a lesser extent, vegetables.

Here are some plant based protein staples!

Grains
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats (5-6g)
  • 1/2 cup cooked buckwheat (10g)
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa (8g)
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice (5g)
  • 1 slice whole grain bread (3-4g)
Legumes
  • 1 cup edamame (17g)
  • 1/2 cup tofu (11g)
  • 1/2 cup tempeh (20g)
  • 1/2 cup cooked lentils (10g)
  • 1/2 cup cooked beans (8g)
    • Chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans etc.
  • 1/4 cup peanuts (10g)
Nuts and Seeds
  • 1/4 cup hemp hearts (14g)
  • 1/4 cup chia seeds (10g)
  • 1/4 cup ground flax (8g)
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seed (3g)
  • 1 tbsp nut butter (~4g)
  • 1 tbsp tahini (2.5g)
Milk Alernatives
  • 1 cup soy milk (8g)
  • 1 cup almond milk (1g)
Extras
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast (9g)
  • 1 tbsp spirulina (4g)

Putting it all together

Lets see just how easy getting your daily protein can be.

Lets say for example you’re a 150 lbs (68kg). Your estimated protein requirements would be ~55-68 grams per day.

Breakfast – Oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats (5g)
  • 1 cup soy milk (8g)
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter (4g)
  • 1 tablespoon flaxseed (ground), chia seeds or hemp hearts (2-3g)
  • Total protein = 19-20 grams
Lunch – Burrito Bowl
  • 1 cup brown rice or quinoa (5g)
  • 1/2 cup black beans (7g)
  • 1/2 cup smoked tofu (11g)
  • 1/4 cup salsa + cilantro (~1g)
  • Half an avocado (2g)
  • Total protein = 26 grams
Dinner – Lentil Curry
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk (2.5-3g)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth (nil)
  • 3/4 cup red lentils (13g)
  • 1/4 cup onion (nil)
  • 2 cups spinach (2g)
  • Spices: ginger, chili, curry power and salt (nil)
  • Total protein = 18 grams
Snack
  • 1 cup soy milk latte (8g)
  • 1/4 cup nut and seed mix (~7g)
  • 1 piece fruit (nil)
  • Total protein: 15 grams
Total daily protein = 79 grams

See how easy it is to get your recommended protein PLUS some!

Top tips for boosting your protein!

Include a variety of legumes (aim for 3-4 servings), in addition to other protein rich foods like seeds, nuts and whole grains, throughout the day.

Try and think of a source of protein for each meal and snack! Switch out your almond milk for soy milk, add nuts, seeds or soft tofu to your smoothies or oatmeal or snack. Try scrambled tofu with beans for breakfast and lentil or bean soups or salads at lunch.

Some of my favourite protein packed recipes

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