Can you really get all of the protein you need just from plant-based foods? Yes, you can…
“So where do you get your protein?”
Nine times out of ten, it’s the first question out of someone’s mouth once they discover that someone is mainly vegan. They often deliver it with a tone of sincere concern, maybe a light touch on the arm, a tilt of the head, and a skeptical expression upon hearing the response…
Okay, I get that since I’m on the slender long-limbed side, concern over whether or not I’m getting enough nutrients in my diet is not that surprising if based on appearances. But it’s definitely taken me some time not to automatically experience some exasperation upon hearing that question. After over a decade spent carefully testing various responses, I’ve crafted the following reply:
I get my protein from the same place that elephants, horses, gorillas, giraffes and cows get theirs.
That’s right: Plants, baby.
Who knew plant-based foods contain more than enough protein a human body needs?
So what is protein anyway? And why is it so important?
I vaguely recall learning about this in school (it’s been a while): Protein is made of amino acids and is an important building block for human bodies – for our cells, muscles, bones, hair, nails and skin, not to mention the production of enzymes and hormones. So while it is definitely important, eating too much of it over time can cause you to gain weight and compromise your kidney function, among other things. It isn’t stored in our bodies, so we need to consume it every day. And if you eat any food at all, you’ll probably consume some form of protein as well.
I also learned that I had to eat meat, poultry and fish in order to get protein. Period. Well-intentioned parents, schools, and media messages everywhere beat this into our skulls. They still do.
While animal flesh contains higher concentrations of protein, it also contains elements that are not healthy to the human body. And the body uses less energy to process protein from vegetables / plants than from meat.
Test Your Protein Knowledge
Did you know that orange juice contains protein? Or bread? How about potatoes? Mushrooms? Asparagus? Bananas? Blueberries? The plant-based list of protein sources is endless.
Pop quiz: Which of the following items contain the most protein?
- Black beans
If you guessed (2) or (3), you are correct! Per serving breakdown: Ham = 17.4 g, black beans = 22 g, tofu = 20 g and eggs = 6 g.
So a person just needs to eat a balanced meal consisting of grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds or other things like peanut butter, non-dairy milk, and oatmeal. In this way, they will more than meet their daily recommended quota of protein. In fact, for my body weight, all I need to eat is one cup of black beans and I’ve met my protein requirements for the entire day. But it’s best to eat as wide a variety of these plant-based protein sources as possible in order to get all of the amino acids the human body requires.
And here’s an added party bonus: When you eat plant-based foods, you also consume lots of vitamins, fiber and other nutrients that are important for good health — while NOT consuming things that like cholesterol and saturated fats that are detrimental to a healthy, disease-free life.
How Much Do You Really Need?
In the U.S. where obesity has increased to alarming levels, we’ve started to become accustomed to seeing overweight people. And so when anyone comes along who is lean and not overweight, some people assume they suffer from malnutrition or other food disorder. Quite the opposite is often the case. Because those who eat mostly meat are not getting the vital nutrients and vitamins found only in plant-based foods.
The human body only needs 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. I know, this part involves some math and my head already hurts a little. Luckily, I’ve got a calculator handy. So let’s see, 130 divided by 20 equals 6.5 times 8 equals 52 grams. As long as my weight doesn’t fluctuate too much (ahem), I won’t have to turn to more math calculations for this number.
Apparently, we humans started eating animals in order to survive when faced with extreme weather and land conditions that could not support plant growth or cultivation. I get that. And maybe we had extra sharp teeth and shorter intestines back then too. So our bodies could more easily digest meat. But that was then, this is now. And as long as we can visit a local farmer’s market, grocery store, restaurant or a garden in our back yard, we’ll find no shortage of plant-based foods.
In order to reach your daily nutritional requirements, you really don’t need to even think about it that much as long as you try to mix it up. You can grab some fruit and oatmeal in the morning, a sandwich, wrap or salad for lunch, some nuts / seeds and hummus for a snack, and a nice bean and/or veggie main for dinner. In this way, you’ve consumed more than enough healthy protein for the day.
Meanwhile, let’s just continue to marvel over this irony: Humans eat animals and use the need for protein as their main excuse, while the animals eaten did NOT need to eat any animals in order to get theirs…