Protein and the Plant-Based Diet by Erin Presant, DO, CCMS
Have you noticed how food advertising is heavily focused on protein? All kinds of products on the market feature “added protein.” Where did this protein obsession come from? There have always been trends in eating patterns, and the food industry doesn’t waste any time capitalizing on them. But is the protein emphasis really necessary? Are we really that deficient in protein that we need it added to almost everything, including water?
The answer for most people is no; you don’t need protein added to everything. Suppose you are a competitive athlete or have other health conditions that require a high-protein diet. In that case, you may need additional protein (but if that’s you, you are likely already aware of your individual requirements and are working with a specialist). But, for the average person following a well-balanced plant-based diet, no “added” protein is needed. Let’s explore why.
What is protein?
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Protein is made of one or more long chains of amino acids. According to the FDA, an average adult should consume about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For example, a 130-pound (59kg) woman should consume about 47 grams of protein daily. Our protein requirements increase as we age as we combat a process called sarcopenia, or natural muscle loss associated with aging. Therefore, protein intake between 1.2 and 2.0 grams per kg per day or higher is recommended for those over 65. This additional protein recommendation is the same for athletes, yet their needs will vary depending on their training regimen (e.g., endurance training or building more muscle mass).
We need 20 different amino acids, 11 of which our body can make on its own. The remaining nine amino acids need to be consumed through our food; they are called essential amino acids. It was once thought that some foods did not contain all nine essential amino acids. They were labeled “incomplete proteins,” and foods that contained all nine essential amino acids were labeled “complete proteins.” More recent science has shown that while some foods contain smaller amounts of certain amino acids, all plant- and animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids. Because animal proteins are more similar in makeup to human proteins, they have an amino acid profile closer to the human body. However, you can get all nine essential amino acids from plant-based protein sources.
Why do we need protein?
Protein helps to repair and maintain the function of our cells. It helps to build and repair bones, muscles, hair and nails. Protein is also part of our immune system, hormones and enzymes (a vital component that helps reactions in our bodies perform quickly and appropriately). Protein is essential in periods of stress (such as during illness or treatment for certain diseases, like cancer) and periods of rapid growth, including adolescence, pregnancy and breastfeeding.
What happens to a protein when it is digested?
When a protein is digested, it is broken down into its components, amino acids. Depending on the body’s needs (building muscles, bone, hair, nails, aiding in the immune system and enzyme production), new proteins are formed from various amino acids. Once those new proteins are formed, they are shuttled throughout the body to serve the purpose needed. Any unused protein is excreted through the urine. Excess protein cannot be stored in our bodies like we can store carbohydrates or fats. All that added protein in our food or protein powders often just makes for expensive urine.
If you eat a diet of varied fresh foods, including animal protein, the amount of protein you consume in one day meets the FDA recommendation easily. However, if you follow a plant-based diet, below are some great options for meeting your protein needs.
Ways to ensure you are getting enough protein in your daily diet Consume a variety of different proteins The variety will easily compensate for the deficit if a food item is low on a particular amino acid. For instance, enjoying lentils with green peas and tofu could provide over 20 grams of protein! Avoid the marketing hype of “added protein” in processed food Rather than buying processed food with “protein added,” concentrate on eating a variety of fresh vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. This is a better way to ensure you are meeting your protein requirements. Make sure there is protein in every snack and meal Rather than reaching for a processed box of crackers, chips or a candy bar, consider whole grains, nuts and seeds as great plant-based protein sources. Planning and making snacks ahead of time is a wonderful way to ensure you will get protein in every snack/meal. Here are a few examples:
Whole grain piece of bread or celery with nut butter
Fresh cut-up vegetables with hummus
Home-made granola with an array of nuts, seeds and grains.
Plain yogurt and fruit
Remember that eating processed and ultra-processed foods is never the best way to get any of your dietary requirements. Increasing your fresh food intake will make you feel better and healthier. Your body won’t miss out on any of that “added protein.” Save your money for the farmers market!
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Erin Presant, DO, CCMS
Erin Presant is a board-certified neurologist, fellowship-trained Movement Disorders Specialist and Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist who has practiced in both academic medicine and private practice settings. In 2021, she started Medicine of Yum, a new venture devoted entirely to culinary medicine.
Through culinary medicine, Erin loves empowering people to make healthy choices with their food and giving them the tools to be healthier in their kitchens. Medicine of Yum brings evidence-based medical dietary and nutrition guidance to people through virtual teaching kitchens. Her favorite part of the Medicine of Yum teaching kitchens is seeing the dynamic change that happens when people learn and do for themselves in their own kitchens.
Erin believes culinary medicine education will help bring about the social and public health changes needed to curb many of the chronic diseases that people struggle with today.