“But where do you get your protein?”
As a vegan, a nutrition professional and an athlete, I get this question more than any other.
At a recent talk I gave on vegetarian nutrition to 200 dietitians at the American Dietetic conference, my message about protein was that it should be a non-issue: High quality protein is abundant in plant foods.
Yes, even for athletes. So what happened at the end of my presentation?
A dietitian approached me and said, “I understand what you are saying, but how do vegans get protein?”
If you’re confused about protein on a plant-based diet, are wondering about vegan protein sources, or have a feeling in the back of your mind that you aren’t getting enough, relax — you are not alone. It’s often the biggest concern of people transitioning to a plant-based diet. The good news is that vegetarians (even vegans!) can and do get enough protein. Easily.
This is the message I have to share with the world. I’d like to start with this article for No Meat Athlete, one of my favorite sites.
What exactly is protein?
Protein, most simply, is a combination of amino acids. These amino acids have specific roles in our bodies, from metabolism to muscle development. Nine of them are absolutely essential to our basic functions, because they can’t be created by our bodies.
When we talk about dietary protein and getting enough, our concern is with these indispensable amino acids.
So how much protein do you need?
In the U.S., the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. (For those whose eyes have already glazed over because you’ve now seen two numbers with decimal points in them, the USDA provides a handy DRI calculator.)
This equates to roughly 10-15 percent of your total calories—remember that every gram of protein has four calories. Vegetarians and vegans easily get this amount of protein.
Why the advice that “athletes need more protein” is misleading
Sure, athletes need more protein than non-athletes. But we also need more carbohydrates and fat—our overall caloric needs are much higher since we burn so much energy in our training.
So because we’re eating more calories, we’re automatically consuming more protein if we stay at 10-15 percent of the total.
For example: I’m about 80 kilograms and I need 2500 calories most days. If I want ten percent of those calories to be from protein, then I need about 63 grams of protein.
When I’m Ironman training or have an otherwise heavy load, my caloric needs double. Therefore, so does my protein, to 126 grams.
I tell the vegan athletes I consult to shoot for 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. You can see from my numbers above that even when protein is only ten percent of calories, I’m getting 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight.
Contrary to what most people believe, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to protein. The body can only process so much per day, and any additional protein is inefficiently converted to energy or even stored as body fat.
Don’t stress over combining incomplete proteins at meals
If I am going to rid the world of ignorance about plant proteins, I’m going to start by eliminating the phrase “incomplete protein.” It is misleading and biased and vegetarians should stop using it.
The problem with the idea of complete and incomplete proteins is this: It assumes we only eat one type of food!
It’s an example of a common mistake in the nutrition field: focusing on the specific nutrients of one food without seeing it in the context of an entire diet. Saying a protein is incomplete ignores the big picture and is often used by pseudo-nutritionists as a critique of vegetarianism.
While it’s tempting to want to combine these “incomplete” proteins to form a whole, the truth is there’s no need to combine protein sources within a given meal.
Really. I know you have heard this one over and over—even the college textbook I teach from says it’s a must!—but trust me, it is not necessary to form complete proteins within single meals. Our bodies pool the amino acids we need as we eat them, and we use them when needed.
Some combinations happen naturally—think pinto beans with rice, chickpeas with couscous, or granola with soymilk. But this is not a requirement in order for us to get all of the indispensable amino acids. Combining proteins was popularized in the 1970’s, and even though it has been deemed unnecessary for decades, the idea lives on.
What it means when people say animal protein is “higher quality” than vegetable protein
When you hear about one protein source being better than another, it’s in reference to the amino acid makeup.
It’s true: Animal foods contain all of the amino acids in the amounts we need. So if you ate only beef and nothing else for months and months, you would not get an amino acid deficiency (but probably a host of other ones). Do the same with only lentils, however, and you may not get enough of the amino acid methionine.
Fortunately, no one eats like this. We eat a variety of foods, most of which have some protein, and at the end of the day, we get all of the amino acids we need.
Okay, okay, enough with science and numbers, what do I eat?
If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed. And although there are a handful of hard-to-find nutrients and supplements for vegans to consider, a protein powder isn’t at the top of the list for most people (but if you’re looking for peace of mind, stick with a real-food powder like Complement Protein).
For example, lentils and soymilk are over 30 percent protein. Fifteen percent of the calories in whole wheat pasta are from protein, and even brown rice has protein, at about eight percent of calories.
See? It’s that easy to reach 10-15 percent of calories. If you want more help in creating a nutrition plan with adequate protein, see a fantastic list of vegetarian protein foods and meal plans compiled by my colleague Reed Mangels.
Now go fight for vegetarians!
The choice to be vegetarian, like the choice to do anything beyond what’s considered “normal,” constantly puts us on the defensive. But with the knowledge I’ve now given you, you can speak confidently the next time you get the protein question. Oh yeah, and you can tell Uncle Jerkface at Thanksgiving that you aren’t about to die of protein deficiency.
Matthew Ruscigno, MPH, RD is a 15-year vegan and Chair-Elect of the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. He has completed numerous marathons, iron-distance triathlons and ultra-cycling events including the Furnace Creek 508, a non-stop 508-mile bicycle race through Death Valley. Matt worked with Isa Moskowitz on her upcoming book Appetite For Reduction. You can read more from him at his personal blog, True Love Health, or follow him on Twitter.