How do you get enough protein on a plant-based diet?

This is a very popular question. And an important one, but even if you aren’t following a plant-based diet, do YU know how much protein you should be eating on a daily basis?

How much protein do we actually need?

Well, in the United States, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. That number is about how many grams you need each day. Approximately 15-25% of your total calories should be from protein sources. Although protein is certainly an essential nutrient, which plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it.

Many Americans consume about twice the amount of protein necessary, and it’s important to note that excess protein can’t be stored in the body—ultimately, its elimination strains the liver and kidneys. Excessive protein consumption is linked to certain cancers (i.e.: colon, breast, prostate, pancreas), kidney disease and even osteoporosis. If you’re consuming a variety of clean, whole foods, you should get all the protein you need, without taxing your body.

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Why is protein so important?
As you may or may not know, proteins are made up of amino acids, and they are the “building blocks” of life. Our skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage, even hair and nails, are all thanks to protein. Protein helps form enzymes, hormones, antibodies and new tissues. It replaces old cells with shiny new ones, and it transports important nutrients in and out of those cells. The human body can manufacture all but nine of the 22 amino acids that make up proteins. These nine amino acids are known as “essential” amino acids, and therefore must be derived from what we eat. There’s a lot of overlap from the sources of these “essentials,” which further proves that variety is best for covering bases. You don’t have to sweat every detail, or spend a ton of time planning meals—eat an assortment of whole foods and you will get what you need.

* Arginine
Classified as a semi-essential or “conditionally” essential amino acid, depending on the developmental stage and health status of the individual.
Find it in: almonds, beets, Brazil nuts, buckwheat, carrots, cashews, celery, chickpeas, coconut, cucumbers, flax seed, garlic, green vegetables, hazelnuts, kidney beans, leeks, lentil, lettuce, nutritional yeast, onion, parsnips, pecans, pine nuts, potatoes, pumpkin seeds, radishes, sesame seeds, sprouts, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
. . .
Especially needed during infancy for proper growth and development—once was believed to be only essential for newborns, but is now known to be essential for adults, as well.
Find it in: apples, bananas, beans, beets, buckwheat, carrots, cantaloupe, cauliflower, celery, citrus fruits, cucumber, dandelion, endive, garlic, greens, legumes, mushrooms, pomegranates, radish, rice, seaweed, sesame, spinach, spirulina and turnip greens.
. . .
Necessary for muscle production, maintenance and recovery—especially post-workout. Involved in hemoglobin formation, regulating blood sugar levels, blood clot formation and energy.
Find it in: almonds, avocados, cashews, chickpeas, coconut, lentils, olives, papaya, seaweed and most seeds like sunflower.
. . .
Essential for growth hormone production, tissue production and repair. Prevents muscle wasting and is used in treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
Find it in: almonds, asparagus, avocados, chickpeas, coconut, lentils, oats, olives, papayas, rice, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
. . .
Great for calcium absorption, bone development, nitrogen maintenance, tissue repair, hormone production, antibody production.
Find it in: amaranth, apples, apricots, beans, beets, carrots, celery, cucumber, dandelion greens, grapes, papayas, parsley, pears, peas, spinach and turnip greens.
. . .
The “cleaner”—important for fat emulsification, digestion, antioxidant (cancer prevention), arterial plaque prevention (heart health) and heavy metal removal.
Find it in: black beans, Brazil nuts, cashews, kidney beans, oats, sesame seeds, spirulina, spinach, sunflower seeds and watercress.
. . .
A precursor for tyrosine and the signaling molecules: dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and epinephrine (adrenaline), as well as the skin pigment: melanin. Supports learning and memory, brain processes and mood elevation.
Find it in: apples, beets, carrots, cashews, flax seed, hazelnuts, nutritional yeast, parsley, pineapples, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, spinach and tomatoes.
. . .
Monitors bodily proteins for maintaining or recycling processes.
Find it in: almonds, beans, carrots, celery, chickpeas, collards, flax seed, greens, green leafy vegetables, kale, lentils, lima beans, nori, nuts, papayas, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
. . .
Needed for niacin production, serotonin production, pain management, sleep and mood regulation.
Find it in: Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, chives, dandelion greens, endive, fennel, nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, snap beans, spinach, sunflower seeds, turnips and walnuts.
. . .
Helps muscle production, recovery, energy, endurance—balances nitrogen levels and is used in treatment of alcohol-related brain damage.
Find it in: apples, almonds, bananas, beets, broccoli, carrots, celery, dandelion greens, lettuce, nutritional yeast, okra, parsley, parsnips, pomegranates, potatoes, squash, tomatoes and turnips.

You may need more protein if you are…
• Mentally/physically tired (especially if you need daytime naps)
• Suffering from injuries/cramping/muscle soreness
• Unable to concentrate or focus
• Losing muscle, or unable to build it
• Losing hair
• Suffering from brittle/breaking nails
• Unusually susceptible to sunburn
• Suffering from headaches, fainting, nausea
• Cranky, anxious or moody or depressed

Remember, our bodies are designed, and biologically programmed, to survive. Symptoms are the way your body tries to communicate with you. If it doesn’t have enough of what it needs to thrive, it will do its best to get what it needs with what it has. If you are unable to build/retain muscle, that’s probably because you aren’t getting enough protein and your body is taking it from where it can—your muscle tissue. If you suffer from recurring/multiple injuries, your body probably doesn’t have the protein it needs for strength, rebuilding and recovery. Are your nails flimsy and breaking? Are you losing excessive hair? Your body may be holding onto what protein it has stored in the “bank,” versus using what little it has to create new nails or full hair.

This is also why nutrient-rich, whole foods are ideal, and why true health comes from these kinds of foods versus labels like “vegan.” Just because someone is vegan, vegetarian, or an omnivore for that matter, doesn’t make them healthy. Many folks make the mistake of “going vegan” and consuming a lot of processed, nutrient-void junk foods, pastas, etc. True health comes from the consumption of a variety of whole foods—the ones Mother Nature designed. It’s that simple.

Want to see how delicious plant-powerful recipes can be?

And here’s a helpful chart.
This chart is for reference only, since it’s recommended that you think of food in its “wholeness”—its natural, plant-based complexity. Excellent nutrition is truly about balance and variety. For example, everything that makes up a carrot is important for good health, not just the beta carotene, or the vitamin C, but the whole carrot. It’s packaged how Mother Nature designed—a symphony of nutrients, fiber and a large assortment of protective compounds, most of which still remain unnamed (and undiscovered). Imagine that.

Do I need to combine protein sources at each meal to make sure I get all essential amino acids?
No. It’s a myth. Nearly all whole foods (including greens and veggies) contain protein, and nearly all forms of protein contain all protein-forming amino acids in some quantity. If you eat a variety of nutrient-rich, whole foods, your body will work its magic to store what it needs to function optimally. Scientists used to claim that herbivores would develop protein deficiency if they didn’t get essential amino acids in proper, combined amounts at every meal. But our bodies are amazing. See, when we eat, amino acid “deposits” are made into a “storage bank,” and the body then takes what it needs as it’s needed. So, you don’t have to eat complementary proteins together with each meal in an effort to make complete protein. Your body has a system already set up; you just need to eat a variety of foods to fill the bank. By eating a variety of plant foods with “incomplete proteins” throughout the day, we can easily get enough “complete protein.”

Picture a giant 400lb gorilla. What does he eat to grow that strong, muscular body? Leaves, stems, roots, seeds and fruit (and maybe the occasional insect that lives on those foods). The body actually works less (uses less energy) to process protein from a vegetable-based diet than it does from a meat-based diet, too. This energy conservation is great for more efficient healing, building and overall optimal health. Most plant-based protein sources, contrary to animal-based sources, are also alkalizing for the body. Which means less aches and pains, freedom from disease, better sleep, happier moods, improved memory and concentration, stronger/more efficient digestion and an overall better state of health.

Complete Plant Protein Sources
Remember—variety. And if you want to make it even easier for yourself, here are a bunch of delicious, whole food options for complete plant-based proteins that you can keep in your pantry and fridge. Add them to salads, smoothies, wraps and more.

It’s also helpful to have a plant-based protein smoothie like Vega One once a day. It contains 15 grams of quality plant-based protein per serving (enter SHIPUSVEGA at checkout to get free shipping)—I usually have one a day with two scoops.

(These are gluten-free, too)
Amaranth: recipes | how to pop
Spirulina & Chlorella: add to smoothies, or take in powder or tablets
recipes | how to cook
Chia Seed: recipes
Hemp Seed: hemp milk recipe
Quinoa:  cooking tips and recipes
Sprouted Lentils (sprouting makes them complete):
how to sprout lentils
  |  lentil recipes

Print out this helpful Plant Protein Chart
 and keep it in your wallet or purse. Use it as a reference when planning meals for the week, or when shopping.

It’s all about variety.
While the protein question is a frequent one for plant-based eaters, don’t dismiss it in an uneducated haze of herbivore pride. It’s very important that we get enough protein each and every day, but as you can see, it’s not as difficult as most folks think—it’s actually quite easy (and did we mention delicious?). Variety is the key to acquiring all of the essential amino acids that we need, and YumUniverse shares an infinite collection of clean, whole food recipes that include this variety. Truly a universe of possibilities. Have fun with it.

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