As most of you know, my goal in all things “nutrition” is to guide my readers and my clients towards finding a good balance for everything in their lives. How and what we eat is part of that balance. I encourage you to listen to your body. It’s the best way I know of to figure out what you need. Learning to pay attention to what our bodies are communicating to us isn’t easy and we get tripped up by all the information out there. One of the most important and most frequently asked questions seems to be about protein. “How much protein should I be eating and where is the best source for me to get it from?” As a vegan, I personally have a wonderful balance of protein sources in my food repertoire that supply me with more than adequate amounts. Protein is everywhere. You are getting more than you may realize and in some cases, maybe you are getting too much. Read on to find out more!
What is Protein?
Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.
Protein is the body’s building block. All of our organs, including the skin, are built from proteins, as are the muscles, hair and nails.
Many hormones are proteins, and the immune system, digestive system, and blood all rely on proteins to work correctly.
Protein is therefore an essential part of our diet, vital to development and correct functioning of the body.
All protein is not created equally. Protein is made up of amino acids, and there are certain ones, called “essential,” which your body cannot produce on its own and must get through food. We don’t need to have complete proteins at each meal. If we are eating a balance of foods, we will get the combinations we need.
How much protein do we need?
There’s a lot of controversy over protein just like all other aspects of nutrition. Basically, the range that is recommended goes from 10 -35%. That’s a wide range and it’s an indicator that protein requirements are still part of many ongoing nutritional debates.
The USDA Standard is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This standard equates to about 10-15% of our daily caloric intake. Many people who subscribe to this standard feel that we don’t need as much protein as we have been led to believe, especially during the days where popular high protein, low carbohydrate diets where touted as the only and best way to lose weight. So, as the pendulum swings back, the tide is to make room in your food plan by choosing less proteins in order to add in more healthy, complex carbohydrates which are so important. To determine what this amount of protein would be for you, divide your body weight by 2.2 to get your kilogram weight and then multiply that by 0.8.
Another quicker way is this: For a moderately active adult, take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 0.36 and there you will get the grams you need. That equates to roughly 10-15% of your total caloric intake. For me at 130 that equates to about 47 grams per day. I can easily get that in and often a bit more with my plant based diet.
If you are looking for a good balance point, then 20% may feel right for you. Here is an easy way to calculate that by percentage of calories:
For a 140 lb female, calorie intake=1800 calories, protein=20%: 1800 x .20 = 360 calories from protein. Since 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, divide protein calories by four:
360/4 = 90 grams of protein per day. Remember that these numbers are just that…numbers. Use them as a guide, but try not to get too hung up on them. When you are feeding yourself well with a good variety of healthy foods, you can start focusing more and more on how you feel and use that as your best indicator.
If we exercise more our appetites generally increase, so we eat more. That doesn’t mean that you need more protein than before. The above protein rules still work as general guidelines – our protein intake would increase proportionately with our caloric intake.
There has been an old myth circulating around since the 70’s that we must have complete proteins at each meal.
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. What this really means is that as long as you are aware of the protein content in foods, both meats and plant based, all you have to do is have an array of healthy foods at your meals and you will naturally get the amounts you need. Yup…variety and balance….that’s the key.
Where to get protein from
We all know the obvious sources of protein which include meats and dairy foods, but there is an abundance of protein to be had from plant based sources as well and that’s what I want to focus on and bring your attention to. Here’s a list of some great proteins that you may already be eating and if not, start now!
Pumpkin seeds 1 cup = 12 g
Almonds 1 cup = 20 g
Peanuts 1 oz. = 7 g
Peanut butter 2 tbsps. = 9 g
Hemp seeds 1 oz. = 10 g
Flaxseeds 1 oz. = 3.8 g
Walnuts 1 oz. = 7 g
Chia seeds 1 oz. = 4.7 g
Tempeh 1 cup = 30 g (my favorite!!!)
Quinoa 1 cup cooked = 8 g
Oats 1 cup cooked = 11 g
Lentils 1 cup cooked = 16.44 g
Beans, 1 cup cooked (depending on which type) ranges from 12-15 g
Black eyed peas 1 cup cooked = 13 g
Soy beans 1 cup cooked = 22 g
Tofu 1 cup = 12 g
Lima beans 1 cup cooked = 11.6 g
Peas 1 cup cooked = 8 g
Broccoli 1 cup = 2.6 g
Spinach 1 cup cooked = 5 g
Brussels Sprouts 1 cup cooked = 3 g
Asparagus 1 cup = 3g
Sun dried tomatoes 1 cup= 8 g
This is just a list to get you going, but as you can see there are lots of delicious plant based foods out there that can easily add to your protein needs without having to worry about it too much.
Most importantly to think about is the quality of your protein and to know that whether you are a meat eater, a vegetarian, or a vegan, there are many great ways to get plenty of protein out there from meat and plant sources. Choose a wide range of vegetables and legumes. When you do eat meat, choose responsibly from sources that are healthy, humane and safe. Read October 2015 Consumer Report entitled: “Wanted, Safe Beef”. It will help you to make the right choices.
Recently, in my own area of Ventura County, certain school districts are adopting a Meatless Monday policy in order to introduce kids to more vegetables and more protein options. Again, the message coming forth is one of balance and variety and I think that’s a good one for our kids and for all of us. You’ve heard me pitch the Meatless Monday concept before and I hope that you now have some great ideas for incorporating an abundance of plant based protein foods into your happy and healthy lives!
Edie Ruge is a Health and Wellness Coach offering unique strategies in guiding people to achieve their wellness goals. She specializes in weight management, stress reduction, increased energy and overall improved health. Edie’s integrative and holistic approach helps people lead healthier, happier and more balanced lives.