There are plenty of misconceptions about plant-based food, but vegan protein myths are perhaps the most pervasive of all. Let’s clear them up.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Protein is an essential macronutrient made up of building blocks called amino acids, which keep your body functioning properly. Proper protein intake is particularly important in building and repairing muscle tissue after exercise or injury.
The average individual needs a minimum of 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight, as per the recommended daily amount (RDA). So someone who weighs 150 pounds needs around 54g of protein per day. Your individual protein requirement can be found through this calculation:
Body weight (in pounds) x 0.36 = your recommended daily intake of protein (in grams).
The above can be used to calculate your minimum intake, but ideally most people should aim to consume slightly more. However, individual needs vary, and “healthy” protein intake can look completely different from person to person.
Recommended protein intake can also change depending on your nutritional goals and exercise regime. For example, those looking to build strength and muscle may require additional protein.
5 Vegan Protein Myths, Debunked
You can’t get enough protein without meat
Think again! If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or reducing your meat consumption, the chances are high that you’ve been asked “where do you get your protein?” But plant-based foods can provide enough protein for anyone, even those with active lifestyles.
If you are consuming enough calories, it is difficult to actually be deficient in protein. The important thing is hitting your required macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, fiber, water, and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Not whether those foods are plant-based.
Protein malnutrition is serious, and is a concern for millions of people around the world. However, those with enough food to eat shouldn’t feel worried.
In fact, the standard American (SAD) diet frequently includes more than twice the RDA of protein, 100+grams. Typically from calorie-dense meat and dairy products.
Meat, dairy, and eggs are the best sources of protein
Studies indicate that protein quality is just as important as quantity, and while animal products are typically more protein-dense, plants get the job done, too.
There are lots of different healthy, delicious sources of vegan protein, including seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. But less obvious foods such as peas, broccoli, and other green vegetables, along with pasta, and even potatoes, all contain protein.
For example, 1 cup of lentils or split peas = 16g of protein and 0g cholesterol.
Protein is more important than carbohydrates
Despite popular belief, both protein and carbohydrates are important parts of a nutritionally balanced diet. As written in Eat for Life, The Food and Nutrition Board’s Guide to Reducing Your Risk of Chronic Disease, published by the NCBI: “protein is overemphasized and carbohydrates are underrated in terms of their importance in our diets.”
Whereas protein primarily makes muscle, hormones, and other proteins, carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body. Organs such as the heart, brain, and kidneys can’t function properly without carbohydrates.
While diet culture has equated carb consumption with poor health, carbs play an essential role. Protein can’t do its job properly without carbohydrates and other nutrients to fuel the body and enable processing, and your muscle mass can even decrease if you don’t eat enough.
“Carbohydrates [are] a broad category and not all carbs are the same,” writes the UK’s NHS. “It’s the type, quality and quantity of carbohydrate in our diet that’s important.”
You need to combine plant food to make a complete protein
Another common vegan protein myth is that you need to combine foods in order to get all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for human health. Some plant foods are missing one or two amino acids. But there’s no real need to plan meals around the concept of complementary proteins.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, simply eating a variety of plant foods over the course of the day provides all the amino acids required by your body. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discredits the idea that humans need to eat certain proteins together to receive adequate nutrition.
Once again, eating a well balanced diet that suits your hunger and lifestyle is more important than trying to hit arbitrary goals. One study, published in 2013, reported that the average vegetarians and vegans consume up to 70 percent more protein than necessary per day. An amount comparable to the excess found in meat-eating diets.
High-protein diets are good for weight loss
First and foremost, weight loss does not equate to health. Weight fluctuates from day-to-day, throughout the day, and from person to person. The body mass index (BMI) has also been widely criticized as unscientific and inaccurate.
Furthermore, a varied diet including all major food groups is important in fuelling, nourishing, and repairing your body effectively. So emphasizing one type in order to cut out another entirely is rarely as healthy as a well-balanced plate.
Fad diets are quick to demonize specific foods (or food in general). But calories are the fuel that your body needs to function properly. As discussed earlier, carbohydrates and other nutrients are just as important as protein intake, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest carbs make up from 45 to 65 percent of your daily caloric intake.
Weight loss aside, decreased carb consumption almost certainly won’t lead to health improvements (though again, every body is different). However, emphasizing nutrient-dense whole foods, staying active, and being mindful of your overall caloric intake should lead to a healthy body. Whatever that looks and feels like for you.