“But how do you get your protein?”
This is probably the single most common question posed to vegetarians, followed closely by questions about iron and B12. And for years I touted the classic vegetarian byline, “I don’t worry about it, there’s protein in basically everything.” Which is true. I mean, you can find a little bit of protein in a glass of orange juice if you really look for it.
But when I started working with nutrition clients I started singing a different tune. Not all of my clients are vegetarian; in fact, I’d say that only about half of them are. But no matter whether they were strictly vegan or full-fledged meat eaters, I found that pretty much everyone I was working with could benefit from being more conscious about their protein consumption. (The two exceptions to this have been one client who was on a self-administered high-protein low-carb diet when I got to him, and another who was in training for a marathon and needed to be all about carbs! carbs! carbs!)
The interesting thing is that no matter why a client came to me in the first place, becoming conscious about protein consumption made a difference. They had more energy. They became more in control of their eating. They snacked less. They made better food choices. Recently though, I had a client tell me that she still doesn’t really get protein. This, plus my own personal protein project (pregnant ladies need an additional 25grams protein per day), and I thought it was high time I wrote a little something about protein. So here we go.
What protein is:
Let’s back up the truck and start by talking about amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of life. Getting technical, they’re an organic compound containing both a carboxyl (-COOH) and an amino group (-NH2). Amino acids bond together to form long chains, and these are known as proteins.
In total, there are 20 amino acids. Nine of these are essential:
These nine, we’re not able to make ourselves, so it is essential that we get them in our diets.
Some are considered conditional:
These are considered conditionally essential because they are essential only in certain cases. Many of the conditionally essential amino acids are essential in children, but not adults, or are essential in times of illness, stress, or trauma.
And the rest are non-essential:
3) Aspartic acid
4) Glutamic acid
Non-essential means that our bodies either have a supply of them, or we’re able to synthesize them on our own. Note again that most adult bodies are able to synthesize conditional amino acids, so these tend to get lumped in with non-essential on many lists.
Complete vs incomplete:
A protein that contains all nine essential amino acids is referred to as a complete protein, or sometimes as a high quality protein. If a protein is missing one or more essential amino acid, it’s referred to as an incomplete protein.
Most (but not all) plant-based proteins are incomplete. In order to form a complete protein, it’s necessary to combine foods that can make up the missing essential amino acids. These are called complementary proteins.
Nutrition theory of yesteryear told us that vegetarians needed to eat complementary proteins at the same meal in order to get the protein we needed. But, this old-school thinking has been thoroughly debunked, and we now know that our bodies are smarter than that.
When we consume protein, it gets broken down into individual amino acids in the gastro-intestinal tract and stored in an amino acid ‘pool’. Amino acids are later taken from the pool and put back together as new proteins. The entire amino acid pool gets exchanged three to four times per day. As long as there’s a constant supply of amino acids entering the pool (some from the diet, some from protein biosynthesis), we’re in business.
Why we need protein:
Protein is involved in prrrretty much every single cell in our body. From providing a source of energy, rebuilding tissue and muscle, hormone production, immune health, enzymes, digestive health, and providing cell structure to the growth of our hair, skin, and nails, protein is where it’s at.
Think about the structure of our bodies – it is protein that does the work of holding together our cells, organs, muscles, connective tissue and bones. But proteins are equally important for our metabolic system; all of the enzymes in our bodies that trigger important chemical reactions are proteins. And, key regulatory hormones, such as insulin, are also proteins, as are many important molecules in our immune system and cell transport and messaging molecules. So you can see, protein is vitally important for our health!
How much protein we need:
Our daily protein requirements are calculated based on body weight. The standard formula is 0.8g protein per kg body weight. So for example if a person weighed 150lbs / 2.2 = 68kg x 0.8 = 54.5g protein per day.
If you’re eating a strict vegan diet the recommendation is to bump up to 0.9g per kg body weight since some plant-based proteins aren’t used by the body as efficiently as animal-based proteins are. So the same 150lb person would require 61g protein per day on a strictly vegan diet.
For extremely active people (we’re talking high performance athletes here) that number gets bumped up to 1.2g per kg, so that same 150lb person would require 81.5g protein per day.
During pregnancy daily protein requirements are based on your pre-pregnancy weight, and then an additional 25g of protein per day is added to your daily requirement. So if that 150lb person was pregnant they would require 54.5g + 25g = 79.5g protein per day.
Of course, so much of nutrition is individual, and there are people out there who feel better with a little more protein in their diets than what’s recommended. For most people that’s totally fine, and the thing to know is that we don’t store protein as energy (we store fat and carbohydrate), so whatever your body doesn’t need will usually be excreted. The flip side to this is that ongoing very high protein consumption can be hard on the excretory organs, so it’s good to find a balance with a moderate (recommended) amount of protein in your diet.
Where to get your protein:
All right, we’ve made it this far, so now you may be wondering exactly how to include protein in your diet. Below are just a few examples.
- 1 egg: 7 g
- 1/2 cup 1% cottage cheese: 14 g
- ½ cup plain yoghurt: 5 g
- 1 cup 1% milk: 8 g
- 30g cheddar cheese: 7 g
- 100g firm tofu: 12 g
- 100g tempeh: 18 g
- ½ cup shelled edamame: 13 g
- 1 cup cooked lentils: 18 g
- 1 cup canned black beans: 15 g
- 1 cup canned kidney beans: 13 g
- 1 cup canned chickpeas: 12 g
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 8 g
- 30g (about ¼ cup) dry roasted peanuts: 7 g
- 30g (about ¼ cup) almonds: 6 g
- 1 cup plain soymilk: 8 g
- 1 cup cooked quinoa: 8 g
- ½ cup rolled oats: 5 g
- 3 Tbsp hemp seeds: 10 g
- 2 Tbsp nutritional yeast: 8 g
- 1 cup broccoli florets: 3 g
- 1 cup steamed kale: 3 g
And remember, it adds up! For example, I eat these overnight oats just about every morning:
½ cup rolled oats (5 g)
2 tsp chia seeds (2g)
½ cup plain yoghurt (4g)
½ cup unsweetened almond milk (1g)
½ a banana, mashed (<1g)
For a total of about 12g protein. If you sprinkled a couple of tablespoons of hemp seeds over the top you’d have about 20g of protein in that one meal, well on the way to meeting 55g of protein per day for the 150lb person mentioned above.
This post is getting long, and there’s a lot more to say about protein, so I’m going to save that for Project Protein – Part 2. Coming up next: when to eat protein, what a serving looks like, combination suggestions, and more!
Other nutrition posts to check out: