The first question I am often asked when discussing a whole-food, plant-based diet is, “Where do you get your protein?” Protein has become widely recognized as a miracle macronutrient that, apparently, is challenging to acquire in effective doses. However, this is far from accurate. Let’s clear up three of plant-powered protein’s three most common misconceptions.
Myth #1: The More Protein, The Better
Humans do indeed require protein, as it is one of the three macronutrients we need to attain from our diet. Protein is involved in virtually all of the body’s structural and functional mechanisms. All of our cells contain protein and it constitutes the building blocks of muscles, hair, nails, organs, skin, tendons, ligaments, enzymes, membranes, some hormones, hemoglobin, antibodies, enzymes, and much more. However, just because something is critical doesn’t mean that more is better. In fact, when it comes to protein, consuming an excess of what we need may promote disease.
The US Department of Agriculture’s Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.7 grams per kilogram body weight per day for adults older than 19 years of age. For an average 130-pound female, that means 47 grams of protein per day. For a 170-pound male, 62 grams is recommended. Many people are consuming approximately 20 to 30 percent of their calories from protein, which equals 90 to 135 grams of protein on a 1,800-calorie diet (typical female intake) and 125 to 188 grams of protein on a 2,500-calorie diet (average male intake). This is equivalent to two to three times more than the USDA recommendations. Much of this excess protein comes from animal sources, which may be particularly damaging. Excess protein taxes the kidneys, contributes to gout, and is associated with an increased risk for many chronic diseases.
Myth #2: “Complete Proteins” are Hard to Find
The other popular misconception is that animal products are the best source of protein. One important reason this myth has been perpetuated is because the amino acids—the building blocks of protein—are assembled in a way in animal foods that more closely resembles what humans actually utilize. However, we now know that this is inconsequential. When you consume any protein, it is broken down via digestion into its separate amino acid constituents and is pooled in the blood for further use. When the body needs to construct a protein for an enzyme or to repair muscle tissue, it collects the necessary amino acids and strings them back together in the sequence appropriate for what it is currently creating. This occurs regardless of whether you consume animal or plant protein.
If you eat a variety of whole plants, you will easily attain all of the essential amino acids necessary to sustain proper metabolism and to thrive. Plus, plant protein is perfectly packaged along with an abundance of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber—all critical components for optimal health and disease prevention. On the contrary, animal protein is wrapped up with unhealthy saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. Animal products are also devoid of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber, and are very low in most vitamins and minerals.
Myth #3: The More Active You Are, the More Protein You Need
Humans need about 10 percent of calories from protein. Virtually all whole plant foods contain at least this amount, so if you consume enough volume and variety of whole plant foods, your protein requirement will easily be met. This applies to athletes too, who are often thought to require larger amounts of protein to sustain muscle size and optimize performance. However, athletes have increased overall calorie requirements, so when they boost their intake of whole plant foods, they automatically meet their greater need for all of the macronutrients, including protein.
When it comes to protein, it is not about consuming as much as we can, but rather consuming the right amount. Whole plant foods, as provided in nature, offer the ideal amount of protein necessary for the growth, maintenance, and functioning of metabolic processes.