by Will Grumke November 20, 2020 7 min read
Can you get enough protein from plants?
With more and more people following a plant-based lifestyle, I get this question a lot.
Whether it be a vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, or flexitarian nutrition plan ... there is always a need to get enough protein throughout your day.
The issue isn’t if you can get enough protein from plants, because millions of people all over the world are able to live a healthy plant-based lifestyle, where they are still able to get adequate amounts of protein every day.
The trick here is to make sure that, just like any other lifestyle, your diet is well-planned, and you’re focusing on filling any gaps that may be created from what you do or do not eat.
Focusing on both getting enough protein, and which sources you’re getting it from, can help to ensure that you are living a healthy lifestyle, while also seeing the results you’re working toward.
So how much protein is enough?
What are the best plant-based sources of protein?
If you are struggling to meet your protein needs, how can you meet those needs more consistently?
Let’s dive in and talk about the answers to these questions.
Understanding why protein is so important will help you understand why so many of us focus so heavily on it.
Protein plays a huge role when it comes to growing, maintaining, and repairing tissues throughout the body ... including more than just muscle. Plus, it helps with both hormonal production and our immune system.
Which means that if you’re not getting enough protein on a daily basis, you may run into issues such as:
These things can be avoided by getting enough protein on a consistent basis. However, if we take that one step further and focus on getting optimal amounts of protein throughout the day, we can see even more benefits.
Now, as for what optimal protein intake is, we will get into that in a minute.
Some of the benefits of getting in adequate amounts of protein can be:
That gives us a little insight as to WHY protein is so important.
Even when being plant-based, if we have a well-thought out plan of attack, we can make sure we get enough protein to not only stay healthy, but also continue to push toward our goals!
This can be a tricky topic due to all of the different factors that each person has.
When considering protein intake for the day, I always try to explain that getting “enough” protein is going to keep you alive. Whereas the “optimal” amount is not only going to keep you alive, but allow you to perform at your highest level, and reach your goals faster.
If you’re not sure where to start, an easy way for you to find out how much protein you should be taking in is by downloading the My TransPHORMation App.
Using the information you provide (height, weight, activity level, etc.) the app will give you a good starting point and protein amount to shoot for each day.
However, a basic recommendation for an adult, who has no specific medical condition, is typically 0.8-1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight.
For example, if we have a 150 pound adult, they could consume anywhere from 120-180 grams of protein daily. From there, we would look at overall goals, physical activity, and a few other bits of information to help dial in a more specific amount of protein for you and your lifestyle.
“Is plant-based or animal protein better?”
That’s a great question, and the answer depends on the context of the question and why you’re asking.
A major thing to keep in mind when considering the differences in any protein sources is the amino acid profile. Protein is made up of a number of amino acids linked together in a chain. Depending on the protein, it will have its own specific make-up of amino acids.
Each one of these amino acids plays its own role in the body, and all 20 amino acids can help with body function in some way.
When a protein source has all 20 amino acids, it is a complete protein source. Animal protein is a complete protein source, whereas not all plant proteins are. In fact, most plant proteins are not.
Why does that matter? Well, within these 20 amino acids, there are subcategories, which include 9 essential amino acids (EAAs). Our body CAN’T produce these essential amino acids on its own, so we must get them from our nutrition plan, or by using supplements.
The other 11 amino acids are non-essential amino acids, because our body CAN produce them on its own. However, this doesn’t make them any less important. They’re just simply easier to come by. Whereas we have to go out of our way to get the 9 essentials in our diet.
The 9 essential amino acids play a key role in whether or not we’re able to actually see the benefits of sufficient protein intake that I mentioned earlier in this article.
Also, when it comes to these 9 essential amino acids, we can break them down even further, as 3 of them are classified as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
BCAAs, with the “king" of amino acids being Leucine, are crucial for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Why is muscle protein synthesis important to you?
This is the process of building and repairing the muscle tissue that you break down during your workout. Like I said, Leucine is the most important amino acid for turning on this process in your body.
“So, as long as I get Leucine and BCAAs, I will be fine, right?”
Not necessarily, because even though they jump start muscle protein synthesis, your body needs the other 6 amino acids in order to fully recover and repair the muscle you broke down.
Now let’s get back to which protein is “better.”
It depends on the goal and lifestyle of the individual. Animal protein sources are complete protein sources and typically higher in essential amino acids.
That means an animal source like; meat, chicken, fish, and others have a full spectrum of all 20 amino acids. Whereas plant-based protein sources don’t always have all 20 amino acids.
So, how do you get all the amino acids if you are plant-based? Depending on which lifestyle you follow, we would need to make sure that we put effort into finding complimentary protein sources.
What that means is, even though something like brown rice is lacking certain amino acids, when combined with peas, which is lacking certain amino acids on its own … they actually make a complete protein source, because all 20 amino acids are present between the 2 of them!
As I stated earlier, it isn’t impossible to get protein and be plant-based, but just takes some careful planning.
We covered the importance of protein, how much protein, and what to look for in protein. Now, I want to give you some examples of where to find protein when it comes to plant-based foods. These are great options to consider for someone who is fully plant-based:
It’s important to note that these are not all of the plant sources that contain protein. Plus, I want to re-emphasize that these sources may not have a complete amino acid profile. This just means that you would want to focus on combining multiple sources to ensure that you get a full spectrum of all 9 EAAs.
Also, one thing to consider is that many of these sources are higher in carbohydrates than protein. So, depending on our goals, we may need to be aware of not going overboard with certain options. This could even mean finding alternatives to help get our daily protein numbers up, while keeping carbs and fats low.
There has been an increase in popularity over the last few years surrounding plant-based protein supplements.
This is most likely because protein intake can be the most difficult part for someone who is living a plant-based lifestyle.
When looking at a plant-based protein powder, you want to look for a few different things. Just like any other supplement, I want you to be educated and know what to look for on a label.
1) Is this supplement a complete protein source? Look at the ingredient label, there should be multiple sources of protein. If it reads that it just has pea protein or brown rice protein alone, then it isn’t a complete protein source. Which means it doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids that your body needs.
2) Does the product have enough total protein? You are looking for a product to have approximately 18 grams of protein or higher per serving from those complementary sources. This will again help ensure you get the amount of protein your body needs.
If a product has these two main characteristics, then it will be hugely beneficial in helping you hit your protein intake for the day.
Actually, that’s one reason why we formulated Vegan Power Pro!
If you are vegetarian, vegan, or just trying to go more plant-based, but struggling with your protein intake, Vegan Power Pro can help with that. Plus, it’s freaking delicious!
Vegan Power Pro contains pea protein isolate and rice protein, which makes it a complete protein source that contains a full spectrum of all the amino acids we need.
Plus, it contains a superfood complex, phytonutrient blend, and digestive enzymes, helping make it ideal for anyone who is focusing on their protein intake AND wants to improve overall health and increase results!
Remember, when it comes to your health, nutrition, workouts, or anything else, we at 1st Phorm are here to help with whatever you need. Please reach out to our team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Fitness Nutrition Specialists with any questions you may have!
NASM Certified Personal Trainer, NASM Certified Nutrition Coach, NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist, NASM Certified Weight Loss Specialist, NASM Certified Behavioral Change Specialist, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer