How Much Protein We Actually Need & 7 Vegan Sources
If you’ve ever perused a weight training blog or followed a fitness influencer on Instagram, you might think it’s difficult to get enough protein. In reality, you don’t need as much protein as you might think. Even if you don’t eat meat, you’re probably meeting your protein needs without even trying. This article explains how much protein you actually need, and lists vegan sources of protein that might surprise you.
Basic protein needs
The US Recommended Daily Allowance (USRDA) of protein is 0.36 g of protein per lb of bodyweight. This is the baseline figure for people who aren’t very active, aren’t recovering from injury or illness, and are not looking to gain muscle mass.
Protein requirement for active lifestyles.
People who have physically demanding jobs or people who exercise have a higher protein need than people who are largely sedentary.
A review of several studies found that the athletes who performed best and lost the least amount of muscle took in about 1.2g of protein per lb of bodyweight, which is a lot more than is recommended for your average sedentary person.
Different types of exercise will result in different protein requirements as well. One study shows that on training days, endurance athletes would benefit from taking 0.83g of protein per lb of bodyweight, whereas intense strength athletes may aim for 1-2g of protein per lb of bodyweight or more.
Protein and weight loss.
Weight loss happens when you expend more energy than you take in, and your body metabolizes its own tissues for energy. When you’re dieting, the goal is to encourage the body to burn fat for energy, but sometimes it catabolizes muscle instead. Taking in extra protein can help prevent muscle loss that sometimes comes with weight loss.
Supplementing with whey protein resulted in increased fat loss and preserved muscle mass in obese individuals. Studies show that eating at least 25% of your calories as protein helps you lose weight and maintain muscle. Aim for about one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Protein for injury and repair.
Protein is involved in tissue repair, so individuals who are recovering from injury require more protein than they do when they are not injured. About 0.7 g of protein per lb of bodyweight should be sufficient to meet protein needs for recovery. One study showed that patients recovering from surgery who took in extra protein had a shorter hospital stay that those who ate normally.
Aging populations and protein intake.
As we age, our ability to digest and absorb protein diminishes, so taking in more protein may be required to actually get the amino acids your body needs to assemble and repair its own proteins and tissues. It’s likely that the USRDA is not enough for those with reduced capacity to absorb protein. One study recommends between 0.5-0.6g of protein per kg of bodyweight for the elderly to prevent sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss. Older generations may benefit from partially broken down proteins, like hydrolysates and peptides, to skip over a few of the steps involved with digesting proteins.
How to get sufficient protein.
These numbers are simply guidelines, and your actual protein needs depend on a lot of individual factors. There’s a good chance you are getting sufficient protein if you are eating a healthy, varied diet – even if you’re eating vegetarian or vegan. In fact, there are several non-meat sources of protein that you may be surprised are packed with protein.
Vegan sources of protein that are as good as meat.
Pea protein powder
Pea protein powders are typically sold right alongside more common protein supplements, and more and more people are turning to pea protein to add to smoothies and baked goods to up their protein content. Pea protein has a PCDAAS score of 0.893, which is a measure of how bioavailable the protein is (1.0 is the highest), so it is readily absorbed and used by the body. Pea protein is not a complete protein, meaning it does not have all of the amino acids your body needs, but as long as you are eating a varied diet, you should be able to fill in the gaps.
Soy (tofu, edamame, tempeh, etc.)
Vegetarians and vegans have historically turned to soy to fill protein needs. Cubed or sliced soy products like tempeh and tofu have been used as a meat replacement, especially in Asian cuisine, for generations.
Soy comes with some issues, though. In some people, it activates estrogen receptors and can disrupt hormones – although in others, it benefits hormone balance. Additionally, soy that is not organic is typically heavily sprayed with herbicides that can irritate the gut and cause a lot of inflammation.
For most people, it’s fine to eat small amounts of soy once in a while. It’s not recommended to rely on it as a main source of protein, though.
One cup of cooked quinoa has over 8g of protein, which is higher than most grains. Its neutral flavor and versatility makes it a great addition to a lot of meals. You can sprinkle it on salads, mix it with sliced almonds and spices for a pilaf and serve it as a side, or eat it on its own.
Seitan is another common meat replacement in meals. It has a meat-like texture and a neutral flavor that makes it a tasty addition to virtually any recipe.
Some people cannot tolerate seitan. It’s essentially wheat protein, which is straight-up gluten, and a lot of people are finding that they have a range of sensitivities to wheat gluten. If you cannot eat gluten, any issues that you experience with bread will be magnified with seitan.
Beans are a staple protein for not only vegetarians and vegans, but omnivores as well.They contain an impressive amount of protein – one cup of chickpeas contains 39g of protein! Beans also contain beneficial fiber alongside protein, which makes them filling and satisfying.
The best way to cook beans is to soak them for at least 24 hours beforehand. This removes a lot of the phytic acid, which is a compound that binds the minerals that your body needs.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are great for on-the-go. They travel well and can be part of a meal or a filling protein snack no matter where you are. A typical mixed nuts combination that you would find at the grocery store or even in a vending machine contains 20-25g of protein per cup.
Many vegetables contain ample protein.
You may not think of vegetables as your primary protein source, but there are vegetables that contain over 4g of protein per cup: cooked brussels sprouts, spinach, artichokes, asparagus, and green peas.
Getting enough protein is easier than the muscle magazines make it out to be. Eat a variety of foods and add up your protein for the day. You may be surprised at your totals.