“If you don’t eat meat, chicken, or fish, where do you get your protein?”
“You don’t eat dairy products or eggs either? How can you live without protein?”
“You can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet.”
“My doctor told me I could not stay healthy on a vegan diet”
“I tried a vegetarian diet, but I got sick.”
“I was on a vegetarian diet but I always felt tired. I needed more protein.”
The hard fact that constantly comes to the foreground is that the focus on protein borders on obsession in countries of the Western Hemisphere. One glance at restaurant menus and the plates that come to the table is proof that the centerpiece of the meal is the large serving of meat, chicken or fish frequently smothered in creamy sauces or melted cheese. The portions served at one meal alone come close to fulfilling a day’s worth of protein needs.
Can you miss the billboards, ad campaigns, infomercials, bus benches, etc. of “Where’s the beef” and “Milk does a body good”?
Now I fully recognize that protein is a necessity to a healthy body, and that it is important to replenish our store of protein every day. Because the body doesn’t store protein as it does other nutrients, we’re aware it must be replaced each day as a source of nourishment for building and repairing new cells, hormones, antibodies, enzymes and muscle tissue. But, just how much protein do we really need?
What is Protein?
Proteins are part of every cell, tissue, and organ in our bodies. These body proteins are constantly being broken down and replaced. The protein in the foods we eat is digested into amino acids that are later used to replace these proteins in our bodies.
Protein is found in the following foods:
- meats, poultry, and fish
- legumes (dry beans and peas) (I CAN EAT!)
- tofu (I CAN EAT!)
- nuts and seeds (I CAN EAT!)
- milk and milk products
- grains, vegetables, and fruits (I CAN EAT!)
What are the types of protein?
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks. There are 20 different amino acids that join together to make all types of protein. Some of these amino acids can’t be made by our bodies, so these are known as essential amino acids. It’s essential that our diet provide these.
In the diet, protein sources are labeled according to how many of the essential amino acids they provide:
- A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids. You may also hear these sources called high quality proteins. Animal-based foods; for example, meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese are considered complete protein sources. Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is also a “complete protein” grain.
- An incomplete protein source is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. Rice, grains, beans, veggies, fruit, etc- are all incomplete proteins
However, vegetarians and vegans don’t need to worry about complete and incomplete protein. It is NOT NECESSARY for vegetarians and vegans to combine specific protein foods at one sitting to make complete protein. Your body works all day to combine these proteins
How much protein do I need?
Maybe you’ve wondered how much protein you need each day. In general, it’s recommended that 10% of your daily calories come from protein. Below are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for different age groups.
|Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein|
|Grams of protein
needed each day
|Children ages 1 – 3||13|
|Children ages 4 – 8||19|
|Children ages 9 – 13||34|
|Girls ages 14 – 18||46|
|Boys ages 14 – 18||52|
|Women ages 19 – 70+||46|
|Men ages 19 – 70+||56|
Brenda Davis, R.D., and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D., in their book Becoming Vegan consider 0.9 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to be more ideal for vegans eating whole plant foods such as legumes, whole grains, and vegetables. Multiplying 0.45 grams by your body weight in pounds will give you the approximate protein need for your body. These figures are a little higher than actual RDA requirements but were considered necessary as a safety factor to account for reduced digestibility of whole plant foods versus more refined foods such as tofu, textured soy protein, and meat substitutes.
With this slightly higher figure a 120-pound person would need 54 grams of protein daily and a 150-pound person needs 67.5 grams. Another way to calculate your RDA for protein is to take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 (pounds per kilogram) to determine your weight in kilograms. Then figure 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight. Those who include tofu, textured soy protein, meat substitutes, and refined grains will find 0.8 grams per kilogram of protein daily quite adequate.
Here are examples of amounts of protein in food:
- Hamburger patty, 4 oz – 28 grams protein
- Steak, 6 oz – 42 grams
- Most cuts of beef – 7 grams of protein per ounce
- Chicken breast, 3.5 oz – 30 grams protein
- Chicken thigh – 10 grams (for average size)
- Drumstick – 11 grams
- Wing – 6 grams
- Chicken meat, cooked, 4 oz – 35 grams
- Most fish fillets or steaks are about 22 grams of protein for 3 ½ oz (100 grams) of cooked fish, or 6 grams per ounce
- Tuna, 6 oz can – 40 grams of protein
- Pork chop, average – 22 grams protein
- Pork loin or tenderloin, 4 oz – 29 grams
- Ham, 3 oz serving – 19 grams
- Ground pork, 1 oz raw – 5 grams; 3 oz cooked – 22 grams
- Bacon, 1 slice – 3 grams
- Canadian-style bacon (back bacon), slice – 5 – 6 grams
Eggs and Dairy
- Egg, large – 6 grams protein
- Milk, 1 cup – 8 grams
- Cottage cheese, ½ cup – 15 grams
- Yogurt, 1 cup – usually 8-12 grams, check label
- Soft cheeses (Mozzarella, Brie, Camembert) – 6 grams per oz
- Medium cheeses (Cheddar, Swiss) – 7 or 8 grams per oz
- Hard cheeses (Parmesan) – 10 grams per oz
Beans (including soy)
- Tofu, ½ cup 20 grams protein
- Tofu, 1 oz, 2.3 grams
- Soy milk, 1 cup – 6 -10 grams
- Most beans (black, pinto, lentils, etc) about 7-10 grams protein per half cup of cooked beans
- Soy beans, ½ cup cooked – 14 grams protein
- Split peas, ½ cup cooked – 8 grams
Nuts and Seeds
- Peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons – 8 grams protein
- Almonds, ¼ cup – 8 grams
- Almond Milk, 1 cup – 2 grams
- Peanuts, ¼ cup – 9 grams
- Cashews, ¼ cup – 5 grams
- Pecans, ¼ cup – 2.5 grams
- Sunflower seeds, ¼ cup – 6 grams
- Pumpkin seeds, ¼ cup – 8 grams
- Flax seeds – ¼ cup – 8 grams
Fruits (calculated at per 100 calories)
- Apricots, 2.5 grams
- Banana, 1 grams
- Cherries, 1.5 grams
- Cucumber, 2.5 grams
- Grapes, red, 1 grams
- Orange, Valencia, 2 grams
- Peach, 2 grams
- Strawberries, 2 grams
- Tomato, red, 3 grams
- Watermelon, 2 grams
Vegetables (calculated at per 100 calories)
- Spinach, 12 grams
- Kale, 11 grams
- Broccoli, 11 grams
- Brussels sprouts, 11 grams
- Cauliflower, 10 grams
- Mushrooms, 9.5 grams
- Lettuce, 8.5 grams
- Green pepper, 5.5 grams
- Eggplant, 5.25 grams
- Onions, 4 grams
- Potatoes, 2.75 grams
- Sweet potatoes, 1.5 grams
What Vegetarians/Vegans Should Eat To Get Enough Protein:
Each plant food has its own unique amino acid profile, from green leafy veggies to tubers, from barley to quinoa, from lentils to tofu, from macadamia to brazil nuts. By eating a variety of plant foods with ‘incomplete proteins’ throughout the day, we can easily get enough ‘complete protein. It isn’t at all necessary to include animal foods to get enough protein in your diet.
What I’ve learned:
Both Rick and I- being people who try to stay healthy and work out- were worried about protein intake. All of our lives- it’s been, “Eat Protein, Eat Protein, Eat Protein”. The most interesting thing I’ve learned- is that we don’t have to eat nearly as much protein as we do. Most people eat WAY over the recommended protein levels per day. As Vegans- it has been surprisingly easy to hit the levels that we should be hitting- each and every day. Yes- it is harder than running and grabbing a burger or grilling up a steak- but we are eating a much richer variety of proteins and are getting so many other vitamins and nutritional benefits (not including that we know what goes into our body and every single meal) that the minor extra time spent finding new recipes and making sure that we have all of the nutrients we need- is well worth it.