Plant-Based Protein: Truths, Myths, and Best Sources

by Guest
Jun 5, 2017
woman holding a glass of beans over more glasses or different vegan staple food rich in protein
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It seems the world is obsessed with protein. People drink protein shakes before their workout. Bodybuilders chow down on chicken, tuna, and eggs in order to get desired results. Plant-based eaters are constantly asked where they get their protein, and nearly every processed health snack references protein value as a reason to buy.

It’s no wonder, then, that when one chooses the plant-based lifestyle, protein intake often comes to mind.

Vegans and vegetarians are (unsurprisingly) more under fire from the protein hype, due to the common misconception that protein is only obtainable from animal foods. Thankfully, this view is becoming increasingly outdated, but we’re still having to field questions left, right and center about our protein sources.

When somebody first transitions to a plant-based diet, it’s easy for them to feel confused. They may ask questions like:

“Where can I get my protein from?” “Do I need to take protein powder?” “What about ‘complete’ proteins?” “How can I be sure I’m getting enough?”

The good news is, plant-based eaters definitely don’t need to worry about their protein intake. If you’re wondering about protein, hopefully, this article will provide you with everything you need to know.

How Much Protein Do We Really Need?

It’s easy to see why protein has become such a big focus in modern diets. Sure, it’s incredibly important, being used for various jobs within the body. Protein forms the ‘building blocks’ of life and is used to:

  • Build skin, hair, nails, cartilage and tendons, keeping them strong and healthy
  • Form essential enzymes, antibodies and hormones
  • Renew cells regularly
  • Transport nutrients around the body
healthy woman

In the US, the daily reference intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight. If you weigh 60kg, for instance, your recommended intake would be 48 grams which really isn’t that much.

And as it happens, protein does not have to be the focus of every meal for you to get enough. Of the 22 amino acids our bodies need, only nine of them cannot be created by the body. We call these ‘essential’ amino acids.

There’s actually a lot of overlap when it comes to ‘sources’ of these essential amino acids. This means variety in your diet is so much more important than how much of one particular food or macro you eat. The greater the assortment of foods, the greater the odds are of you getting all of the essential amino acids your body needs.

Where can I get my protein from?

Vegans don’t need to worry about where they’re getting their protein or whether they’re getting enough protein because it can be found in every single whole plant food. Yep, that’s right – even those fruits and veggies you’re eating contain some grams of protein.

Plant-based protein has been shown to be much more beneficial to the body than animal protein. This is because it also contains healthy accompaniments of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals…in other words, they are “package deal” foods.

Animal protein, on the other hand, is devoid of fiber, which leads to poor digestive health, weight gain, and cardiovascular disease. It is also typically higher in fat and cholesterol which are major risk factors for chronic diseases, including heart disease.

Animal protein also comes with an increased cancer risk due to their higher proportions of essential amino acids. This causes our bodies to produce higher levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor-1 which can lead to cancer growth.

One of the proteins found in dairy, casein, is also strongly linked to several types of cancer. Read more about this particular protein in our article here.

Good Plant-Based Protein Sources

good sources of plant based protein infographic

The examples listed above are mainly whole, unprocessed sources of protein. Minimally processed foods like tofu, seitan, or whole-grain flours are still healthy and can be included in a well-rounded plant-based diet.

While nuts and nut butters offer a good amount of protein as well, they are also high in fat. Therefore, they shouldn’t be used as your main go-to protein source, ideally. Instead, enjoy them sparingly as a protein-boosting addition to smoothies or salads.

Do I Need to Take Protein Powder?

The food market is brimming with various vegan protein powders that are often hyped by celebrities and marketing. People become convinced that in order to stay healthy (and avoid wasting away) they ought to be consuming these powders daily.

In reality, this is not the case. I’m sure we can all agree here that whey powders aren’t great – for people, for animals or the environment. But did you know that most vegan protein powders aren’t great either?

In order to create a protein powder, protein has to be extracted or isolated from certain foods, which means high amounts of processing is taking place. These powders are so processed that your body may not even be able to recognize them and use them efficiently…which is kind of defeating the point.

As well as this, protein powders aren’t regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and their use of the word ‘natural’ isn’t regulated either. So when you see those ‘natural flavorings’ mentioned, there’s no sign of where they may be coming from. Many plant-based newbies feel more comfortable adding a protein powder to their diet – at least at first. If this is you, just be sure to choose one that is whole or unprocessed, made from only a single ingredient.

Spirulina, for example, is a green algae bursting with protein and other nutrients, which is dried and can be added to smoothies. Hemp protein is also a good option, made from hemp seeds that have been finely ground and the oil extracted (though you’d be getting more of the hemp benefits simply by adding the hemp seeds whole).

plant based protein powder

What About ‘Complete’ Proteins?

Once upon a time, the nutrition world was of the belief that plant-based proteins were ‘incomplete’ – that is, they contained only some of the amino acids our bodies need. Therefore, we should combine certain foods together (like rice and beans), in order to create a complete protein. This concept was called ‘protein complementing’.

Bear in mind that this study came from a Yale University study done over a century ago, which focused on the role of amino acids in nutrition and growth in rats. What the study found was that rats didn’t grow so well on plant proteins…but that they didn’t grow so well on human breast milk either.

Rather than conclude that we shouldn’t breastfeed our children (which would have been crazy), scientists were forced to look at the limiting truth – that rats grow ten times faster than humans and therefore need ten times as much protein. Therefore, the whole study was not even representative of humans and their needs.

Luckily, we now know that protein complementing is a complete myth. All foods contain essential amino acids – yes, some less than others – yet our bodies do a fabulous job of combining them all by themselves. Like a jigsaw, our bodies will ‘piece together’ the various proteins from everything we eat in a day.

If you’re ever in need of a little reassurance about this, consider the sheer number of plant-based athletes there are in the world. Author and ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll claims his athletic accomplishments over the past eight years have been because of his plant-based diet – not in spite of it.

In his article on Forks over Knives on the protein myth, he talks about how plants are more than enough fuel for his 25 hours a week training regimen – with no issues with regards to building and maintaining lean muscle mass.

He also references the incredible achievements of other plant-based athletes, including Oakland Raiders’ tackle David Carter; record-breaking strongman Patrick Baboumian; ultramarathoners Scott Jurek and Michael Arnstein and MMA/UFC fighters Mac Danzig, Jake Shields and James Wilks.

So if you’re plant-based, you don’t need to worry too much about which foods to eat when and with what. Which is lucky, because who has time for that?!

different sources of plant based protein

The Dangers of Too Much Animal Protein

Despite what the bodybuilders might tell you…you can eat too much protein. This might seem a crazy concept in a world that’s always telling us how important it is, but more recent studies are now highlighting the negative effects of eating too much protein from animal sources.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Dr. Dean Ornish talks about the myth of high protein diets. He references a study which found a 75 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among ‘heavy consumers’ of animal protein under the ages of 65.

In other words, those who got 20% of their calories from animal protein were more likely to die from a chronic disease.

How Do I Know if I’m Getting Enough?

As with any new diet or lifestyle, it’s easy at first to be worrying about doing things ‘perfectly’ and want to measure everything. Some people – plant-based or not – use nutrition apps to count their macronutrients and ensure they’re staying on top of their protein intake.

However, this is absolutely not necessary. If you’re eating enough, and it’s mostly whole, unprocessed plant-based foods, it’s very hard to not get enough protein.

According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, “it is easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein, as long as calorie intake is adequate”. In other words – eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and eat a variety of wholesome, plant-based foods. The Ph.D. candidate in Nutritional Epidemiology Micaela Karlsen agrees on the importance of volume and variety in one’s diet when it comes to fulfilling protein needs.

Using the adequate protein target of 8-10% of her daily calories, Karlsen gives a very reasonable day on a plate for the typical plant-based eater. All in all, she clocks up 1950 calories, 11% of which is protein, all without very much thinking or preparation at all. Here’s what she ate: oatmeal with banana and 1 TB of maple syrup for breakfast, an apple, carrot, and crackers and hummus for snacks, whole wheat noodles with kale, tomato sauce and white beans for lunch, a big salad (4 cups) with carrots, tomato, avocado and balsamic vinegar, a stuffed pepper, and broccoli for dinner, and a baked apple for dessert.

Eating more protein won’t automatically make you gain muscle faster. If you’re worried about losing muscle definition, then remember exercise is the number one way to gain and maintain muscle and build healthy bones – especially if its weight-bearing or involves some kind of resistance. That, combined with eating enough, and eating a huge variety, is certain to quell any risk of protein deficiency.

So don’t drive yourself crazy and​ indulge in the delicious variety of whole plant-based foods. Your body will thank you for it.

Have you been worried about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet? Do you have a hard time eating legumes or do you like to have them? Let us know all about it in the comments below.

Adele is a plant-based food and lifestyle blogger that’s been living the plant-based life for four years. Having learned a lot about diet, cooking, nutrition, food labels and how to find what works best for one’s own body, she’s now on a mission to share her experiences and show how amazing the plant-based life can be.
Her blog Everything’s Peachy showcases the best ingredients, products, recipes and brands that are all hugely helpful in living a compassionate lifestyle, whilst celebrating the idea of the ‘free’ life.

dark grey spotted bowl with a variety of vegetables next to small bottle of green smoothie isolated on light background

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16 thoughts on “Plant-Based Protein: Truths, Myths, and Best Sources”

  1. this is SOOOOO timely! Thank you for the article in an easy-to-understand outline. I just had this conversation with a vegetarian friend who (seems) to be under the impression that cheese is her safe-guard for her daily protein. I wanted to ask though, your stats are different than what I was trying to discover for her online (http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4326/2)
    Based on this website, I’m sharing that almost a day’s worth of protein is in a cup of beans. Your sources are significantly less.
    I’m asking because I’d love to know. Thanks again for your article. I will be sharing for sure.

    • Hey Nanci,

      glad the article found you well. :)
      Relying on cheese as a protein source is definitely not the best idea as you’re getting tons of saturated fat and cholesterol along the way.

      Oh, you are right about the chickpeas data. It was supposed to say “1/2 cup” and not “1 cup” on our infographic. So it’s 7.3 g for 1/2 cup and 14.6 g for 1 cup.
      I fixed that. Other than that, I think everything should be alright. It might be a bit confusing, because we used relatively small serving sizes which, in turn, results in smaller amounts of protein.

      But please let me know if anything is still unclear to you!

  2. This is a good read, thank you for putting it out there and answering questions that many of us have. Friends give me a hard time because they think since I am a vegetarian I am not getting all the amino acids but I know they have never even looked into it

    • Hey Bridget,
      thanks for your feedback! We need to work hard on busting the protein myths here. The Western world is oversaturated when it comes to this nutrient, causing more harm than good. I know that many people fear for your health when they hear you’re plant-based/vegan but at the same time don’t even know anyone who suffered from a legitimate protein deficiency. More to come on the blog!
      All my best x

  3. Hey guys, Adele here! So lovely to see that this article is really helping people defend their ethical food choices and hopefully put to rest any concerns you may have.
    Once I stopped worrying about protein intake and just more in having a varied, healthy diet, I actually started to enjoy veganism so much more and got in much better shape. Ironic! Thanks for checking it out and sharing :)

  4. Thank you for this article, it nicely explains probably the most common question for vegans – protein. In the end, you know your body best, and well-balanced plant-based diet can provide you with all the nutrients you need (I wrote about protein sources: https://vegancookbook.com/vegan-protein-sources/). All it takes is a little planning and time for your body to adjust to the change. It is true that we are so often worried about making the wrong step that we forget to enjoy all the new exciting opportunities and recipes that plant-based diet has to offer.

    • Funny enough how suddenly people turn into nutritionists and worry about protein when you mention that you don’t eat any animal products. In reality, we should be way more concerned for them who eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs! These are a lot more harmful than getting your protein from beans and grains ;) Not really that complicated.

  5. Thank you for all this incredible information. I’m teaching a food class to High school students. Would love to challenge them to trying to this lifestyle for a week.

  6. I’m having a difficult time figuring out breakfast. I am not really an oatmeal fan although I’ve given it plenty of opportunities. I was researching plant-based protein powders, but after reading your article I am unsure. I need something to keep me full until after my lunch-time workouts. So a banana and almonds aren’t really going to do it (I eat those as a snack before my workout). Thanks for any suggestions!

  7. Essential amino acids do not cause cancer!!! What are you talking about? Pull your fucking head out of you ass please!!!!!

    • https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160801113654.htm
      https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/diet-high-in-meat-proteins-raises-cancer-risk-for-middle-aged-people/
      Campbell TC. Dietary protein, growth factors, and cancer. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(6):1667.
      Ornish D, Weidner G, Fair WR, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. J Urol. 2005;174(3):1065-1069.
      Kleinberg DL, Wood TL, Furth PA, Lee AV. Growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-I in the transition from normal mammary development to preneoplastic mammary lesions. Endocr Rev. 2009;30(1):51-74.
      Allen NE, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Kaaks R, Rinaldi S, Key TJ. The associations of diet with serum insulin-like growth factor I and its main binding proteins in 292 women meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002; 1(11):1441-1448.
      McCarty MF. Vegan proteins may reduce risk of cancer, obesity, and cardiovascular disease by promoting increased glucagon activity. Med Hypotheses. 1999;53(6):459-485.
      Cheers!

  8. I had a gastric by-pass two years ago. I eat about anywhere from 600 to 700 calories a day. I am a healthy thriving adult female-age 50. I make sure that everything I eat has nutrient dense foods. I make sure that every bite of food I put in n my mouth has protein in it along with some kind of positive nutrients(vitamins/minerals) in it. I get about 45 grams of protein a day and use NO protein powders! It in s very doable on a vegan diet.

  9. Thanks for the article.
    I’m from Brazil and a regularly go to the gym. There are many people often talk about getting protein eatting meat, chicken, protein shake (like whey protein) and when you tell you are searching for plant proteins everybody said that you are wrong.
    Here are a lot of types of fruits and vegetables! It´s very easy and cheap to be a vegetarian or vegan here.

  10. you don’t need protein. if you just eat according to your hunger, you’ll naturally get enough protein. see the body reacts to stress on a daily basis and our hunger reflects those changes in the brain. sometimes we need to binge on carbs like eating a box of pasta and sometimes we need lots of protein like eating taco bell bean burritos. the key is to eat what you like and then get active like lifting some dumbbells. i don’t recommend too much cardio like running on the treadmill. rather a slow 15 minute walk on the treadmill is enough, and that too not every day. they key thing is that we want to normalize our diet and balance it between high fat and low fat days. i learned some of these concepts from the 2 books “fit for life” and “fitness without exercise”. but make sure not to diet and eat well in abundance because our brain waves need to be normal and not stressed. at the same time we can do some “exercise” in the form of eating steamed foods in our diet and reducing oil. that is also very healthy and more healthy than cardiovascular exercise (running).

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