Typecast as the dumb jock of the macronutrient world – bursting with brawn but bereft of brain – and rarely thought of as possessing much complexity, this muscle-building macro is rarely recognized for the host of other benefits it boasts.
Well, no more. It’s time to set the record straight. Carolina Schneider, one of our incredible Registered Dietitians and a champion of plant-based nutrition, is here to clear up some of the most common misconceptions she hears about protein, dig into what most people get wrong about vegan protein, and dispel some common vegan myths.
Protein is famous for its muscle-building properties for good reason. That’s because during exercise, “micro tears” occur in your muscles. Dietary protein – which we get through food – is what our bodies use to repair the damaged muscle fibers, which in turn increases muscle size, in a process called muscle hypertrophy.
But therein lies the first major protein myth: that this is all it does for our bodies. In reality, protein is probably the most versatile macronutrient, because it also:
serves as the building blocks for cartilage, skin and bones,
controls growth, development and repair of cells and tissues in the body,
transports oxygen throughout the body to the brain, muscles and all of our cells,
supports the immune system and our defense cells,
transmits nerve impulses, which is essential for cells in your body to communicate with one another,
and makes up enzymes (molecules that speed up chemical reactions) which are responsible for thousands of reactions that keep us alive.
All macronutrients in the right balance are essential.
Carbohydrates are the only source of energy our brains “accept” and they’re the most easily utilized source of energy for muscles and cells in the body, as well. Plus, carbohydrates from whole foods (wholegrains, legumes, fruits and veggies) are essential for maintaining regular blood sugar levels because they provide dietary fiber, which is also essential for gut health and digestion.
Fats provide structure to cell membranes in the body, insulate our organs and maintain homeostasis in the body. They aid in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. And they provide essential amino acids that the body cannot produce, which can help reduce inflammation and assist with healing injuries. And if carbohydrates are not available, fats can be used as a source of energy.
The fact is, most Americans consume more protein than they need. And maintaining a diet that greatly exceeds your daily recommended amount of protein can increase your risk of conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, bone disorders and liver damage.
However, these adverse effects of a high-protein diet are generally linked to animal protein consumption due to its high purine content. When compared to animal protein, plant protein is actually associated with a reduced risk for chronic disease and mortality.
The general recommendation for protein intake is 0.36 to 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That means that a 150-pound person will likely require somewhere between 54 and 68 grams of protein per day.
This formula is not perfect. Your actual protein requirements will vary depending on a variety of factors, like your activity level, age, pre-existing conditions, and more.
This brings us to the plant protein vs. animal protein portion of our post.
Protein is made of “building blocks” called amino acids – there are 20 varieties of them in total. The human body can produce 11 of these amino acids, but the other nine – the “essential amino acids” – must be obtained from food, because our bodies can’t produce them on their own.
Animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids; that’s why you might have heard them described as “complete proteins.” But most plant-based proteins also contain all nine essential amino acids. The difference lies in the amounts they offer. Some plant-based sources contain very low amounts of certain amino acids, while others contain more.
For example, beans and vegetables are usually lower in the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine. Whole grains, nuts and seeds are good sources of those amino acids, but lower in the essential amino acid lysine.
Historically, it was believed that it was necessary to pair different foods in the same meals in order to obtain a complete set of amino acids, or “complementary protein.” However, we have since learned that our bodies are able to store essential amino acids from different meals to build complete proteins.
So rather than having rice and beans for every meal, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re better off working to ensure you’re consuming a variety of foods and sources of protein throughout the day, while making sure you’re eating enough calories. One great way to accomplish this is to aim to "eat the rainbow" of veggies, and even some grains – variety makes a big difference!
As previously mentioned, muscle building requires two things: 1. Exertion of force (exercising) to create micro tears in the muscle fibers, and 2. Consumption of dietary protein to help rebuild the muscle, which increases muscle mass. As long as people consume adequate amounts of protein and get a variety of protein sources (to obtain all essential amino acids), they will be able to build muscle regardless of whether they are getting their protein from animal sources or from high protein plant-based meals.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the best plant-based protein sources out there:
Pea protein: 30 grams of protein per 4 tbsp. serving
Soy protein*: 16 grams of protein per ¼ cup serving
Tofu*: 15 grams of protein per 3 ounce serving
Hemp seeds*: 10 grams of protein per 3 tbsp. serving
Pumpkin seeds: 10 grams of protein per ¼ cup serving
Lentils: 9 grams of protein per ½ cup serving
Edamame*: 9 grams of protein per ½ cup serving
Nut butter: 8 grams of protein per 2 tbsp. serving
Wheat pasta: 8 grams of protein per 2 ounce serving
Beans: 8 grams of protein per ½ cup serving
Chickpeas: 7 grams of protein per ½ cup serving
Nuts: 6 grams of protein per ¼ cup serving
*Soy protein, tofu, hemp seeds, and edamame – along with many other plant-based foods! – are complete sources of protein.
And that leads us to maybe the greatest protein myth of them all.
Most people’s protein needs can be easily met through a plant based diet, without necessarily slamming back protein shakes. That said, supplemental protein in the form of protein powders and protein bars can be a convenient way to increase protein consumption, especially for those who need higher quantities of proteins or are often on-the-go. Generally speaking, though, you’ll get more bang for your buck when you obtain your protein from whole food sources, since these contain other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
When asking the all-too-common question, "do vegans get enough protein?" a good counter question would be "is protein deficiency common for anyone?"
For those living with adequate access to a balanced diet who make an honest effort to eat a variety of foods, it's somewhat difficult to reach that point.
While most options in protein for vegans are going to be lower in the macronutrient than say, a steak, the plant kingdom on the whole is full of protein. If you're eating a range of whole grains and more than one or two types of veggies, chances are you're getting enough protein, even as a vegan.