There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding protein and the erroneous idea that plants are deficient in protein. Consumers have been lead to believe that in order to make up for the lack of animal products in their diet, that another replacement “protein” is necessary. It is as if meat is synonymous with protein and everything else is not a source of protein. This is indicative of a general ignorance of what a healthy diet actually entails. Part of that has to do with the USDA listing meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood as “protein foods” along with nuts, seeds and soy products, as if to say any foods outside of this food group aren’t protein foods. However, our bodies don’t derive all it’s nutrition from a single meal, nor are we entirely dependent upon sources of protein to be healthy. The only time protein deficiency is an issue is in people who don’t consume enough calories to satisfy their nutritional needs. The necessary nutrition our body needs comes from a variety of foods consumed over time. The fact of the matter is, if you are eating whole plant based foods regularly, you are providing for what your body needs as protein for optimal growth, repair, and health. In short, if you are eating enough food everyday to meet your caloric and nutritional dietary needs, protein powders are completely unnecessary.
What is Protein?
Many seem to be unclear on what protein is exactly. Although protein is mentioned as an ingredient in your food, it’s not really “protein” per se, but “essential” amino acids that we are talking about. The 9 essential amino acids are those which our bodies do not produce on their own and include: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalinine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. We don’t need an incredibly high amount of these essential amino acids either, so as long as you eat an assortment of whole foods throughout the day, you will absolutely get enough of those essential amino acids.
Rather than getting these essential amino acids from denatured foods deprived of all their other ingredients and relegated down to a powder, consume whole plant based foods that are vibrant, living, and fresh. Fresh produce will give you the best version of these constituent elements because they are paired with many other health supporting nutriments. What is more important to consider with regard to diet is the complete nutritional profile. Food isn’t just a source of protein, and we seem so fixated on it, but there are other important elements to consider with food like water, and fiber, as well as micro-nutrients, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, lignans, short, medium, or long chain fatty acids, amino and nucleic acids, simple and complex sugars and/or carbohydrates, and beneficial microflora. Now with the advent of the industrial revolution, many pollutants such as trace elements of pesticides, heavy metals, various other chemicals, and other persistent and bioaccumulative pollutants like artificial hormones and PCB’s are poisoning our food, so you should definitely avoid conventional produce as a vegan, but I digress…
What Plant Foods Have Protein?
You will benefit far more from eating any of these whole foods over protein powder:
- 7 essential amino acids: carrots, green vegetables, leafy greens, sunflower seeds and sprouts
- 6 essential amino acids: celery, sesame seed (tahini), greens, beans and/or legumes
- 5 essential amino acids: Almonds, beets, spinach
- 4 essential amino acids: cashews, walnuts, chickpeas (hummus), lentils, nutritional yeast, apples, dandelion
- 3 essential amino acids: coconut, cucumber, flax seed, pumpkin seed, papaya, parsley, seaweed
- 2 Essential amino acids: brazil nuts, buckwheat, garlic, turnips, parsnips, radish, hazelnuts, kidney beans, lettuce, potatoes, sprouts, banana, endive, pomegranate, rice,, spirulina, avocado, olives, oats, tomato
- 1 Essential amino acid: leeks, onion, chives, pecan, pine nut, brussel sprouts, lima beans, snap beans, cantaloupe, cauliflower, citrus fruits, mushrooms, asparagus, amaranth, apricot, grapes, pear, peas, watercress, pineapple, collards, broccoli, okra, squash, fennel
When people think of protein for vegans, they tend to think of meat substitutes like tofu, or tempeh, but there are other foods that provide a lot of protein. If we were to look at foods as protein nutrient density by volume in order by Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) and Daily Value (DV), we find the following:
- Greater than 50% = soybean, tofu, spinach, asparagus, beet greens, mustard greens, swiss chard, bok choy
- Greater than 25% = tempeh, lentils, dried peas, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, lima beans, garbanzo beans, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, green peas, oats, collard greens, brussel sprouts, broccoli, kale, green beans, cauliflower, cabbage, miso, soy sauce, sea vegetables, crimini mushrooms, turnip greens, summer squash, and tomatoes.
Even if you were to eat the foods that have the highest amounts of protein to get enough protein, it’s not so much how much protein is in one particular food that is what’s needed, nor is it only supposed to be taking the place of meat, but rather, how many of the 9 essential amino acids you are getting when consuming the meals that you eat, overall.
What Is Protein For?
Essential amino acids and amino acids are the building blocks for our physiological systems (ie: digestive, connective tissue and extracellular fluid, muscle, endocrine, nervous, genetic, cardiovascular, cellular, signaling, energy production, and detoxification) and include: amylases, chymotrypsin, disaccharides, lipases, peptidases, proteases, ribonucleases, actin, myosin, troponin, tropomysin, vinculin, insulin, follicle and thyroid stimulating hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, melatonin, histones, nucleic acid polymerizing enzymes, albumin, alpha and beta globulin, fibornectin, actin, tubulin, spectrin, GCPRs, ATP synthetase, NADH reductase, succinate dehydrogenase, cytochrome sulfotransferase,and methyltranferase enzymes. Yet protein alone isn’t going to help us with all of these systems as all of these varying protein related processes also need the other constituent elements in our foods such as the vitamins, minerals, fats, etc.
How Much Protein Should We Be Getting?
The amount we are supposed to be getting is somewhat nebulous and there are different answers depending on what authority you are referencing. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that knowledge is insufficient to make clear recommendations for optimal intakes or define a safe upper limit. The World Health Organization found that “there is no evidence of benefit in additional protein above that found in otherwise nutritionally complete diets”.
In fact, they go on to support the idea that protein powders are unnecessary by stating specifically: “Protein supplements are the most widely consumed ergogenic aid, whereas single amino acids are consumed for a wide variety of reasons, most of which have little or no secure scientific foundation.” 
The UK’s guidance is 1.5 g protein/kg of weight. The US Govt’s recommended dietary intake (RDI) for inactive people between 19 and 70 years old is .75 grams per KG (0.34/lb). If I’m 125 lbs, and don’t work out often, according to the UK and US guidelines, I’m supposed to have 37.79 – 42.5 grams of protein per day.
Yet, the CDC says we should consume 46-56g of protein per day, so if we were to open the range to include them all, it would be roughly between 37 to 56 grams per day. Yet another source states The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. This amounts to 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman, which seems like a median between the other sources.
In all of these gram configurations, we aren’t really looking at the whole picture, because you also have to consider calories. The National Academy of Sciences says, a meal plan in which “protein” represents 15-25% of total calories, is the most advantageous. These guidelines might be more based eating a 2,000 calories a day diet, but if you are more sedentary, or are more athletic, your calorie intake will be different.
Let’s say you get 10% of your protein in a 2K calorie diet, that would mean 50 grams of protein, that is roughly, the base range related to the DRI calculation, so it isn’t the same as what the National Academy of Sciences says which should be 15–20%.
All of this can get very confusing, because there really isn’t a general rule. It depends on a number of things like your age, your weight, height, and exercise frequency. If you want to see what you need as a vegan, check out this protein calculator
According to Veganook’s calculator, as a more sedentary middle aged female weighing in at 125 and being 5’5” tall, it says I should aim to get 10-20% of my calories from protein which translated to 30-62 grams. So, what does that look like in a meal plan for the day?
According to the USDA, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, or ½ cup black beans = 2 ounce equivalents of protein foods. If 1 ounce is 28.3495 grams, by eating 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, I‘ve consumed 56.699 grams of protein which would satisfy my needs for the day. But it’s not really realistic to consider eating a few tablespoons of peanut butter or a half a cup of beans. We like to vary our diets a lot more than that.
So, let’s consider a typical day of meals that I would actually eat and figure in the grams of protein…
- Breakfast: I make a chia seed pudding by making a “milk” with hemp seeds by blending them with water and (10 grams) with dates and bananas and add 4 tbs of chia seed (12 grams). Breakfast is 22 grams of protein
- Lunch: I eat a salad for lunch including a cup of kale (2.5 grams), 1 avocado (4 grams), 1 cucumber (1 gram), a cup of carrots (2 grams) a cup of beets (2 grams) kernels of corn equal to one cob (5 grams) and a quarter cup of pumpkin seed (7 grams), I would have eaten a lunch containing 23.5 grams of protein (not including the salad dressing).
- Dinner: I might make rice (4.3 grams) with two toppings: a tomato sauce based lentil curry (18 grams) and a vegetable coconut curry with carrot (2 grams), potato (5 grams), and cauliflower (2 grams), that would equal 31.3 grams of protein (the protein was calculated based on this plant based food chart listing food in grams of protein ).
The total grams in protein from this combination of meals for the day equals 84.6 grams of protein and that’s not even considering drinks, or snacks, or my calories, or percentage of protein from calories, but if I’m to follow the range of 30-63 grams from Vernook’s calculator, I’ve gotten more than enough protein with that meal plan for the day. If I’m more physically active, instead of sedentary, that might actually be closer to the amount I should have, but still perhaps higher than is necessary. So, maybe I eat a little less the next day. Any rate above the amount in the ideal range, will simply not be digested and used, and will be excreted. But what about when we continually feed ourselves more than what our bodies need?
Too Much Protein is Bad For Your Health
As your protein intake goes up, so can your urinary loss of calcium because if the amino acids are primarily acidic, your body uses calcium as a buffer to reach an alkaline homeostasis. If your protein intake is more than twice the dietary amount recommended for your age, weight, height, and exercise level, there is potential for harm and toxicity, which protein powders could cause if you are unclear how much protein you are actually getting from the foods that you eat. That’s where the danger lies, when you add additional supplementation, when you didn’t really need to. Primary illnesses will be deterioration of kidney function and bone health, increased kidney stones, and cardiovascular disease.
There is far more complexity with regard to the chemistry of our digestive process, how these foods interact with each other, how they are affected by cooking, and how these things relate to our gut microbiomes, as well as what happens to food when we overly process it. Cooking the above mentioned plant based foods by grilling, searing, or frying can form AGEs or advanced glycosylation end products, as well as acrylamide, which can contribute to chronic diseases, so it’s better to eat fresh, and if you have to cook them, steamed, or boiled is a better option.
I’ve yet to look for studies which explore how much harm is caused by isolating elements from food, rather than simply getting those nutrients in natural quantities from the food itself. Regardless, we must consider how we evolved over millennia to eat food in their natural states, rather than the industrialized, processed approach toward food and this much is clear, we are ill equipped for eating concentrated amounts of anything separated from the original food product. Things that come to mind are high fructose corn syrup, and refined white sugar, and refined white flour, and you can find this out by looking up the dangers of processed foods in a Google search.
Unless you are living only on fruit smoothies everyday and eating nothing else, would protein powders (in moderation) be an acceptable use of supplementation. The overall answer to the question is simply to eat a varied diet of whole plant based foods including seeds, nuts, legumes, leafy greens, and vegetables, rather than rely on powders at all for your nutrition.