Protein is one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of nutrition. Yet there is little consensus among health experts on exactly how much we need or which sources are optimal. Plant-based diet advocates contend that actual protein requirements are significantly lower than U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritional guidelines, while ancestral Paleo diet proponents push to raise the ceiling. What we do know is that a certain minimum amount of protein is required for building, maintaining and repairing the body, and that protein deficiency is a serious form of malnutrition. For vegetarians and vegans who tend towards low protein foods, maintaining adequate protein intake is a legitimate concern.
Protein is built from a set of 20 amino acids. Eleven of these amino acids can be made by the body, but 9 must be obtained from food and are therefore termed “essential”. When essential amino acids are insufficient in the diet, the body cannibalizes its own tissues in order to extract the amino acids necessary for maintaining basic functioning.
Protein is found in varying amounts in virtually all foods. Even vegetables and fruits contain protein, a fact that is often overlooked. However, not all plant foods contain all essential amino acids. In response, vegetarians have long combined complementary protein types, such as beans and rice, in order to create a “complete protein” meal. Research now shows that pairing proteins at each meal is unnecessary as long as the daily diet contains all essential amino acids. To ensure sufficient intake, eat a rich diversity of plant foods every day, including vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
How Much is Enough Protein?
Protein requirements are highly individual. Actual values depend upon a myriad of factors, including age, gender, health, exercise, and lifestyle. A 30-year old triathlete is going to have radically different protein needs than a 60-year old meditating yogi (see “Am I Getting Enough?” below). As a general average, the USDA recommends 10 to 35 percent of daily calories as protein. For a rough estimate of your body’s protein needs in grams, multiply your body weight (in pounds) by 0.36. The World Health Organization suggests a much lower figure of 4.5% of calories as protein, while other nutritional organizations put figure at 2.5%. Raw food physicians, such as Dr. Gabriel Cousens, have long held that the protein contained in living plant foods is more bioavailable, thus reducing protein requirements for persons on a raw plant-based diet.
Cooked or uncooked, nutritionists will generally agree that a diverse and well-balanced whole-foods plant-based diet can easily meet or exceed the vast majority of accepted dietary guidelines. One problem is that most vegetarians fall victim to the “whole food drift”, reaching for natural junk food with increasing frequency over time. When organic muffins, nut-based ice creams, and soy lattes become the daily rule rather than the exception, healthier whole foods with quality protein are squeezed out. Overtime, protein deficiency sneaks up. A second issue is calorie restriction. When eating low percentage protein foods, reduced calories translates to reduced protein intake.
Signs and Symptoms of Protein Deficiency
You may have heard plant-based diet advocates quip, “When was the last time you met a protein deficient American?” This sassy one-liner is no defense against the very real threat and problem of protein deficiency. Despite urban myths to the contrary, many people are not getting enough quality protein in their diet, regardless of access. Data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted in 2003-2004 showed that 7.7% of American adolescent females and about 8% of older adult women failed to eat the minimum recommended amount of protein, with children and men over 50 also failing short of recommended levels. Protein deficiency is a hidden epidemic in no small part because the signs and symptoms are frequently attributed to other causes.
Consider the following telltale markers of protein deficiency:
#3: Muscle and/or Joint Pain
#4: Muscle Loss
#5: Sweet Cravings
#6: Chronic Injury and/or Illness
#7: Slow Healing
#9: Light or Disturbed Sleep
#10: Irregular Digestion and Elimination
#11: Systemic Coldness
#12: Hair Loss
These signs may also be indicative of other conditions, including Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and thyroid disease, to which they are often incorrectly or correctly attributed. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consult with a qualified medical professional to identify the root issue and begin appropriate treatment. Discuss your current eating habits and dietary history with your doctor, and ask specifically about protein sufficiency. Not all physicians are well-trained in dietetics, so you may want to follow up with a qualified nutritionist who can offer a second opinion. If you are malnourished, a nutritionist can provide you with an effective strategy for maintaining a balanced and protein-rich plant-based diet. With the right nutrition, previous conditions may miraculously vanish.
The Genius of Variety: 10 Protein-Packed Plant Food Outliers
Calorie for calorie, flesh foods have a reputation for high protein values, but nature delivers an abundance of protein in plant foods without the planetary and karmic side effects linked to animal protein. Take advantage of this incredible variety of available high-protein plant foods. Keeping your meals diverse will help ensure a healthy balance of nutrients and double as a guard against feeling deprived. Try mixing up your regular fare with the following high-protein plant food outliers::
1: Dulse: 1 cup = 11 to 21 grams (according to the season)
2: Hemp Seeds: 1 tablespoon = 5 grams
3: Chia Seeds: 2 rounded tablespoons = 5 grams
4: Apricot Kernels: ¼ cup = 7 grams
5: Quinoa: 1 cup = 9 grams
6: Teff: 1 cup = 10 grams
7: Tempeh: 1 cup = 31 grams
8: Spirulina: 1 tablespoon = 4 grams
9: Bee Pollen: 1 tablespoon = 4 grams
10: Mesquite Powder: ½ cup = 16 grams
Not sure how to incorporate these protein rich plant food treasures into your diet? Try using quinoa or teff in place of rice, grab a handful of apricot seeds or dulse for an afternoon snack, and power-up your favorite smoothie
with chia seeds and bee pollen. It is important to diversify your plant-based diet in order to buffer your body against changing environmental conditions and unforeseen demands, just as you want to diversify your financial portfolio to protect against market fluctuations.
Am I Getting Enough Protein?
Even protein conscious vegetarians can fall short of minimum requirements. Unless you are working with a nutritionist, it can be difficult to tell if you are getting enough protein to meet your body’s needs. The USDA’s online daily nutrient calculator is an excellent place to start. Simply enter in your gender, age, height, weight, and activity level, and you will receive detailed information on your individual daily nutritional requirements. No personal information or login is required.
To assess your daily protein intake, keep a food journal and log everything you eat for one week. Review the information with the help of a nutritionist or an online assessment tool. Singapore's Health Promotion Board offers a free nutrient intake assessment, as does WebMD. Subscription programs such as My Food Diary, are also a popular choice for combined tracking and assessment.
Smartphone users have the advantage of selecting from among a number of applications that conveniently track and assess protein specifically, or nutrients generally. Available for both Android and iPhone users, try searching for “protein”, “protein calculator”, or “nutrition tracker” in Play Store or iTunes for free and paid options.
Alternately, consider the checklist method: a simple and effective shorthand formula for ensuring sufficient daily plant-based protein intake. Take a moment to write down or mentally note the following checklist, and then use it as a daily guide. (NB: One serving is equal to the amount of food that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Eat at least 5 servings of grains.
Eat at least 3 servings of vegetables.
Eat 2 to 3 servings of legumes.
For detailed information on the serving sizes and protein content of specific foods, visit the USDA's Nutrient Database, where you can search over 8,000 foods, or try SelfNutritionData. Both databases provide a wealth of information for the diet conscious.
Diet is more than just a nutritional choice. It is a personal decision with ethical and political considerations, as well as spiritual dimensions. Physical needs change over time as do the soul’s gravitations. Rather than aiming for one static regimen to which you will ever adhere, allow your diet to be fluid, informed by evolving knowledge, beliefs, and direct experience.
The ultimate test of any diet is whether it works for you equally at the levels of body, mind, and spirit. Is your body healthy and nourished? Is your diet aligned with your knowledge of nutrition? Do your food choices resonate deeply with your conscience? Asking these questions empowers you to make informed and authentic decisions about your diet, while holding space for those decisions to naturally evolve in harmony with your journey through life.
High in the Himalayas are yogis who shatter all Western dietary models, but theirs too was a journey.
Remember to try this healthy salad recipe.
1. Alpaslan and Hayta, Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, “Apricot Kernel: Physical and Chemical Properties” (2006) - springer.com/article
2. Cousens, Gabriel, Conscious Eating (2000), p.312-323.
3. Douillard, John, “Protein Deficiency - The Hidden Signs”
4. Fulgoni VL, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Current Protein Intake in America: Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003-2004” (May 2008), pp 1554-1557.
5. SelfNutritionData - nutritiondata.self.com
6. USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 (effective until 2015) cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/PolicyDoc.pdf
7. U.S. Department of Health and Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans - dietaryguidelines.gov
8. USDA, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: Dietary Guidelines for Americans PART D. Section 4: Protein, Dietary Guidelines
9. USDA's Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
10. University of Arizona, “The Chemistry of Amino Acids”
11. Whole Grains Council - wholegrainscouncil.org
12. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - “The Protein Myth”