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How Much Protein Do I Need?

Healthy Sources for Protein

Happy World Vegan Day! The first World Vegan Day was celebrated on November 1, 1994 to recognize the 50th anniversary of The Vegan Society.

The hands down number 1 question people ask me when they find out I am vegan is, “Where do you get your protein??” Protein is an essential nutrient for health. I think of protein as our body’s building blocks because it supports cellular growth and repair. There seems to be a widespread perception that meat is the primary (only?) source of protein.

Just the other day a friend told me that her granddaughter doesn’t like to eat meat. She would be quite satisfied with a vegetarian diet. But because her granddaughter wants to run on the school track team, the family is on a mission to find meat dishes that she will eat. I understand my friend’s concern that her granddaughter consumes enough protein. Athletes have higher than average protein requirements.

So, how much protein should you eat? The basic calculation is your weight in kilograms times 0.8 or your weight in pounds times 0.36. I weigh 136 pounds so my recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 49 grams. The USDA has an online calculator that takes into account age and activity level.

Basic calculation for recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein
Basic calculation for recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein

Where do I get my protein? So many delicious options! Unless you are as geeky about nutrition as I am, your beliefs about food may be shaped by messages in the media. Campaigns funded by the meat and dairy councils are designed to appear more like nutritional advice than advertising leading many people to believe meat, milk, and eggs are essential to good health.

images from campaigns promoting consumption of meat or dairy
Popular Campaigns from the Pork Council, Beef Council, Poultry Council, and Dairy Council

Let’s compare the protein content of a hamburger to a tofu veggie burger. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center nutrition facts, a 3 oz ground beef patty, 85% lean meat / 15% fat, patty, pan-broiled has 22 grams of protein. That’s 40% of the RDA for me. For comparison, the tofu veggie burger from Hodo (which happens to be what I have on hand) has 19 grams of protein and 39% of my RDA for protein.

Now let’s look a little closer at these two options --

The hamburger has 3.93 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams fiber.

The veggie burger has .5 grams of saturated fat and 1 gram fiber.

So while the amount of protein is comparable, the hamburger has significantly more saturated fat.

Back in July, I shared my recipe for overnight oats. I use rolled oats, flaxseeds, chia seeds, pea milk, and almonds. A serving has 26 grams of protein or 53% of my RDA in one meal. Plus my recipe provides 21 grams fiber. Pea milk has almost the same amount of protein as dairy milk, but 1 gram less saturated fat and a tad more fiber.

In August I shared my recipe for kale and quinoa salad. In the video I used blueberries but this time of year I switched to apples, which gives me 23% of my RDA for protein. Also in the video I mentioned that I use the other half of the quinoa for a bowl combining beans and roasted vegetables. The vegetables vary depending on what I have on hand. Here’s what I fixed last night - quinoa, lettuce, roasted sweet potato and broccoli, sliced avocado, and black beans in the Instant Pot. With over 20 grams of protein, that's 42% of my RDA in one bowl.

A 2017 article in the New York Times reported that most Americans consume about 100 grams of protein a day - that's nearly double the RDA for most of us. Although athletes - like my friend’s granddaughter - have higher protein requirements, they can easily achieve their RDA on a plant-based diet. Shoutout to my dear friend, athlete, and fellow vegan Nancy who is running two half-marathons in the next 6 months. Nancy told me about the book The Plant-Based Athlete: How the World’s Top Performers Achieve Optimal Results. This book is full of examples of professional athletes who saw marked improvement in their performance after removing animal products from their diet.

Another thing people say to me is “O! I could never give up … insert favorite meat item.

OK, well don’t. For me the conversion to a plant based diet didn’t happen overnight. I just ate flesh less and less often. I never felt like I was making some huge sacrifice. The less meat I ate the less I wanted it and the less I enjoyed it when I ate it. Fried oysters was the last thing to go. It just didn’t taste as good to me anymore.

While the goal of this post is to inspire you with plant-based proteins, I feel the need to share the risks associated with eating animal products. My mom once asked me, "Why do you eat a plant-based alternative to bacon? If you want to eat something that tases like bacon, just eat bacon." In 2015, the World Health Organization classified red and processed meat - like bacon, sausage, deli meat, hot dogs - as a Group 1 carcinogen. According to the paper “Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality” published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) in Sept 2020,

“Replacement of 3% energy from animal protein with plant protein was inversely associated with overall mortality (risk decreased 10% in both men and women) and cardiovascular disease mortality (11% lower risk in men and 12% lower risk in women). In particular, the lower overall mortality was attributable primarily to substitution of plant protein for egg protein (24% lower risk in men and 21% lower risk in women) and red meat protein (13% lower risk in men and 15% lower risk in women).”

I hope I have inspired you to add more plant-based meals to your diet. If you want to learn more, check out the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine or the Vegan Society.



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