Much Ado About (Plant) Protein

Plant Protein

If ever there were a winning macronutrient, it would be protein. When carbs are out, protein is in. When fat was out, protein was in. Notice a pattern? It’s always been about protein. 

But the question is: are you getting enough? Or, are you getting too much? And if you eat plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan, do you need to obsess about getting the protein you need?

Why Protein Matters

Before that can be answered, it helps to know exactly what protein is doing for you. “Protein is the main source of cells and tissue in terms of growth and maintenance,” says Ilana Katz, RD, a registered dietitian in Atlanta. Yes, this translates to muscle repair and recovery, as well as supporting muscle growth and strength. Beyond that, protein also regulates fluid balance and plays a role in your immunity.

And, if you didn’t think that was a big enough job, protein takes longer to digest and is converted into glucose (sugar) in the body at a slower rate than carbs, so it helps stabilize blood sugar levels, regulates appetite, and decreases cravings, adds Molly Kimball, RD, a sports dietitian with Ochsner Fitness Center in New Orleans. 

How Much Protein You Need

Currently, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein is 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. Because you don’t use kg on the regular, that equals 0.36 g of protein per pound of body weight. “This is a bare minimum. The RDA is set to avoid a deficiency and malnourishment. It’s not necessarily set for what we need to thrive,” says Kimball. 

For those who live moderately active lifestyles, Kimball recommends consuming between ¾ to 1 g of protein per pound of healthy body weight. (Healthy body weight is, essentially, the weight at which your body is in the “healthy weight” range.)

Here’s the rub: with those numbers, you’re probably not getting enough. “I find that for people who are health-minded and careful in their food selection, it can be easy to skimp on protein,” says Kimball. That might look like a big salad topped with avocado and nuts or a sandwich with a couple thin turkey slices, or whole grain toast with nut butter for breakfast. All nutrient-rich choices, but none that offer enough protein. Bottom line: When you’re keeping your diet in check, just as you might trim out the junk, also plan and strategize to get protein, says Kimball. 

The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources

Next question is where to get that. It’s true that vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and even fruit to a lesser extent will have protein. It all adds up. However, these foods are also primarily carbohydrates. And offer far less than, say, a chicken breast, which has 31 grams per 3.5 ounce serving and no carbs. A half cup of black beans has six grams of protein and 22 grams of carbs. 

That distinction makes a difference in terms of your goals. “Vegans and vegetarians can easily get enough protein from grains and legumes and nuts. However, depending on body composition goals, it’s more difficult to gain muscle mass on vegan sourced proteins, since they need a lot more calories to get the complete range of amino acids,” says Katz. This might mean you’re eating far more calories, something that might make a difference if you’re trying to lose weight. 

That doesn’t mean meat is necessary. Soy used to be the mainstay meat replacement, says Kimball, but now you have a variety of options, like vegan meat replacers Beyond Meat, protein-enhanced non-dairy milks, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, and plant-based protein powders, all of which deliver protein for far fewer carbs.

Upping Your Intake

Whether you eat meat (lean choices like chicken, turkey, egg whites, fish, and certain cuts of beef are best choices, says Katz) or go for plants, planning is key. It’s not a time to wing it. Aim for a palm-sized portion of protein, which is a four- to six-ounce portion that equals 30 to 45 g, says Kimball.

Tracking a couple of days to see where you currently stand and where you can make simple swaps that get you toward your goal, recommends Kimball. That might be switching your standard almond milk for a protein-enriched almond milk. If you eat an apple with whole grain crackers for a snack, make it an apple with Greek yogurt.

“You don’t have to overthink protein or make it harder than it is. But if you’re being conscious about eating a healthy diet, make sure you’re not editing out protein or letting it slip through the cracks,” says Kimball.