Plant-based and Nutrition 3: Protein
Protein. I almost completely forgot about protein. Which is fitting really, because that’s exactly what I recommend that you do too. Protein is so over-rated. Today I’ll probably just focus mostly on the nutritional aspects, rather than going too in depth about sport and performance. But we’ll see what happens, that can perhaps be a topic for another time.
Anyhow, there’s a lot of interest in protein, which is why it’s getting its own post. People are very concerned with ‘getting enough’ protein, which is weird because it’s a macronutrient. That means it’s found in literally any food you eat. With the exception of two super-processed mono-macronutrient things that I don’t count as food: sugar and oil (just another reason to ideally cut these completely). Even an apple has 0.5g of protein.
When you are eating plant-based and whole foods, you are avoiding ‘empty’ things, especially sugars and oils, in favour of more nutritionally dense foods. When you’re having grains for example you’re going for the whole grains which are higher in protein than the processed grains. In fact, it’s quite a lot of effort to keep your protein intake low when you’re eating whole foods and plant-based. I know this, because I help people with kidney problems and they really need to keep their protein intake low.
So you don’t even need to eat beans and legumes to get your daily protein requirements on a plant-based diet, and you certainly don’t need to supplement! In fact the recommended dietary allowance for protein (RDA, enough for about 98% of the population) is 0.84g per kilogram per day. If you ate just corn all day then you would easily get over 150% of the requirement. If you were willing and able to eat enough broccoli to get your energy needs for the day then you would be getting very close to 3 times as much protein as you needed!
Of course foods from plants vary in the amount of protein they contain, but in the end they only need to average around 10% energy from protein to get you ‘enough’ for the day. Although fruits tend to be lower than this, almost all vegetables and whole grains are higher than this, and some substantially so (leafy greens and mushrooms, for example). Beans and legumes are 20-30%, in case you were wondering!
This is why all you need to do if you’re eating whole foods and plant-based is to make sure you’re eating enough food for the day in order to make sure you’re getting enough protein. Your body and natural hunger signals are very good at ensuring this happens. If you exercise, for example, you’ll find your appetite increases. So you’ll naturally eat a little more food, which in turn will provide you with a little more protein.
There’s a lot of debate about the amount of protein needed for optimal sports performance, and to be honest nobody really knows what’s best. Certainly it’s reasonable to expect you might need more than the RDA if you’re very active. Dr Garth Davis, in his excellent book ‘Proteinaholic’ explains it’s been suggested that a protein intake of 1.8g per kilogram is optimal for bodybuilders or Olympic endurance athletes. Most of us aren’t either of these things, but if we are nonetheless very active and trying to get big or fast then 1g per kilogram with 20g after a workout may be ideal. Either way, it’s certainly possible to get either option from plant based sources and at the very least the 1g per kilogram with 20g after workouts from whole foods without any protein supplementation.
As far as ‘quality’ is concerned, it’s very clear from the ever-growing community of plant-based and vegan bodybuilders and sportspeople that plant proteins work just fine to increase and maintain muscle mass. This makes a lot of sense too when you consider that many of the largest and strongest animals on the planet eat only or almost only plants, like rhinos, gorillas, and elephants. Consider also that the time we grow the most in our lives is during infancy, and that during this time the perfect food is breastmilk. What percentage protein is it? Just 7%.
So that should lay the protein (non-)issue to rest for everyone. You get your protein from everything you eat on a plant-based diet, just in case someone asks!
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