How Much Protein Do You Really Need? The Answer May Surprise You
The one question every vegan will tell you they get asked most is this: “Where do you get your protein?” That’s because Americans are obsessed with protein, to the point that it’s hurting their health. Take, for instance, a new study which reveals that Americans are eating well over their daily requirement and that this amount of excess is making them sicker and fatter.
But don’t think you’re in the clear if you’re eating a vegan diet. Too much protein, whether from animals or vegan processed food or plant-based diets with no variety, is bad for the body. Fortunately, though, getting what you need on a plant-only diet is easier than you think. Experts break down how much you need and how to get it on a whole-food, plant-based diet.
The Dangers of Excess Protein
Numerous reasons explain why Americans are obsessed with protein, and none of them lead to better health. “It’s more marketing ploy than scientific evidence,” says Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., board-certified gastroenterologist in Charleston, S.C., gut health expert and author of the upcoming book, Fiber Fueled.
Since you were a kid, you’ve no doubt been told that protein is key for growing up strong and healthy, a message that’s pushed everywhere. “Marketing and diets encourage you to increase protein and avoid carbohydrates for weight loss,” says Marta Ferraz Valles, R.D.N., clinical dietitian in the Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. “This leads people to think that animal protein will help them lose weight and feel fuller, when in fact, the more animal protein you eat, the heavier you are.”
Here’s another fact you should know: Nobody in the United States is dying from a protein deficiency. “Americans are getting twice as much protein as they need,” Bulsiewicz says. Even vegans are consuming too much protein – a whopping 70 percent more than they need -- thanks to the proliferation of vegan protein shakes, energy bars and processed foods.
So is too much protein bad for the body, even if it’s from plants? Simply put, yes. No matter your source of protein, research suggests that excess protein places tremendous strain on your kidneys, Bulsiewicz says. As a result, your risk of kidney disease, one of the top 10 killers in the United States, increases. There’s one caveat with plant-based foods, though: “I have zero concerns (with protein) about a balanced, whole foods, plant-based diet,” he says. “If somebody just eats quinoa or beans and nothing else, that would be different, but that also wouldn’t be a balanced diet.”
The dangers don’t stop there, though, and if your protein is coming from animal sources, you’re putting your health in even more danger. “Animal protein is associated with a higher risk of many chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, kidney disease and cancer, and increased mortality,” Ferraz Valles says. After all, when you eat protein, you don’t do it in isolation, as food comes in a package. “When you eat protein from meat, dairy, eggs and fish, you also get saturated fat and cholesterol.” On the flip side, protein from plants like legumes, nuts and seeds gives you significant amounts of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, all of which protect you from disease and premature death.
There’s another issue at play here, too, namely fiber, which you can only get from plants. When people fill their plates with protein from animal sources, that leaves little room for fiber, which is crucial for overall health and longevity. “Only three percent of Americans are getting the fiber they need on a daily basis,” Bulsiewicz says.
While guidelines recommend that women eat 25 grams a day, men 38 grams a day, most Americans average only 15 grams a day. That alone could spell trouble, for while no American is dying of a protein deficiency, they are dying of fiber deficiency with diets low in fruits and vegetables being linked with issues like cardiovascular disease and strokes.
How Much Protein You Need
To figure out how much protein you need, start with nutritional guidelines. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight. Some experts, however, recommend slightly higher amounts for plant-based eaters to the tune of 9. To 1 g/kg of body weight, Ferraz Valles says. And fitness enthusiasts may also need more, closer to 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg of body weight, Bulsiewicz says.
Although the RDA for protein for older adults is the same, studies suggest that older adults may benefit from slightly higher intakes of .9 to 1 g/kg of body weight. “When you get older, your body’s ability to utilize protein becomes less effective,” Ferraz Valles says.
Meeting Protein Needs on a Plant-Based Diet
But can you really meet your protein needs on a plant-based diet? The answer is yes, and you just have to look at plant-eating animals in the wild for proof. Elephants and gorillas are herbivores, and it’s evident from their size that they’re not suffering from too little protein.
That’s because all whole plant-based foods contain considerable amounts of protein (ironically, it’s where animals raised for food get their protein). Although fruits have the lowest amount, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain high amounts, Ferraz Valles says.
Plant protein will even give you all of the essential amino acids you need, Ferraz Valles says. As a refresher, proteins are actually made out of chains of amino acids, and while your body can make some amino acids, it can’t make others. That’s where food comes into play, and while many people believe plants can’t provide the amino acids you need, that’s incorrect, as all plant proteins contain at least some of every essential amino acid, according to VeganHealth.org.
And don’t think you have to combine proteins in special ways to make them complete, meaning that they have all of the amino acids you need. This is another misconception that’s since been debunked. “All plant proteins are complete,” Ferraz Valles says.
Still, worried you won’t get enough? Rest assured: If you eat a variety of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds every day and get enough calories, your protein needs will be met, Ferraz Valles says.
One way to make this easier? Think of legumes as your “meat” and aim to get at least two to three daily servings of legumes in the form of beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, edamame, tofu or tempeh.
Looks like this hype about protein isn’t only unwarranted but also dangerous. More fiber, anybody?
Top 10 Sources of Plant-Based Protein According to a Nutritionist
The Top 20 Veggies with the Most Protein
Top 15 Legumes and Beans
Grains with the Most Protein