Ask the Expert: Protein
Q: How do you get enough protein on a vegan diet?
A: Protein is an important nutrient required for the building, maintenance, and repair of tissues in the body. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, can be synthesized by the body or ingested from food. There are 20 different amino acids in the food we eat, but our body can only make 11 of them. The 9 essential amino acids, which cannot be produced by the body, must be obtained from the diet. A variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables easily provides all of the essential amino acids our bodies require. It was once thought that various plant foods had to be eaten together to get their full protein value, otherwise known as protein combining or protein complementing. We now know that intentional combining is not necessary to obtain all of the essential amino acids. As long as the diet contains a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables, protein needs are easily met.
With the traditional Western diet, the average American consumes about double the protein her or his body needs. Additionally, the main sources of protein consumed tend to be animal products, which are also high in fat and saturated fat. Most individuals are surprised to learn that protein needs are actually much lower than what they have been consuming. The recommended intake of protein for the average, sedentary adult is only 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
To find out your average individual need, simply perform the following calculation:
Body weight (in pounds) X 0.36 = recommended protein intake (in grams)
However, even this value has a large margin of safety, and the body’s true need is even lower for most people. Protein needs are increased for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. In addition, needs are also higher for very active persons. As these groups require additional calories, increased protein needs can easily be met through larger intake of food consumed daily. Extra serving of legumes, tofu, meat substitutes, or other high protein sources can help meet needs that go beyond the recommendation for sedentary adults.