What is the question that comes up most often when someone hears that I follow a plant-based diet. Yes.... "where do you get your protein?" It seems to be a common misconception that the main source of protein is animal products, namely meat, eggs, fish and dairy products.
What exactly is protein and why is it so important to our bodies? Proteins are complex structures made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are about 20 different types of amino acids, 8-9 of which the body cannot produce itself, and therefore must be obtained from the diet. These are called the 'essential amino acids'. Proteins make up much of the structure of body cells and are related to many bodily functions. All of those little messengers running around the body, hormones, enzymes, and antibodies, are made up of proteins. These messengers are produced by the body by assembling the different amino acids into specific configurations. So if one building block is missing, the proteins cannot be put together properly and this interferes with the functioning of the body.
All living things contain proteins. Plants, animals, even bacteria. In fact all the amino acids in animal protein originally came from plant sources. Cows get their protein from eating the grass. Fish get their protein from eating smaller fish which ate the water plants. The 8-9 'essential' amino acids are produced by plants and bacteria.
You may have heard that animal protein contains 'complete' protein and plant proteins are 'incomplete'. The misconception that human's need to consume complete protein has been perpetuated by the misinformed. I encourage you to read Jeff Novick's clear and concise response to this concern here.
How much protein do we actually need? That depends on several factors. We need protein to maintain our tissues. Protein requirements may increase when tissue growth is required, like when we're growing, or pregnant, or lactating, or healing following surgery. But the average adult requires 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This is based on the US Recommended Dietary Allowance for adult protein intake. The average woman needs to consume 46 grams of protein per day.
As Dr. T. Colin Campbell states: "All natural foods-from lettuce to nuts-contain varying amounts of protein." Just to get an idea of how much protein is in different foods, I have listed some below.
Just because our bodies have a vital need for a substance does not mean that twice or three times our need is better. In the case of protein, more is not better. In fact, excess protein intake has been linked to many diseases including kidney disease, various forms of cancer, osteoporosis and a host of autoimmune and hypersensitivity disease processes.
When we consider meat to be our main source of dietary protein, it is easy to consume too much. The average skinless, boneless chicken breast is 6-8 ounces. If 2 ounces of chicken contains 15 g of protein, each chicken breast would contain approximately 45 - 60 grams. This one chicken breast achieves and can even exceed your entire daily protein requirement.
By including a variety of whole plant foods in our diet, it is virtually impossible not to get enough protein as long as we are consuming enough calories on a daily basis. And by getting our protein from plant sources instead of animal sources, we cut out much of the fat and ALL of the dietary cholesterol and add lots of healthy fibre to our diet!
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