How Much Protein Do You Need?
Do you need to worry about protein?
- Can I get enough protein from plants?
- Do I have to use protein combining to stay healthy? E.g. beans and rice in the same meal
- Should I be concerned with protein deficiency?
- What are important foods to include in my diet to ensure good protein balance?
- Can I get too much protein?
These questions and more will all be answered in this blog.
Root Cause Medical Clinic works toward getting our patients on a strong, whole food plant based diet. That could translate into 80% plant/ 20% animal products, or close to 100% plant based depending on the health of the patient.
The most common question we receive when a patient is encouraged to eat less animal products is “Where will I get my protein?”
It’s an interesting misnomer, well inculcated in the American mind set that protein can only be found in animal products. Actually nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, vegetarians and vegans alike typically meet or even exceed their daily protein requirements.
Plant based eaters need to have an awareness of how to maintain ideal protein balance, but it’s no different from being mindful of your exercise levels, water intake, and how many servings of fruits and veggies you’ve ingested in a given day – the bottom line is you DO need to pay attention to what you put in your mouth.
Protein is the most abundant substance in our cells, other than water. It is made up of amino acids, the building blocks for much of your body’s structure – bones, skin, hair and muscle, and protein is an integral part of your immune system.
It is protein’s function in building new tissue and repairing the body that explains the need for greater amounts of protein in the diet of children, athletes, those suffering from infections and the elderly, who all have a greater need of repair, albeit for differing reasons.
Amino acids fall within one of two categories:
- Essential – you must get them from the food you eat because your body cannot make them.
- Non-essential – your body can make these from the food you eat.
Most plant foods are missing one or two essential amino acids, with the exception of quinoa, soy and spinach, which contain them all. But a variety of plant-based foods in your diet is all that’s required to maintain a balance of the essential amino acids. It’s not difficult. Speaking of spinach, did you know the 2 cups of spinach in my favorite morning smoothie contains 10 g of protein?
Protein Combining – truth or fallacy?
Personally, I never believed in protein combining. When patients asked me about it, I always had the viewpoint that what you ate each day was sufficient, and it didn’t matter much if each meal was perfectly combined. It turns out your clever body really does have it under control. The liver, that amazing detoxification organ performing over 1,000 functions for you, also stores amino acids such that they can be combined and recombined as required for your best protein balance.
The American Dietetic Association’s Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets says: “Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.”
Good news, right?
Beans, lentils and soy, as an example, contain some of the highest, naturally occurring plant proteins, they are high in fiber (animal protein can’t say that), antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and generally are protective against degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and autoimmune disease – our leading causes of death.
What is your overall daily protein requirement?
There are some differing opinions when it comes to exact numbers, and as mentioned earlier, different individuals depending on their age, athletic status, and more will have differing needs. But there’s been enough research that we can definitely settle on a range you can feel comfortable with.
I’m not that facile with kilograms, so let’s convert the metric information into pounds – 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds:
The recommended daily allowance is 0.8 grams/kilogram of body weight per day.
An active adult has an increased need above that, and if you exercise or train 5 days/week or more, you will likely require 1.2 – 1.7 grams/kilogram of body weight.
Higher intensity exercise requires more protein for building muscle and tissue repair. This could equal 80 to 115 grams of protein for an adult weighing 150 pounds, if you’re figuring 1.4 grams/kilogram of body weight.
Personally I prefer the recommendation that looks at grams of protein per healthy kilogram of body weight, keeping it about 0.7, but not more than 0.8 to 0.9 grams/kilogram for the average adult. The difference of evaluating total weight vs ideal weight is obvious. If you need and want to lose weight you can plan for how much protein you need based on your goal of ideal weight.
Staying in the higher end of the scale of 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per healthy kilogram of body weight, use this simple formula:
Take your IDEAL body weight in pounds, multiply by 4 and divide by 10.
e.g. If you weigh 200 pounds but your IDEAL weight is 170, you would do this: 170 x 4 = 680, divided by 10 = 68 grams of protein per day.
If you are athletic or over 60, you’ll want a higher amount of grams of protein per kilogram of weight. To reach 1.1 grams per kilogram, simply take your weight in pounds, let’s say 170, divide by 2.2 = 77 kilograms, then multiply by 1.1 = 85 grams of protein per day. [Hint: 1.1 kg is equal to 0.5 when converting to pounds. In other words, take your ideal weight in pounds, divide in ½ and you’ve got it!]
Protein excess, especially when consumed from animals, is more of an issue in the U.S. than deficiency, and a contributing factor to the degenerative diseases we’re all trying to avoid. For more information on animal protein, check out these blogs:
If you’re predominantly plant based it’s good to know where your protein is coming from and the foods providing the highest quality protein, meaning you are getting adequate amounts of all the essential needed amino acids.
What is Lysine?
Lysine is an important amino acid to ensure you get enough of if you’re following a plant-based diet. Why? It’s an essential amino acid your body doesn’t make on its own, and it is found in adequate amounts only in specific foods of the plant kingdom. Lysine is important in collagen production (can you say better muscle tone and fewer wrinkles?), it helps your body create energy due to its connection with carnitine production (a compound that is important to energy production), and it also has anti-viral properties.
Many of the healthiest plant foods such as legumes, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and organic soy, have the highest amounts of lysine per serving. See the chart below for protein and lysine content.
Food Protein (g) Lysine (mg)
- Legumes (beans, peas), ½ cup 7 grams 624*
- Tofu, 1 cup 20 grams 1160*
- Edamame, ½ cup 8 grams 577*
- Tempeh, ½ cup 15 grams 754*
- Pumpkin seeds, ¼ cup 8 grams 360
- Pistachios, 2 Tablespoons 3 grams 339
- Most nut butters, 2 Tbsp 8 grams 290
- Most nuts, 2 Tbsp 7 grams 207-280
- Rice, ½ cup 2-3 grams 86
- Quinoa, ½ cup 4 grams 651*
- Steel cut oats, ½ cup 4 grams 158
Did you grow up thinking protein was the most important nutrient to be aware of? I know I did. I used to pass out from low blood sugar, therefore “eat your protein” was drilled into me on a daily basis. What I should have known was gluten, dairy and sugar were actually my enemies, not a lack of protein, but I learned that after I became a clinician.
You might have grown up hearing “drink your milk”, it will make your bones strong. That has been debunked completely – the countries consuming the greatest amount of dairy products have the highest rates of osteoporosis, weak, brittle bones.
If we are so in need of high protein you’d think Mother Nature would have provided for it in our first food – mother’s milk. Yet human breast milk is very low in protein (about 6% of the total calories); in fact it’s one of the lowest of all mammals. One of the reasons cow’s milk can actually be dangerous for babies is its high protein levels, let alone the ill effects it can present in all humans, but that’s another topic for another blog.
I hope this clarifies protein need, good sources from a plant based diet and the rarity of protein deficiency.
If your health is not where you want it to be and you’re confused about what to do, we can help. Contact us for a Free Consultation – Call (408) 733-0400.
If you are not local to us you can still receive help, our Destination Clinic treats patients from across the country and internationally.
We help the world’s busiest people regain, retain and reclaim their health, energy and resilience.
To reclaiming your best health,
Dr. Vikki Petersen DC, CCN
Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner
Founder of Root Cause Medical Clinic
Author of “The Gluten Effect”
Author of eBook: “Gluten Intolerance – What You Don’t Know May Be Killing You!”
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