Where Does Plant-Based Protein Come From?

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Myths, Truths & Where to Get It

“But…where will I get my protein?”

It’s still one of the most common questions asked about plant-based diets. If you’re already plant-based, people want to know where your protein comes from. If you’re considering a plant-based diet, you might be wondering which foods to eat for protein and whether you can get enough after making the switch.

Despite projections that the worldwide plant-based protein market will be valued at over $10 billion by 2020, protein is still largely equated with meat. Most meals contain some kind of animal protein, be it eggs in a breakfast sandwich, chicken on a salad at lunch or a burger for dinner. When you’ve spent the majority of your life eating that way, you don’t think about replacing animal foods with plant proteins — you just picture the eggs, chicken or burger disappearing.

But whole plant foods are far from lacking when it comes to protein. When you exchange meat and other animal products for foods like beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and leafy greens, you get all the protein you need and enjoy the added benefits of the fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found abundantly in plants.

where does plant based protein come fromWhy You Need Protein

Protein sometimes gets downplayed in the plant-based community, perhaps in an effort to dethrone it from its centuries-old pedestal of being the stuff of life. However, some fuss about protein is warranted because of what it does in your body.

When you eat protein from any source, it gets broken down into its component amino acids. These are either used immediately to make the proteins your body needs or broken down further by the liver in a process called deamination. Unused compounds are either excreted or put back together through transamination to form other amino acids. When combined into proteins, amino acids contribute to:

  • Building, growing and repairing the body
    • Muscle, skin, hair, nails, etc.
  • Creating enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies
  • Maintaining clotting factors in the blood
  • Ligament and tendon health
  • Immune and nervous system function
  • Transporting nutrients

In an emergency, the body can also use protein for fuel. This usually happens during severe caloric restriction when adequate fuel from carbohydrates and fats in unavailable.

Dispelling Plant Protein Myths

Is plant-based protein good for you? You bet! Just like with carbohydrates and fats, protein doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In animal foods, it comes in the company of vitamins and minerals but also brings along high levels of saturated fat, pro-inflammatory compounds, hormones and, in the case of factory-farmed meats, antibiotics and pathogens. Plant protein foods, on the other hand, are generally low in fat (or contain beneficial fats), high in fiber, loaded with antioxidants and devoid of cholesterol.

rice bowl with veggiesOne major myth that persists despite evidence to the contrary is the idea that plant-based protein doesn’t provide all the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids your body can’t make and has to get from food, and there are nine of them:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

The perceived trouble comes from the fact that some plant foods lack adequate amounts of one or more essential amino acids when consumed alone. However, since the process of transamination reconstructs proteins from amino acids found in all the things you eat, your body doesn’t need to get all nine amino acids at once from a single food source or even a single meal. Many plant-based dishes also naturally combine two “complementary” proteins without the need for meticulous dietary planning. In beans and rice, for example, methionine is lacking in the beans but not the rice, and the beans have the lysine that’s low in rice. It’s a natural (and delicious) combination found in just about every cuisine worldwide.

What this all boils down to is one basic truth about plant-based diets: you will get enough protein if you consume adequate calories from a variety of whole plant foods. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which you can calculate by dividing your weight by 2.2 and then multiplying the resulting number by 0.8. It’s not much at all — for a 2,000-calorie per day diet, it works out to around 10 to 12 percent of calories, which is easy to achieve with plant proteins.

That said, there are some situations in which people require more protein:

  • Older adults with inadequate HCl (stomach acid) to break down proteins
  • Individuals with digestive disorders preventing proper absorption
  • People recovering from surgery or injury
  • Cancer patients expePlant-bvasedriencing muscle wasting

In these cases, it’s important to work with a plant-strong health coach, dietitian or nutritionist who can assess individual protein needs and create an appropriate meal plan.

Plant-Based Protein in Food: Some Examples

Okay, so plants do have protein, and you’re not going to turn into a wilted stalk of celery if you only eat plants. But just like with any lifestyle change, you need to make sure you approach your plant-based journey the smart way. That means knowing your protein sources and making them part of all your meals!

Here’s a quick list of 12 foods you can start eating today (or add to the plant proteins you’re already eating) to meet your daily requirements:

bowl of beans for plant proteinMeasurements are for cooked grains and beans.

  • Chickpea flour — 20.6 grams per cup
  • Lentils — 17.9 grams per cup
  • Split peas — 16.35 grams per cup
  • Tempeh — 15.7 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Black beans — 15.2 grams per cup
  • Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) — 14.5 grams per cup
  • Edamame — 8.5 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Quinoa — 8 grams per cup
  • Green peas — 8 grams per cup
  • Peanut butter — 8 grams in 2 tablespoons
  • Hemp seeds — 5 grams per tablespoon
  • Spinach — 5 grams per cup

Which plant-based protein is best? There’s really no reason to choose just a few and leave the others out. Since you can get all the essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant foods, the best approach is to do just that every day. Try some split peas in your soup. Put tempeh in your sandwich. Whip up a chickpea flour omelet for Sunday brunch. Add beans to everything. And you can never go wrong with leafy greens.

The next time someone asks you where to find plant-based protein in food, you’ll know exactly what to tell them — and maybe have a tasty recipe to share, too!

black beans by Mats HeymanWant more tips on powering up with plant protein? Follow me on Facebook!

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About the Author:

Sam has been eating a plant-based diet since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of plant-based food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a former member of Toastmasters International and was awarded a Competent Communicator designation for public speaking. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, play silly card games and knit socks.
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