Thursday, August 29, 2013

The P Word

It is inevitable that when someone finds out I eat a plant based diet they are immediately concerned about how much protein I get. It's basically a joke in the plant based community, and it would be funnier to me if I wasn't so concerned with how little most Americans know about food and how much of what they know is based on corporate interest.

I've read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries about food, not just vegan/vegetarian food, but in all different contexts. The knowledge I carry with me today is a product of years of research and a quest to improve my health. One can see why constantly being questioned by people who've never done any research can be wearisome!

Most people know that food is made up of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. For some reason, most people don't focus on the other components of food like vitamins, minerals and amino acids. My new response to people who ask about my protein or calcium is to ask them about their vitamin intake and how many different colored foods they ate recently. I could go on forever about this, but in this post I wanted to tackle the P word because it's one of the most misunderstood components of the American diet.

The first misconception many people have is exactly how much protein the average person needs on a daily basis. This site from the State Government of Victoria (Australia) gives a nice overview of protein and daily needs. Adult women need .75g of protein per kg of bodyweight. To find out your weight in kg, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 (or type 150 lbs in kg into Google!). For me at 150lbs, I weigh about 68kg. I then take that number and multiply by .75 to get my daily protein need of 51.1 grams.

Men need a bit more protein, and pregnant/breast feeding women need a bit more than that. Current knowledge is that professional athletes need more, however after reading books by plant based authors like Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll, that need may not be as high as currently believed.

To put my 51 g daily need in perspective, I used the nutritional information for food from the USDA to look at the protein found in some common foods (plant based and not):

1 C cooked chicken breast = 43.43 g protein
4 oz. raw yellowfin tuna = 27.67 g protein
3 oz sprouted tofu = 12.1 g protein
1 C cooked black beans = 15.13 g protein
10 Brussels sprouts = 5.36 g protein
1 C cooked quinoa = 8.14g protein

I think this makes it painfully obvious that:
1. It's simple to get enough protein on a plant based diet without using protein powders or supplements
2. Most people eat WAY TOO MUCH protein! If one cup of cooked chicken is 43g, you can safely guess that most Americans who eat meat/dairy at every meal and snack consume double or triple the amount of protein they need on a daily basis

I used to count calories and also obsess over my macronutrient intake. I have tried many combinations and although I don't currently track my food, I know that I am eating a higher carb diet that is still giving me at least 65 g of protein each day. I also make sure not to go crazy with added fats. It works for me. When I first started working out 5-6 days a week I aimed for more protein each day, some days eating around 100g. I lost a bit of weight but then plateaued in weight loss and in size/shape. After lowering my protein and increasing my carb intake (from mostly high fiber plant foods) I lost 5 lbs and have been steadily shrinking out of my clothes.

Every body is different, but it's important to be sustainable and to aim to increase your vitamin and mineral intake from food. I actually recently stopped taking a daily multivitamin because I realized that the combination of plant foods I eat daily was more than exceeding my daily need for these essential micronutrients. The information you need to make better food choices is out there once you dig past the overwhelming amount of money the meat and dairy industries have spent to market/socialize us into the misconceptions many people hold.


  1. I appreciate and agree with most of this post. I felt great eating a mostly plant based diet over the past year, and I wasn't super concerned about my protein intake - I was conscious of it, and according to my macros on MyFitnessPal I was doing fine (and like you, I'd done a lot of reading on plant based diets). I was also running regularly and completed a half marathon in Feb of this year. I did a little bit of strength training, mostly on isolated machines, but quit as I got closer to my half. My thoughts: it's really frustrating that nutrition/lifestyles can be so controversial, and that no one person has figured out the ideal human diet. There is SO much conflicting information out there. I'd like for the world to eat a lot less meat for ethical and environmental reasons, but I've started eating about one meat dish a day (for dinner, from local farmers), because of what I mentioned to you previously - I'm lifting heavy weights in compound movements 3x a week now, on a calorie deficit, so I'm trying to preserve my lean muscle mass. I know I've definitely lost muscle during my fitness journey, so I'm slowing things down and trying to preserve every bit of LBM I can. Pretty much anything you read about lifting weights suggests getting more than 100g of protein, up to 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight (I'm nowhere near there). Strength training is definitely changing my body for the better, and I feel more full on fewer calories with the extra protein. If people aren't as concerned about their calories as I am (if they're bulking, for example) then I KNOW they could strength train and get tons of protein on a plant based diet. Unfortunately, right now, meat gives me more bang for my caloric buck.

    Of my extremely fitness minded friends, I have vegetarian/vegan friends, and I have Paleo friends, and I feel like I'm falling somewhere in between the two lifestyles. I want to eat real, healthy food, get my essential nutrients from food, and obtain food in a way that stays true to my ethics. (difficult, of course)

    TL;DR - People should do more research about nutrition, but it's awesome that you dispel some of the misconceptions about plant based eating. I'll be checking out Brendan Brazier and see what he has to say on athletic nutrition. Ultimately, I think we all have to figure out what's right for our bodies and our training, but this post highlights that people can certainly thrive on a plant based diet.

    1. Lauren - thank you for your thoughtful response. I also get frustrated with the fact that there's so much we don't know for sure. I just read "Why Calories Count" by Marion Nestle and one of the main conclusions I drew from that was that it's nearly impossible to do an accurate study of food/calories because so much of that relies on self-reporting. I'm beginning to think that there is no one ideal diet and that each person needs to research and experiment to determine what works best for them based on energy needs, budget, location and time.

      One of my main motivations to get rid of all animal products was learning more about the environmental impact of meat/dairy production. I think that making ethical food choices is the best way for me to protect the environment.

      I basically wrote this post because I was getting frustrated with having to explain myself to people who have never done any research and don't know much past the standard American diet! You should start with

      It's Brendan Brazier's free program with videos and documents on nutrition and he has a section for athletes. It's a great program - especially for being free.