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Do Vegetarians and Plant-Based Individuals Get Enough Protein?

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

Introduction A common argument or concern for not eating plant-based is the misunderstanding that we need animal proteins to survive. However, if we think about animals like giant tortoises, elephants, rhinos, and hippos, they eat plants. They are large, live a long time in the wild and are very strong.

If you are considering becoming a vegetarian or plant-based individual you may wonder if will you get enough protein. It is important for you to have some understanding of protein. I am sure that you have seen protein powders, protein bars, other protein substances and that you understand that protein is provided by meats, fish, eggs, and dairy. But, what is protein? What options are there for getting protein? Is protein just from animal products? How much protein do I need? How much do I need if I am an athlete or body builder? I am no expert myself. I am learning more each day, since I am certified in plant-based nutrition and certificated Nutrition Coach. Below is what I think are some import points to share. Some of this may help you and may inspire you to learn more. For information specific to you, make sure you talk with your doctor or nutritionist.

What is Protein? Protein is the macro nutrient that helps you build and repair muscle and tissue. Macro nutrients are categories of nutrients that include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Proteins contain amino acids. The quality of the protein is determined by the number of essential amino acids. The elements in amino acids are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The amino acids are the following:

Alanine Arginine Asparagine Aspartic Acid Cysteine Glutamine Glutamic Acid Glycine Histidine Isoleucine Leucine Lysine Methionine Phenylalanine Proline Serine Threonine Tryptophan Tyrosine Valine

There are nine essential amino acid: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophane, and valine. If the protein contains all of the essential proteins, it is called a complete protein. Protein is very important for the balance of your nutrition. Protein is needed even while trying to lose weight so that muscle is not lost along with the desired fat loss. And, older populations may need to increase protein to maintain or increase muscle. It is important to know that protein is not a fuel source. Dr Andy Galpin in a podcast with Andrew Huberman described protein like a metal. Your metabolism is a like a fire. To get the fire going you need fast burning materials like leaves or paper. These would be your sugars or simple carbohydrates. You also need large stick and logs that burn for longer. These would be your complex carbohydrates. Fats are also good, but they do not burn as efficiently. Protein is a building block. It is not a fuel. Do you get enough protein? The answer is, typically, yes! The true answer is always “it depends.” It may take some management and some effort especially if you are an athlete or body builder. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine established the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein (46 grams for women, 56 grams for men). This was based on 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The USDA guidelines differ from the RDA, since the RDA is a near minimum requirement rather than what might be recommended for different sizes and activity levels. For moderate to vigorous exercise, up to 2.2 grams per kilogram may be needed for resistance training. For moderate about 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram is recommended. United States Department of Agriculture recommends 20 to 25% of nutritional calories come from protein sources with the remaining balance being from carbohydrates and fats. Many foods contain two or all three of the macros.

Dr. Greger explains that, not only do we get enough protein from being plant-based, we get the fiber that we need which most people are short in. Fiber is only found in plants!

If you are interested, check out the video below.

Inactive and moderately active people do not need to worry about timing their protein intake. If you are an athlete, you need to pay more attention to support their training. You may need at least 20 grams to stimulate protein synthesis. Less than 20 grams may be too little trigger the synthesis. And, it seems better to space it out rather that have a lot in one sitting. It is a form of pacing, as explained in my nutrition coach training course by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Schoenfeld & Aragon, in a 2018 study recommend at least 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 lb) of body weight and at least four meals should be consumed throughout the day. Some protein before and during an endurance event can help prevent muscle from being used as fuel. If you have four meals a day with protein spread between each of the meals, you are getting enough to trigger synthesis and provide what you need. If you have protein immediately after a workout such as weight training, it may not help you as much as one to two hours after. A little bit of excess protein may help you with muscle gain. If you are a well-trained weight lifter, the additional protein may help or at least add to your total intake for the day. Perhaps the end of the workout is a good reminder to take in some of your daily protein budget. You can us 85 to 90 grams of protein for a 2000 cal a day individual is an approximation of how much to get. If you wonder if you are not consuming enough protein, make a conscious effort to track your intake. You have to learn what foods have higher concentrations of protein. Then increase or decrease protein as much as needed through meal planning. Try to achieve a balance with your fats and carbohydrate levels based on your activity needs. The USDA states The amount of protein foods you need to eat depends on your age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity.” For those considering plant based options, Dr. Greger explains that, not only does the typical person get enough protein regardless of eating meat or from being plant-based, we get the fiber that we need, which most people are deficient in, if we eat more plants, since fiber is only found in plants! And, Principal #3 in The China Study “There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based that are not better provided by plants.” Some of the differences between plant-based foods and animal-based foods include. Animal-based foods, based on the same number of calories consumed, are higher in cholesterol and fat and lower in beta carotene, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin E, iron, magnesium and calcium. If you are plant-based, you need to pay attention to the foods that have higher concentration of protein and have higher volumes that those that may get their protein from an animal-based protein diet. In the book “Plant-Based Muscle” by Robert Cheeke and Vanessa Espinoza, they explain that there is no one right solution. There is an acceptable range that may be different from person to person, athlete to athlete. In “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle” by Tom Venuto, he explains that “protein cannot be stored to any significant degree”. “To maintain the ideal environment for muscle growth and prevent muscle breakdown, complete proteins must be eaten every day, and ideally with every meal.” Scott Jurek in his book Eat and Run states that “as long as I eat a varied whole-foods diet with adequate caloric intake, I would get enough complete proteins.” Robert Cheeke stated that he no longer needed to focus on protein to get enough. That may be because he had already trained himself to eat better and obtain the protein that he needed. Plant-Based or Animal Based Protein. Whether you eat plant-based or animal-based proteins may depend on what you are familiar with, what your animal ethics are, what is available where you are living, and what your beliefs are about the effect of animal agriculture on the environment. There are many studies that indicate that a plant-based diet is preferable for health reasons, if you have the option. Animal-based diets have been linked to many diseases and negative health conditions, since meats tend to be higher in the negative cholesterol, salts, and antibiotics, especially processed meats. Most people understand that animal agriculture products will provide protein. Products like meat, fish, eggs and dairy provide complete proteins. However, plants usually contain a combination of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Plant-based proteins, therefore, are mostly incomplete proteins. Soy, however, is a complete protein. Also, soy is a good source of leucine. Leucine is an important element for building muscle. Other than soy, you would need a variety of plant-based foods to get all of the essential amino acids. If your protein comes from mainly animal sources, perhaps you should consider that the plant-based proteins were put together to form complete proteins by animals that consumed them the same way you could be doing. Two incomplete plant-based proteins may be combined together to form a to form a complete protein. They are known as complimentary proteins. Such as beans and rice. Beans have lysine. Rice has cysteine and methionine. Complementary proteins can be consumed throughout the day and do not have to be consumed at the same time. In the book “Drawdown”, a plant-rich diet is listed as the fourth ranked solution to climate change after refrigeration, wind turbines, and reducing food waste. This is due to the effects of animal agriculture on land usage, deforestation for grazing, water usage, water pollution, food used to feed the animals, and the methane released from the animals. Jane Goodall’s book “Guide to Sensible Eating” also describes these issues and even describes how over fishing is driving fish and other seafood to extinction and that farmed fish and seafood is not the best solution either, since they have their own negative impacts. Plant-based agriculture presents a more sustainable means for feeding the citizens of the world while at the same time providing more oxygen and while capturing carbon from the air. In his book “No Meat Athlete”, Matt Frazier provides four reasons for choosing a whole-food plant-based diet rather than an animal-based diet. They are ethical considerations, studies showing long-term likelihood of disease prevention, food variety and environmental benefits. Arnold Schwarzenegger advocates for a plant-base diet including for body builders. In “The Plant-Based Athlete” by Robert Cheeke, a body builder himself, and Matt Frazier, they share stories of many athletes, including endurance athletes, that are having amazing success on a plant-based diet. As Dr Robert Arnot states in “Dr Bob Arnot’s Guide to Turning Back the Clock,” “turn down the density and increase the volume” to lose weight. And, advocates for a plant-rich diets for longevity. In How not to Die by Dr Michael Greger, he states “Most deaths in the United States are preventable, and they are related to what we eat.” He shows that the top disease and cancer risks can be reduced through plant-based diets. Listening to athletes be able to accomplish ultra-sports on plant-based nutrition has inspired me to try to test myself. I have run my two longest runs at 49 and 50 years old – this year and last. I have just completed my first 20.2-mile, 18.5 mile and 16.6 mile runs, including the 18.5 mile having a total ascent of 1541 feet. Scott Jurek, Rich Roll, Matt Frazer, Robert Cheeke, Vanessa Espinoza, and Fiona Oaks have all had great achievements as plant-based athletes. If you are looking for more protein alternatives, USDA states “Because they are similar to meats, poultry, and seafood in their contribution of certain nutrients, beans, peas, and lentils are vegetarian options within the Protein Foods Group. Due to their high nutrient content, consuming beans, peas, and lentils is recommended for everyone, including people who also eat meat, poultry, and seafood regularly.” There are a lot of vegetables and grains that can supply protein including,

Almonds Beans Broccoli Chia Chickpeas Edamame Ezekiel Bread Hemp Kale Lentils Mycoprotein Nut butters Quinoa Oatmeal Peanuts Peas Potatoes Rice Seitan Soy Spinach Spirulina Tempe Tofu

These are just a sampling of foods to give you an idea of how to get protein other than eating meat, fish, dairy or eggs. To avoid having to choose food that you don’t agree with having, you should bring healthy protein with you for a convenient option. Trail mix is one good option that I bring with me on rides and hikes.


Cornell University

“Drawdown”, edited by Paul Hawken

“Plant Based Athlete” Robert Cheeke

“How Not to Die”, Dr Michael Greger

“How Not to Diet”, Dr Michael Greger

“Drawdown”, edited by many experts and edited by Paul Hawken

USDA Guidelines for Healthy Americans

“Eat and Run,” Scott Jurek

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“Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle” by Tom Venuto

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