Protein and the Plant-Based Diet


With the popularity of books like The China Study, Forks Over Knives, and Vegan Before 6 (VB6), lots of people are choosing to be vegetarian or vegan at least part of the time.

Recently several people who have reduced or eliminated animal products have expressed to me concerns that they are not getting enough protein. After all, our cultural norm is to think of protein as coming from farm and sea creatures; and, as I said before, every body needs protein to exist and function correctly.

However, most of us don’t need nearly as much protein as we’ve been led to believe by the gigantic steaks, half-pound burgers and foot long hot dogs that surround us. And you certainly don’t have to eat animal products in order to get enough.

Although, I cannot estimate your protein needs without knowing your age, activity level, fitness goals and current state of health, I can provide you with some general guidelines. The first comes from the USDA which states that the recommended daily average (RDA) intake of protein for an adult is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of total body weight (or 0.8 g per kilogram of body weight). (For those who have read Dr. Campbell’s The China Study, he states that this is a waaaaayyyy sufficient amount.)

Other people say that this is only enough to meet our minimum requirements and not enough to maintain good muscle tone (especially if trying to lose fat at the same time), keep our liver detoxification pathways humming along, balance hormones, and maintain good blood sugar levels. As such, others recommend 0.75 – 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass (or 1.65 – 2.2 grams per kilogram of lean body mass) for healthy adults. Please note this is lean body mass and not total body weight.

(For information, a healthy percent of body fat for men is considered to be ~20 – 25% [meaning 75 – 80% lean body mass], and for women it is ~20 – 30% [meaning 70 – 80% lean body mass].)

I tend to combine these recommendations and say: the more muscle and less fat that you have and the more active that you are, the more protein you need to eat in relation to your total body weight.

In case you want an example and/or like to do math, let’s use me as the example. I weigh 133 pounds and am 28% body fat. (Most days, but please don’t ask me for these numbers after vacation!) This means my lean body mass is 100% – 28%  = 72% of my body weight and I have 133 x 0.72 = 96 pounds of lean body mass.

Using the USDA’s rule of 0.36 g per pound of total body weight, I would need 0.36 x 133 =  48 grams of protein each day. Using the higher estimation of 0.75 – 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass, I need between 0.75 x 96 = 72 and 1.0 x 96 = 96 grams of protein each day.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between 48 and 96 grams of protein per day, so let’s look at how I would do this if I were vegan…

  • Breakfast smoothie = 22.5 g
  • Lunch: 19.8 g
    • Whole wheat pita (1 large) = 6 g
    • Hummus (3 Tbsp) = 3 g
    • Red bell pepper (1/2 medium) = 0.5 g
    • Spinach (1/2 cup) = 3 g
    • Bean sprouts (1/4 cup) = 2.3 g
    • Beanfields Snacks Bean and Rice chips in sea salt (1 oz) = 5 g (I’m not getting paid for mentioning them; I actually happen to like their chips, especially during my elimination diet.)
  • Dinner: 17.5 g
    • Red quinoa and lentil pilaf (because who doesn’t love an easy, healthy dinner option!)
      • Lentils (1/6 c raw) = 8 g
      • Quinoa (1/12 c raw) = 2 g
      • Cauliflower (1/6 lb raw) = 1.5 g
      • Almonds (1 Tbsp chopped) = 2 g
    • Broccoli (1 cup) = 4 g
  • Snacks: 15 g
    • Mixed roasted nuts (1 oz) = 5 g
    • Brown rice cakes (2) with cashew butter (2 Tbsp) = 8 g
    • Blackberries (1 cup) = 2 g

This would give me 74.8 g of protein, and I would be well on my way to keeping my body functioning optimally while also being true to my religious and/or ethical beliefs.

As you can see, if you eat only plant foods or are simply a fan of Meatless Monday, you can be assured that you are getting plenty of protein by eating legumes, whole grains, nuts and/or seeds at most meals and snacks.

And as with all my posts, you must keep in mind that how your body functions is unique to you. For me, I don’t need nearly as much protein as other people seem to need. Of course, I’m no body builder, so perhaps I would have other needs in other circumstances. Ultimately, you must personalize your diet to yourself and figure out the amount of protein that keeps you feeling and functioning your best.


Footnotes: We now know you don’t have to worry about combining certain plant foods in order to get all of the amino acids in one meal. Your body maintains a pool of amino acids for use to build proteins. As long as you are getting all of the amino acids throughout the day, your body can do the rest.


— Jones J. The Normal Percentage of Body Fat for Women. In Body Fat. Accessed on July 23, 2015.
— Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Feb;42(2):326-37
— Thompson C. What is the Normal Body Fat Percentage for Men? In Body Fat. Accessed on July 23, 2015.
— United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients. Accessed on July 23, 2015.

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