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one green planet

Protein is an often misunderstood component of our diets. Vegetarians and vegans often hear the questions, “But where do you get your protein?” and “Isn’t protein from meat better somehow than from other sources?” And athletes and bodybuilders regularly load up on tons of protein, especially in the form of supplements and powders. But what is the truth about protein? How much do you really need?

The answer (to be further explored below): You probably don’t need as much protein as you think, and you’re more than likely getting enough, even if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or even a raw vegan diet.

What is protein?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients needed by our bodies. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Our bodies need each of these in large amounts for growth, metabolism, and for other body functions.

Proteins are made of amino acids. When our bodies eat protein-containing foods, they break down the proteins into their building blocks and use them to create the types of protein they need. Nine of the amino acids are essential, because our bodies cannot make them on their own. This means we must get them from our diets.

How does protein help our bodies?

Proteins are extremely important to our health. Here’s why:

  • These nutrients are fundamental to our architecture as humans. Without them, our cells, organs, muscles, connective tissue, and our bones could not hold together.
  • Proteins are important to our metabolism. All enzymes that help trigger chemical reactions are proteins.
  • They help our immune functions. Many of the key molecules in our immune system are proteins.
  • They carry nutrients around our bodies.
  • They preserve lean muscle mass.
  • They contribute to our growth.

Where do we get protein?

Protein is found in meats, poultry, fish, meat substitutes, cheese, milk, nuts, legumes, and in starchy foods and vegetables. In fact, most foods contain some protein. But if you only eat fruits, sugars, fats and alcohol, you probably don’t get enough protein — But, then again, how many people only eat these things? Not many.

Types of protein: 

  • Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids we need. Meats are complete proteins, but so too are quinoa, hemp seeds, and soy products, like miso, tofu and tempeh. And many other vegetables and fruits have all the essential amino acids, including carrots, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cucumbers, kale, okra, peas, tomatoes, and bananas.

  • Incomplete proteins do not contain all of the essential amino acids. But we do not need all essential amino acids from one food or meal because our bodies are able to store amino acids for future use.

Why animal protein is not better than plant-based protein:

First of all, there is a lot of evidence to suggest our bodies are herbivores not carnivores. Protein from animals can be high in unhealthy fat and cholesterol, and eating animal protein has been linked to some types of cancer and poor heart health. Plus, plant-based proteins have fiber and complex carbs. And by choosing plant proteins, you’ll save animals from factory farms and limit your intake of toxins, like insecticides and antibiotics, which can be found in meat.

Why raw protein is better than cooked protein:

Plant protein gives you amino acids in their raw, unassembled form. But animal proteins give you amino acids in their assembled form, so your body must first disassemble the whole proteins to break them down, which takes extra time and energy. Some proteins are destroyed in the cooking process, which means raw foods have more available protein than cooked foods.

How much protein do we need?

Most Americans get plenty of protein, and even non-meat eaters can meet their protein needs by eating a balanced diet.

As we pointed out earlier here on OGP, “People that consume animal protein in every meal can end up consuming up to 5 times more animal protein than their daily requirement.”

Recommendations vary but according to the American Dietetic Association, most active adults only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. So a person who weighs 125 pounds needs 45 to 57 grams of protein in a day. Females need less protein than males, and serious athletes might need a little more protein — But not a lot more! Studies have shown that protein use is no higher during exercise than under resting conditions.

(Check out these five plant-based athletes that get all the protein they need from plant sources.)

To help you determine your daily protein needs, you might want to plug your info into these calculators:

And yes, you can eat too much protein.

“The paradox of protein is that it is not only essential but also potentially health-destroying,” wrote Dr. Morter in Your Health, Your Choice, “Cells overburdened with protein become toxic.”

Overconsumption of protein may cause problems for your heart and your kidneys. It may also promote the growth of cancer cells, cause digestive problems, and harmful mineral imbalances.

We all need protein everyday, but no diet needs protein supplements to achieve the right amount of protein. If you eat a variety of foods throughout the day, more than likely, you get enough protein.

Image Source: Bella189/Flickr