Are you getting enough protein?
I’ve been following a plant-based diet myself for 4+ years, and if there is one sentence I have heard time and time again, it’s “where do you get your protein?”.
This is one of the most widely discussed nutritional topics out there- and for good reason. There is a LOT of confusion regarding protein, including what types you should eat and the quantity.
And although with confusion comes questions (which are great!), there is also a lot of misinformation (which isn’t so great). For a long time now, we have been lead to believe that there are only certain ‘sources’ of protein that are adequate, and that there are certain quantities of these sources that you must eat in order to be at your best health.
The truth is, there is no ‘one way’ to eat healthy, and the same ‘diet’ is not going to work the same way for two people. Whether we are talking about protein or any other nutrition topic, there is something important you need to understand: our bodies are all built very differently, and therefore we require very different things.
This means that the same protein source is not going to benefit two different people in the same way. The truth about protein is that there are numerous and limitless sources available to us, and different sources and different quantities are going to be required for each person.
Therefore today, we are diving in deep and aiming to clear up all the myths about protein and get crystal clear on the options- so that you can begin to experiment in your own life and design/create a way of eating that feels the best for YOU in your body.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
What is protein?
Protein is one of our main ‘macronutrients‘, meaning an important nutritional component that we need to eat in order for our body to sustain life and be at optimal health.
Interesting enough, protein is also a BIG part of our bodies (and the bodies of other living creatures on this earth). We are actually largely made up of protein– from our skin, to our joints, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, muscles and organs. Roughly 15-20% of the human body is protein- and protein is present inside every single cell in our body.
Our our body uses the protein that we eat to continue building and maintaining the health of our body, as well as helping our body do the basic operations that it was designed to do- like, digestion, immune support & protection, muscle contraction & movement, hormone creation & release, etc.
Each protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids that link together to create a protein. Generally a protein is made up of 300+ amino acids, and the specific number and sequence of amino acids are unique to each protein.
These amino acids can link together in different sequences and lengths to form different combinations, which are then read by our body and each used to perform different tasks within us.
Generally our body has a way of prioritizing tasks, depending on what it needs most at that time.
For example, when we eat a meal containing protein, our body breaks that down in the digestive process and recreates the protein strands (or building blocks) for particular sequences based on what is needs most (like an active infection or injury).
There are both ESSENTIAL amino acids and NON-ESSENTIAL amino acids.
Essential means that our body cannot make them and we must get them from our diet, where as non-essential means that our body can make them and we do not need to get them from our diet.
The Essential Amino Acids are:
The Non-Essential Amino Acids are:
Where can you get it?
As discussed above, there is no ‘golden’ rule for protein sources, nor just one option for you to consume. The truth is, there are limitless options available for you to get the protein that you need!
For animal sources you can reach for meat, wild game, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy. However, I highly recommend choosing better quality sources of these items and reading labels. Wild game or sources of animal proteins that you raise yourself (or know the farmers) are the best way to ensure that the quality of that meat is good.
I recommend avoiding purchasing your meats at grocery stores, as a large percentage of conventionally raised animals are raised in inhumane ways with no access to outdoors, in over crowded conditions, often in cages, with no access to grass, clean water or fresh air. These animals are often also fed animal byproducts, and pumped full of unnecessary hormones and antibiotics.
By choosing organic options, and those that have labels like ‘grass-fed’, ‘pasture-raised’ or ‘free-range’, or by choosing to purchase from a farmer you know, you are ensuring that you know how that animal was raised, and the quality of the meat itself (which is going to be best for your own health!).
Outside of animal sources, believe it or not, there are limitless options!
And those options are… plants.
Yes, that’s right! You can actually get your protein from different plant sources- actually ANY plant source, including nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, tofu, beans, lentils, legumes, etc.
Surprisingly enough, every plant-based food option out there actually contains all nine essential amino acids. *HOWEVER, they do not carry them all in quantities that are adequate for our needs.
What this means, is they might have miniscule amounts of one or more of the essential amino acids- so eating the ‘exact same’ foods every single day would put someone at risk as they may not be receiving adequate quantities of these ones.
Protein sources that contain enough of each of the nine amino acids to sustain our life, are considered to be ‘complete’ protein sources– where as the ones that are lacking for certain amino acids are considered to be ‘incomplete protein sources’.
In order to be meeting the required needs of adequate protein from PLANT-BASED sources, we therefore need to be eating a variety of different foods. Different fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, tofu, etc.
The sources of protein and what you choose are up to you and what feels best for your body. I strongly recommend experimenting to see what you thrive on, and practice utilizing a variety of different foods to meet your body’s needs.
The other thing I want to mention, is that we do *NOT* have to eat our meals in certain combinations to ensure we are getting complete proteins at every meal. Our bodies are the smartest machines on the planet, and our livers take care of this for us.
As we eat foods throughout each day, our body stores those amino acids until it can create a complete protein, and then uses it at that time.
How much should you be eating?
Similar to above, there isn’t a ‘golden rule’ for how much protein you should be consuming.
There are all kinds of numbers and targets that you will find online, but it all comes down to one simple truth, every ‘body’ is going to require slightly different amounts.
Personally, I don’t ‘calculate’ how much protein I am eating in a day, and it’s not something I encourage. Instead, I do encourage intuitive eating, listening to your body, and as I said- eating a variety of different foods to make sure you are getting what your body requires.
It is rare for someone to be ‘protein deficient’, and in the cases that it does happen it is usually directly related to severely restricting calories, an eating disorder, malnutrition, some other digestive issue, or not eating a variety of foods.
The best first step is to take a look at what you are currently eating, and then make changes from there. If you are someone who tends to eat the exact same thing most days, it would be a good idea to start incorporating other foods. Or if you are someone who likely doesn’t eat enough in a day, it would be a good idea to start by increasing the quantity of foods you are eating.
No one can decide what your body does best on but you. Experiment, try new foods, try new combinations, new recipes, and most importantly, have fun! Nutrition isn’t supposed to be boring.
There you have it babe! I hope that helps you understand protein a bit better in an easier way. And if you’re someone who prefers to learn by listening, I have also created a video version of this post HERE.
Best of luck incorporating these tips!