If there is one singular component of nutrition that people are generally very diligent about in their concerns, it is protein. The message is broadly conveyed that protein is for muscle, protein is for weight loss, and protein is for survival of the fittest! So how can a dietitian or physician suggest that you cut down on meat and dairy to lower cholesterol and improve heart health? How will you get enough protein? I’ll even see that question and raise you one.
How can vegetarians and (gasp) vegans possibly get enough protein? The short answer is: pretty easily.
The slightly longer answer is comprised of two parts: determining how much protein you actually need and determining how to get more of it from plant sources.
People without specialized health needs can generally use the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) to calculate the amount of protein they should shoot for in their daily diet. A committee of expert scientists set standards for the RDA based on research showing that the value will meet the needs of most healthy people. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight (1). A little math and some conversions are needed initially, but stay with me and figure out your RDA for protein!
Ideal body weight (this is a common formula used by dietitians)
Females: 100 lbs for first 5 feet + 5 lbs for each inch over 5 feet
Example 5’6” female 100 + (5 x 6) = 130 lbs
Males: 106 lbs for first 5 feet + 6 lbs for each inch over 5 feet
Example 5’6” male 106 + (6 x 6) = 142 lbs
Convert pounds to kilograms
2.2 lb per 1 kilogram
Example 130 lb / 2.2 kg = 59 kg
0.8 grams protein per 1 kilogram of ideal body weight
Example 0.8 g x 59 kg = 47 g protein per day RDA
The average person in the U.S. is likely getting much more protein in their diet than they need. For example if the person with the protein RDA of 47 g eats a 4 oz chicken breast for lunch they will have reached 28 g protein (7 g per 1 oz of animal meat protein) and only need to get 19 more grams throughout the whole day.
That same protein level can be reached by eating one serving of peanut butter on toast and pouring ¾ cup of lentils or garbanzo beans on a salad.
With excessive protein from animal sources comes excessive cholesterol and saturated fat. Plant proteins have zero cholesterol or saturated fat and contain a variety of important nutrients. Additional good news is that nutrition scientists no longer believe that certain plant proteins have to be eaten together at the same meal to provide our “complete protein” needs. (2)
Small amounts of protein can be found most plants, but eating a variety of those with higher protein content is the easiest route to meeting your RDA. Highest protein values are found in legumes (beans of all kinds), nuts, seeds and especially soy products such as tofu. (For the more adventuresome out there, seitan, field roast, and tempeh are excellent high protein sources used as meat substitutes.)
All that your meal planning will require is shifting focus to consistently including these foods and even looking into the abundance of delicious recipes available out there! The key is to get a wide variety of vegetables and whole grains and move away from relying on animal products for all of your protein needs.
Examples of some plant proteins and their serving sizes:
- 5 g protein – 1 cinnamon raisin English muffin, or other whole grain breads
- 7 g protein – ½ C most beans, 2 tbsp peanut butter, ½ cup tofu, ¾ oz soy nuts,
- ¼ C almonds
- 15-20 g protein: various meatless patties or other “fake meat” products
- Snack bars / energy bars: Luna Bar, Odwalla Bar = 7-9 g soy protein
By Alison Weppler, MS, RD
1. Whitney, E, Rolfes SR. Understanding nutrition. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson-Wadsworth, 2005.
2. M.F. Fuller and P.J. Reeds, “Nitrogen Cycling in the Gut,” Annual Review of Nutrition 18 (1998): 385-411.