Protein is needed by our bodies for growth. Our nails, hair, skin, muscles, and internal organs are all composed of protein. It is needed for the formation of antibodies for our immune system, hemoglobin for red blood cells, hormones for our internal communications, and enzymes for catalyzing chemical reactions in the body. We need protein, but can we get enough on a plant-based diet? Of course!
What is Protein exactly?
Proteins are complex molecules made of combinations of amino acids. You can think of amino acids as the building blocks of proteins, of which there are 22. These combine in different ways and lengths to give us different proteins.
Each amino acid can be considered essential or non-essential. These terms tell us whether our bodies can produce them (non-essential) or whether they are needed in the diet (essential). Some people use a third term, conditionally-essential, based on the idea that just because the body can make an amino acid doesn’t mean that it necessarily is. There are multiple steps to make a protein chain, and if one of the steps cannot occur for some reason, that amino acid will not be made and it moves from non-essential to essential.
There have been ideas in the past about complementing proteins. Many vegetable proteins contain okay amounts of most essential amino acids but may be low in one or two. So in the past, people have been told to combine foods that have proper levels of all essential amino acids in the same meal (for example, eating grains with beans or grains with green leafy vegetables.) Recent studies have shown that our bodies actually have an amino acid pool. Sounds fun! This means that the amino acids we house in our body will wait around for a day or two for the right complementary amino acids for protein synthesis. The takeaway here is that we need to eat a varied diet of many different grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc to get the most out of it, but not necessarily complement at every meal.
We need protein for growth and maintenance of our body tissues. Our cells do not last forever, and when they need replacing, protein is needed. Examples of this include our red blood cells that last about a month and cells that line the intestine that need to be replaced almost twice weekly. Hair and nails are always growing and also need to have their cells replaced. When a woman is pregnant, her need for good quality protein increases for the growth of the fetus. Children also need a good amount of protein to aid in their growth. When we are healing from an illness, surgery, or an injury, we need to have an increased intake of this macronutrient.
It is also needed to build certain components necessary for the functioning of our bodies. Enzymes are needed for starting chemical reactions in our bodies, and almost all metabolic processes need enzymes to occur fast enough to maintain life; hemoglobin is needed to carry oxygen around in our blood; hormones like the ones that control our blood sugar levels and metabolic rate; and antibodies that are the response to something foreign in our body, all need protein to even exist.
Sources of Plant-Based Protein
Every plant does contain protein, surprise! This means that even when you eat a salad with no beans or tofu, you are still getting protein. It might not be enough for your daily intake, but you are still getting some.
You may already know the usual suspects for protein like tofu, beans, lentils, tempeh, and seitan. These are all good sources, but they have all been said before. One note I must make about tofu is to make sure when you do buy it that it is organic. This is important because soy is one of the crops that is most likely going to be GMO, and in Canada, if a package says it is organic, it also means that it is non-GMO. Soy intake can be kept moderate because of the possible estrogenic effect it has in the body (this point is more related to the processed forms of soy.) There are so many other choices, so there is no need to stick to tofu exclusively.
Some high protein sources you may be surprised to hear are spirulina, sprouts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Spirulina contains 18 of the 22 amino acids and all of the essentials, as well as 6g of protein per 10g serving. The bioavailability of protein and other nutrients in grains, beans, nuts, and seeds increases readily when sprouted. This makes it easy on your body to absorb all the goodness it needs. Sprouting and even soaking these foods will make them easier to digest. Hemp seeds provide about 11g of protein per 3 tbsp as well as omega-3 fatty acids, and chia seeds contain about 4g of protein per 3 tbsp as well as the omega-3 fatty acids.
How Much is Enough?
There are guidelines that suggest anywhere from 40 – 70 grams of protein per day. The number will depend on what your body is up to. If you are in any of the situations listed above like pregnant, injured, or in some way healing, you will be on the higher end. The average amount they suggest for intake is 46g per day for women and 56g for men. This is just a suggestion, and you may find that you do better with less or more. The theme for all of the daily intakes of macronutrients is to see what feels best in your body and what is best for your lifestyle. There is no wrong or right answer that can be applied to all of us because it all depends on our unique bodies.
Plant-based protein is no mystery and you can easily get enough daily without resorting to crazy measures. Test your body to see what feels best by trying varying levels and sources of protein. Plants provide us with so much, when you increase your intake of this protein, you will be well on your way to a healthier, stronger, more vibrant body.
Are there any unique proteins you are loving right now? Post them in the comments below. There was a long time I wasn’t eating tempeh because I didn’t enjoy the taste, but then I found out it was fermented soy, and I was converted. That is my favourite right now. If you have any questions about any of this information, please ask. I love hearing from you!