Week 1: But, where do you get your protein?

“You need only about 56 grams of protein a day, which is roughly the amount in a cup each of beans and brown rice and a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread.”
— John Joseph

It's been a year since I ate anything with a mother or a face. I am a plant powered human being. Probably more active than most, but by no means an ultra-athlete. And since adopting a plant-based diet, feel happier, healthier and more energetic.

People who haven't seen me in a while often comment on how well I look. 

'You're looking great,' they say. 'What have you been doing?'

'I eat a plant-based diet,' I tell them.

'Where do you get your protein?' they ask.

So I explain that animals aren't the only source of protein. That big creatures like cows, and elephants and gorillas get by just fine without eating other animals. And that plants are also a source of protein. 

That usually answers the protein question, and the conversation veers toward the difficulty of giving up meat or our God-given right to eat animals.

However, a recent discussion took a different turn...

'But it's not about the protein, it's about the amino acids that make up the protein,' said my friend.

She was right of course. When setting off on my plant power journey, I read about the importance of amino acids. Unfortunately, I tend to retain only about 3% of what I read... at least back then.

Anyway, although I couldn't recall the detail of what I had read, I knew I was getting enough amino acids by grazing across a variety of plant-based food throughout the day. So I told her that when next we met, I'd give her a better answer on my amino intake. Here it is...

So, what is protein?  
Protein is a macro-nutrient or assemblage of amino acids, absolutely critical for a variety of bodily functions. Your body needs 21 amino acids (some sources say 20, but apparently another one has been found recently). Your body can produce 11 of them naturally, while the other 9 - referred to as essential amino acids - must be ingested from the foods you eat. 

My friend was right. It's all about amino acids, not protein. But does it matter if your protein comes from plants rather than animals? And how much protein do you actually need?

Let's tackle how much protein you need first...

The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This amounts to 56 grams per day for the average man and 46 grams per day for the average woman. 

So, I did an experiment and counted my weekly protein intake. Naturally, I mix this up and add other ingredients. But for the point of this exercise I only counted foods with more than 2g of protein per serving:

  • Before my run: a green smoothy with 1 tbsp of Spirulina (4g protein)
  • Breakfast: oats(5g), chia seeds (4g), almond milk (1g)
  • Snack: nuts and banana (7g)
  • Lunch: quinoa (7g), chickpeas (6g), edamame (8g)
  • Snack: nuts and banana (7g)
  • Dinner: wild rice(6g), black beans (8g), avo (2g)

I consume 65g of protein a day. When including other smaller sources, I'd hazard a guess I'm closer to 70g a day. And on the days that I run, I eat an extra meal.  

Okay, so I'm getting enough protein from plants, but am I getting a 'complete' protein? 

Complete Protein
Your body needs a full array of amino acids. Animal-based proteins provide a complete source of protein - containing all essential amino acids in sufficient quantity. So, animals eat plants, synthesise the essential amino acids our bodies need, and therefore we need to eat them. Not exactly. First, there are a few plant sources are also considered complete. 

  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Hemp and chia seed
  • Spirulina

Then you have incomplete proteins. Those that don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, or don’t have sufficient quantities of them to meet the body’s needs, and must be supplemented with other proteins. These include:

  • Nuts & seeds
  • Legumes
  • Grains
  • Vegetables

But just because they are incomplete doesn’t make them inferior. They just need to be combined to provide the right balance of essential aminos. Proteins that, in combination, form a complete amino acid profile are known as complementary proteins

Here are a few examples:

  • Rice and beans (my dinner)
  • Spinach salad with almonds (lunch occasionally)
  • Hummus and whole-grain pitas (a regular evening snack)
  • Whole-grain noodles with peanut sauce (our vegan Pad Thai)

What's more, complementary proteins don’t necessarily need to be eaten together, but since your body doesn’t store amino acids for later use in protein combining, they should be eaten throughout a day’s meals.

In short, my plant-based diet provides more than enough protein, and essential amino acids. 

Complete proteins from animals and animal products are convenient. Like a fast food outlet for amino acids. Only the same way fast food is unhealthy, animal protein comes loaded unhealthy crap: cholesterol, saturated fat, drug residues, and the risk of pathogens like E coli and Salmonella. 

I'm not trying to convince you to go vegan. Less than 2% of the world is vegan. The idea that you are going to read this post and suddenly stop eating creatures with mothers is crazy. However, I hope that sharing my experiences will at least inspire you to try more plant-based meals.

Go plant, make peace.