A Beginner's Guide to Plant Based Protein

A Beginner's Guide to Plant Based Protein


It's important to know what protein is since it can make determining how much protein you need easier, be it animal protein sources or plant protein sources.  Of course, it all depends on your dietary requirements and how active you are.  Going beyond what should I eat to how much do I need to eat.  While it isn't especially great for your social life, goodbye New York Strip with mashed potatoes and hello healthier self.  But, sometimes it's worth sacrificing some things.  But can we get enough protein from plants?  Yes, there are a variety of ways to get all the protein you need from a plant based diet.  But, it all depends on how much of it you can really be willing to consume. Especially when you have dietary restrictions, it really matters what you eat, and how much you can do without since protein is just one aspect of a nutritious and balanced diet.  NOTE: We are not dietitians nor medical professionals, as such this article is not meant as professional advice nor should it be treated as one.  

What is Protein?

Protein is a macronutrient that is paramount to building muscle mass.  In terms of macronutrients, there are three types, which are, protein, fats and carbohydrates.***  These macronutrient produce calories, also known as, energy.  However, each macronutrient contains a certain amount of energy.  Carbohydrate and Protein have 4 calories per gram.  Unlike fats that have 9 calories per gram. On average, you should try to maintain about 12 to 20% of your daily calories from protein.  Fun fact, about 60% of protein turns into glucose.***   While, 100% of carbohydrates and fats are turned into glucose.  Ok, great, so, proteins are macronutrients that give us energy.  What is protein?

Great question! But, before we get to that, let's deconstruct the elements of protein. The body weight of an individual is made up of 15% protein, and each gram of protein has 4 calories. Proteins are made up of multiple amino acids linked by peptide bonds.  "Peptide bonds are formed by a biochemical reaction that extracts a water molecule as it joins the amino group of one amino acid to the carboxyl group of a neighboring amino acid. The linear sequence of amino acids within a protein is considered the primary structure of the protein." ***.  Proteins are molecules that have many important roles in our body.  

Why Do We Need Protein?

Protein is quite versatile, but more importantly, every cell in our body has protein. It makes sense that protein has so many major roles to play.  These chains of amino acids, not only provide energy, but also helps your body repair and make new cells, keeping them in tip top shape. It also provides the energy we need to get through the day, as well as helps carry oxygen throughout our bodies, and assists in making antibodies for all kinds of illnesses. 

What are Amino Acids and Why are they important?

Amino Acids are organic compounds that contain amino and carboxyl functional groups, along with a side chain specific to each amino acid. The key elements that make up amino acids are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, although other elements are found in the side chains of certain amino acids. ***

There are many types of amino acids, some that we can produce ourselves in our bodies, and those we have to consume. These amino acids are grouped into two types, Complete Proteins, and Incomplete Proteins. ***  

There are 20 types of amino acids to be exact. However, only 9 are classified as essential.  These essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine, which make up a complete protein.  Compared to an incomplete protein, which the name implies, does not include ALL 9 Essential Proteins.  This can mean that they have 8, or even no essential animo acids.  So, where can I get these essential amino acids?  Well, let me correct myself a bit, complete proteins have all 9 essential amino acids in consistent amounts. While, not all plant based products have all 9 essential amino acids, a Complete Protein has all 9 essential amino acids, which our bodies cannot produce.  Nonessential amino acids can be produced in our body.  But don’t get caught off guard by the name, it is no slouch, however, this topic is out of the scope in this eBook, which is all about proteins. 

The most common ways to get complete proteins is usually by animals. But, it doesn’t mean that this is the only way. Great sources of plant based complete proteins include Quinoa, Soy, Buckwheat, Hemp seed, Chia seed, Spirulina, Tempeh, and Amaranth.***

How much protein do we need daily?

As mentioned briefly above, an individual should consume about 12% to 20% of calories from protein per day.  Proteins have 4 calories per gram. If we broke this down into how much energy, Carbohydrates and Proteins each provide 17kJ/g. 1 kilojoule (KJ) = 1000 Joules. So, on average we can expect 68,000 Joules/gram. Furthermore, "According to Dietary Reference Intake report a sedentary adult should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. That means that the average sedentary man should eat about 56 grams of protein per day, and the average woman should eat about 46 grams." ***.  That's 3,808,000 Joules for men, and 3,128,000 Joules for women. That means that 155.5 lbs for men and 128 lbs for women. Calculate it yourself and follow the formula .36 x your weight= XX grams.  

If you’d like a more general birds eye view of it, let’s look at the Dietary Guidelines provided by the U.S Department of Agriculture and the U.S Department of Health and human Services for Americans. Children under 4 should consume 13 grams. Children 4 to 8 should consume 19 grams, and children ages 9 to 13 should consume 34 grams. Now women ages 14 should consume 46 grams. Compared to boys ages 14 to 18 should consume 52, and men ages 19 and over should consume 56 grams of protein. ***  

Keep in mind that this recommendation is for maintaining a healthy body. If you want to gain muscle or most commonly lose weight, you'll have to consume more protein. To calculate how much protein you should consume while trying to lose weight and getting stronger, consider following this formula, calculate your daily calorie intake multiplied by .075. For example, 2,000 x 0.075 = 150 grams of protein. That is quite a bit more protein than for the average person.

There's also another more common way to calculate the grams of protein you should consume. This involves setting a certain number based on your weight. As a rule of thumb, keep in mind that this doesn't have to be exact. Anything between 25-35% of calories should be sufficient.

Which plant-based foods are high-protein?

There's many plant based foods that are high sources of protein, but the question remains, will it be enough? We learned that essential amnio acids are mostly found in animal products, which are not plant based.  But, don't despair, soy beans based products such as tofu(the process of separating the liquid and then compressing the curds into white blocks), tempeh(fermented soybeans) and edamame (immature soybeans) are Complete Proteins. Similar to Soy beans, Quinoa is yet another Complete Protein. But, in regards to Incomplete Proteins, they are no slouch to Complete Proteins. While, soy beans may be number one plant based meat substitute, there are many Incomplete Proteins that contain more protein than Quinoa. They include, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, almonds and spirulina in descending order have high protein content.

Protein and Your Fitness Goals

So, here's the deal: When you normally diet and exercise, you'll lose fat, but also muscle mass. Which normally, you don't want to lose. You want to really only lose body fat, that includes both the subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral fat (around the organs). That's where protein comes in. As a fundamental principle, protein helps repair our body. That includes but not limited to skin, muscles and blood cells. Another reason why protein is important when losing weight is because when you lose weight, your body goes into starvation mode where your metabolism slows down due to the loss of muscle mass. To prevent this, a combination of a good amount of protein and strength training are required.

Can Protein Help with Weight Loss?

Proteins are not only good for us, and have a huge role in our overall everyday lives, but it can actually help with losing a pound or two. Well, probably lose more weight in general. So, how does this work? Let's start by addressing the brain and what it has to do in a birds eye view to determine how much we should eat. The brain sends signals to essential hormones that regulate hunger. In general, the more protein you consume, satiety hormones such as, GL-1, peptide YY and cholecystokinin, will activate while reducing the hormone that induces hunger, ghrelin. *** This in combination with consuming fewer carbs and fats, losing weight would practically become automated.  

In fact, depending on the types of food you eat, a portion of the calories are used for digestion and metabolizing food which is called thermic effect of food or TEF. While the exact figures are not universally agreed upon, it is transparent that protein has a significantly higher thermic effect conversion compare to carbs and fats. How much you ask? Protein has 20-30% TEF, carbs have 5-10% TEF, and fats have a measly 0-3% thermic effect on your digestion and metabolism. What does this mean? It means that more calories are burned/used rather than stored into fat cells when consuming protein.

Ok, I get that consuming more protein has a higher TEF, but does that mean that eating protein will burn calories (metabolic rate) throughout the day? You got it! Eating more protein increases your metabolism. What does this really mean? Well, consuming more protein means that you'll be fuller faster, which means that you'll eat less. But, wait, there are many more benefits, it also reduces cravings, and that means less of an appetite.

What's the Deal with Protein Shakes?

What are Protein Shakes?

You've probably seen your friends drink protein shakes or seen chiseled body builders drink them, but you probably have different goals in mind than those people. All it does is, allows more protein into your diet. If you read all the way till now, you probably know, proteins help in so many ways, but most commonly know to assist in losing weight, building muscle and boosting energy. All of these are true and more.  

Protein shakes on the other hand are a mixture of ingredients such as powdered protein that come from plants (soybeans, peas, rice(that includes brown rice, and wild rice, not only white rice), potatoes, or hemp seeds), eggs, or milk (casein or whey protein). It may also contain other ingredients for flavor, consistency, and nutrients. It can come in different forms, for example, DYI protein powder, as well as done for you protein shakes.

Here are the most popular types of protein powder in the market:

Whey and casein protein are both dairy and contains all essential amino acids. The main differences are in how fast it can absorb. Whey absorbs quickly and casein absorbs slowly. There are also soy beans, hemp seeds, rice, and pea protein that all have its own unique characteristics.

The Potential Risks From Using Protein Shakes

It is true that protein shakes are excellent source of protein.  It is made for that very purpose after all.  But, there might be some risks associated with it. To be completely clear, protein has tons of benefits, but protein powders might be a different story all together. 1. Since it is a "dietary supplement" the FDA leaves the safety and labeling to the manufacturers. Which makes it seem largely self regulated. 2. it may contain a large amount of sugar, and calories, which creates a slew of health risks such as, high blood sugar, and weight gain. If this was all, that might be fine since there are many brands that make protein powder. But, there's one more major problem, toxins!  The Clean Label Project released a report that will make you cringe.  They screened 134 products that had 130 different types of toxins. The Clean Label Project group hypothesizes that the toxins may be from the manufacturing process.  They also speculated that it may have been from the soil, absorbed by the plants.***. Which does make perfect sense, since the sources of plant(s) might not be the best quality.  Note: not all products have these toxins, but this should be something to consider while deciding on a protein powder product.  

Can Protein Cause Heart Disease and Other Diseases?

Simply, no, protein in itself is minimally associated to heart disease. Rather, the quality where the protein derived from matters a lot more. For example, people who eat red meat/animal products everyday have a higher risk of heart disease compared to people who get their protein from plant based foods.***. Likewise, Type 2 diabetes, and various types of cancers, including breast cancer, are known to be caused from red meat, however, people who consumed plant based food such as nuts, legumes(including kidney beans, garbanzo beans, black beans, etc...), and poultry had lower risk of these diseases. Even comparing animal and plant based protein to weight maintenance and gain, once again studies leans favorably towards plant based diets.  Here's a study conducted at Harvard Harvard T.H.Chan School of Health, on average people who eat red meats gain 1 pound more every 4 years. *** So meat consumption in moderation is good, since it has the animo acids, vitamins, and minerals that we can't get anywhere else. But, in moderation. Note: Consult your GP or dietitian for professional diagnosis. This is not meant to be advice in any way.  While, a 100% percent plant based diet is attainable, it will require a lot of meticulous attention to since, many sources of nutrients and proteins are eliminated from your diet.  Nonetheless, it is a great source of protein, maybe not all the protein you need, but it is still .   


There are so many excellent sources for protein.  Be it plant-based protein sources, or animal based protein sources, we have too many dietary protein options within arms reach.  While we have a plethora of protein options, there are some nutritional powerhouses like soy based products that would be the closest to meat alternatives out there.  But, there are other consideration for your dietary protein sources, since allergies can play a major role in deciding which path you should follow.  In addition, if that doesn't concern you, the grams of protein and volume are completely different from red meats.  Meaning, if you can't eat too much, the plant-based source will be an issue.  While, red meat has more grams of protein compared to plant based products, it also absorbs quicker than plant based foods.  A source of high-quality protein would be a complete protein source, which comes down to what types of amino acids are in a protein.  

While animal protein has some essential vitamins and minerals we can't live without, plant sources of protein are comparably healthier than red meat.  There are different protein options, as such, there's a wide range of protein quality sources and healthier choices.  You don't need to have to be on a vegetarian diet to be plant based.  However, it is highly recommended leaning towards a vegan diet is healthier than eating red meats.  There are many animal sources other than red meat out there, but this is out of scope for this article.  Eating red meats can give a whole slew of chromic diseases and issues, so plant-based eating is just an easier way to prevent those problems from the get go.  

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