Can I Get Enough Protein If I Don't Eat Meat?

FREE Plant-Based Protein Cheatsheet

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I'm sure you've probably heard a thousand times that we need animal products to get enough protein, right? Could it be possible that this is a myth, and simply not true? Many people today are choosing to eat less animal products for many reasons, but the question coming to mind is: can I get enough protein if I don't eat meat?

Why protein is important 

Before we get into what type of protein fuels our bodies better, it’s important to lay the foundation as to why protein is important in the first place. 

Protein is an essential nutrient to health. Its role is to build, maintain and repair all our body systems. In fact, the membrane of every cell in the body is 50% fat and 50% protein. We, therefore, should be consuming protein in every meal we eat. 

How much protein do we need?

The amount of protein needed is different for everyone, based on bodyweight.  In 2006 Australia and New Zealand published the Recommended Daily Intake of protein. For males, the RDI between 0.68g - 0.84g per kilo of body weight, and for females the RDI is between 0.60g - 0.75g per kilogram of body weight (Wahlqvist, 2011, p. 303).

Here’s an example: for a 60kg woman, her RDI of adequate protein would be between (0.60 x 60 and 0.75 x 60) 40.8g and 45g per day. Is that surprisingly lower than you thought? Well, consider this. Protein supplements have become a multimillion dollar business due to the huge boom of the “health and fitness” industry and the popular desire to be buff, ripped, lean and bikini-body sexy. So what’s one way you can ensure your product continues to sell? Use your marketing to push the myth that you need more protein than you actually do.

Now don’t get me wrong, athletes and others specifically needing/wanting to increase muscle mass do require more protein for muscle growth and repair, and thus require an increase in protein consumption. However, for the every day busy woman who just wants to be fit, lean and strong, it is simply not necessary to eat a high protein diet.

In fact, according to the Australian Food and Nutrition textbook, “Under normal circumstances, dietary supply of protein (amino acids) is in excess of requirements and the excess amino acids must be broken down and excreted” (2011, p. 298).  Dr Michael Greger also backs this up, sharing that studies indicate most people in the Western world get more than enough protein.

Problem with animal protein

What kind of protein should we be eating? More specifically, can you get enough protein without eating meat?

According to the largest study in history (The China Study) on people groups that eat plant-based diets, vegetarians actually consume about 70% more protein than the RDI (which averages about 40g-50g per day). Non-vegetarians, of course get way more than that again, but it's worth considering whether animal-based protein consumption is worthwhile. 

The infamous China Study indicates diets with high animal protein intake are associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Wahlqvist states that vegetarian diets, on the other hand, that are generally lower in protein (than high-animal protein diets) are often associated with better health (2011, p 310). This tells us that although meat and animal products clearly contain protein, there are many other factors that are associated with eating meat that are simply detrimental to our health. 

Dr Dean Ornish also points out that the research indicates animal protein may significantly increase the risk (up to 75% increase) of premature mortality from all causes.

When you think about it, cows milk (the basis of dairy products) is 'baby-cow growth food' not primarily a human food. I watched Cowspiracy last night and the documentary mentioned that the purpose of cows milk is to turn a 65 pound calf into a 400+ pound cow, yet we treat milk as the next best thing since sliced bread!

Why plant-based whole food protein is better

So why is plant-based protein superior? We get the answer from the animal themselves. Where did the dead animals that humans consume get their protein from? Most animals that are consumed for meat get their protein from eating plants (chicken, cows, fish etc)! They get their protein first-hand, and then humans eat their meat to get secondary-source protein. Is it just me, or does that seem illogical?

Don Tolman shares insight about the word ‘protein’ itself, demonstrating that it comes from the Greek word ‘proteos’ which means ‘first source.’ First source protein can only be gained from eating plants and whole foods. It is these plant foods that contain the building blocks of cellular health and life for our bodies.

What else we need to absorb and digest protein 

There’s a common myth out there that by eating large amounts of protein it will help increase muscle building. However studies have shown that the body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at a time. An article published in the "International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism" in 2006 recommends getting no more than 25 percent of your calories from protein to minimize the risk of protein toxicity. Amounts will vary of course from person to person, but it is worth being cautious not to eat too much protein (animal protein in particular) because it can lead to toxicity, acidity and kidney problems, according to Dr Michael Greger.

In order for our bodies to break down, digest and absorb the amino acids in protein, our digestive system needs to be producing HCl (hydrochloric acid) and enzymes. For your gut to produce these elements, however, your body's acid-alkaline pH balance must be adequate. If the balance isn’t right, whole molecules of protein can pass through the stomach into the small intestine undigested, thus not absorbing the amino acids in the protein. Taking probiotics can definitely improve your gut bacteria and help your body produce the right acids and enzymes to absorb dietary intake. Alternatively, eating plant-based fermented proteins like pea protein or tempeh will be easier to digest because they are already pre-digested foods in a sense.

Examples of plant-based protein

Many plant-foods contain protein, but not only that, when eaten in their whole-food form, you are also gaining other super-nutrients like fibre, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. For a specific list of plant-based foods and their protein amounts, download my free cheatsheet. Here is a general list of plant-based foods that contain good amounts of protein:

Grains - wheat, rye, spelt, barley, oats, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth

Legumes (beans) - lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, soybeans, black eyed beans, lima beans, split peas

Nuts - almonds, brazil, pecans, macadamia, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts

Seeds - pumpkin, sunflower, flaxseed, chia, sesame, hemp

Greens - broccoli, spinach, dark leafy greens, spirulina

Why I still eat eggs

As a plant-based whole foods advocate, I do still eat eggs, however I am VERY picky about what eggs I eat. I buy eggs from a local farm where I know the chickens are healthy, organic and free-range, and when I eat out I choose restaurants that source free-range local eggs when I choose an egg meal. Eggs are a whole-protein food source, and I still choose to eat them currently because I live a fairly active life and currently my B12 is lower than it should be. However, I would choose not to eat them if it was not possible to get the best quality from small local farmers. 

Take home message

In answer to the question of whether you can get enough protein without eating meat: YES you can! How and why:

  • We don't need as much protein as we're often told
  • We can only digest and absorb a certain amount per meal
  • Plant-based proteins come without the risk of premature death and disease
  • Plant-based proteins also come with a range of other nutritional benefits when consumed in their wholefood form

Don't forget to download your free copy of my Plant-Based Protein Cheatsheet for examples of the foods I eat regularly to get an adequate intake of protein in my diet.