Myth Busting: How Much Protein do I Really Need?

If you’ve started on your journey to a plant-based diet for optimal health, then you’ve surely already encountered the infamous question – “but where do you get your protein?” That question is what I’m going to address here, with all the breakdowns of protein needs for normal daily life, for athletes, for women, for men…if you have questions, then I have answers!

So – how much protein do I need?

We need 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. So for a woman weighing 130 pounds, that would be 52 grams per day. For a man weighing 180 pounds, that would be 72 grams per day.

But what if I work out, a lot?

If you are an athlete, or just someone who spends a lot of time in the gym burning calories, then you do need more protein than someone who is sedentary or mildly active. However, there is a big misconception about this. You do need more protein, but you don’t need to focus on more protein – you only need to focus on getting enough calories. If you’re a 180 pound man who is inactive, then you need around 2200 calories per day. However, if you’re a 180 pound man who works out vigorously in the gym on a daily basis, such as an athlete would, then you need more like 3100 calories per day.

If you’re consuming 900 calories more per day to fuel the intense workouts, and you are eating whole foods (in other words – not processed), then you are naturally increasing the amount of protein you are consuming as well, without even thinking about it. All living things contain protein, including plants (which is where animals get their protein from!), so there is no need to be concerned with protein intake on a plant based diet as long as you are eating sufficient calories.

How much is enough for pregnant or nursing women?

This follows the exact same rule of thumb as that for athletes. Women who are pregnant or nursing don’t require a significant amount of extra calories, but they do require an average of about 250-300 calories more per day. Along with those extra calories comes – you guessed it – extra protein! So a 130 pound woman who is mildly active – exercising 1-3 times per week – would need around 1800 calories per day. If she were pregnant or nursing she would need around 2100 calories per day. If those extra calories are coming from whole foods, then extra protein naturally comes along with it.

Is there such thing as too much protein?

The short answer is – yes! When our protein is coming from the wrong source, it is possible for overconsumption to be hazardous to our health. Namely – when the protein source comes from an animal. For an excellent study reference for this, please check out the book The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. Dr. Campbell conducted the largest population study ever recorded in history on protein, and his findings repeatedly and consistently came to the same conclusion – that animal proteins, consumed at a rate of more than 5% of total calories, led to cancer tumor growth.

In his early days while studying protein, he discovered something that had been largely overlooked – in populations where animal proteins were not readily available and individuals consumed their protein from only plant sources, cancer was almost nonexistent. However, in more affluent populations where animal protein was the primary focus on the plate, cancer has become an epidemic…as we see right here in America where cancer rates continue to grow every year.

Dr. Campbell was able to recreate these findings in lab rats by exposing them first to aflatoxin, a potent carcinogen, then feeding them casein, the animal protein found in milk. When feeding the rats a rate of only 5% casein, tumor growth remained unchanged. However, when feeding rats a rate of 20% casein, which is about the average for us Americans, tumor growth exploded. He then took the rats consuming 5% casein and fed them 20% casein for a few months, and the result was tumor growth. However, he then took their casein back down to 5% – and the tumors shrank…indicating that cancer growth can actually be changed just by the amount of animal protein we are consuming.

After this, Dr. Campbell got the opportunity to conduct his large scale population study in China. Genetically, all Chinese are the same. However, the diets are different depending on where they live. Campbell was able to conduct a study of the diets in different regions, as well as cancer rates in the different regions. His findings remained consistent with his early days of protein research and his lab rat experiments – the populations consuming a mainly plant based diet had nearly non-existent rates of cancer, whereas those with a diet high in animal proteins had high rates of cancer.

Since Dr. Campbell’s research, countless new studies have been done by doctors and scientists all over the world, with the findings being the same. If you aren’t up for reading an entire book, I suggest going to YouTube and searching “the China study”. There are numerous eye-opening videos, interviews and Ted Talks where Dr. Campbell discusses his research on protein.

Okay, then is there such thing as too much plant protein?

Nope! No matter how many studies have been done on this, there seems to be no link between plant proteins and cancer growth – and in fact the opposite has shown to be true. The more plants you eat, the lower your risk for cancer, as well as all other chronic health conditions!

How about macros?

If you’ve ever used the app My Fitness Pal on a conventional American diet, then you may see that the common macro suggestion is for 50% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 20% protein. This is problematic for a few reasons – one of them being that the amount of fat suggested is far more than is healthy…especially if we are concerned with weight loss or maintenance. But the other issue is protein.

We have already discerned that we need 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 130 pound woman needs around 52 grams of protein per day. If she is mildly active and consumes a diet of 1800 calories per day with a goal of 20% protein, then her daily protein intake would be about 90 grams! Nearly double what she actually needs. And if the bulk of that protein is coming from meat, eggs and dairy…we just learned above what that means for cancer risk, not to mention risk for heart disease thanks to all of the saturated fat and cholesterol that is unavoidable with animal proteins.

The ideal macro breakdown for a plant based diet is 75% carbohydrates (yes – really!), 10-15% fat, and the other 10-15% protein. You’ll find that this amount of protein actually coincides with the daily need of 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. For me, I need 45.2 grams, and 10% of my daily caloric needs from protein provides me with 42 grams.

And don’t let the carbs scare you – I’m afraid Atkins has it wrong on this. While restricting carbs may force your body into ketosis and allow you to lose weight if you push yourself hard enough, it is very hard on your body and has been known to cause permanent complications with processing carbohydrates in the future. While simple carbohydrates – refined sugars and grains and pre-packaged, processed foods – are terrible for us, complex, whole grain carbohydrates are the most important fuel we can feed our bodies. That’s right – even more important than protein! Glucose is the number one source of fuel for all of our body’s cells, so we must have it. And it comes from carbohydrates! We just need to make sure they are the right kind of carbohydrates – the kind that require work and energy to break them down and don’t come with a carb crash side effect.

What are some good sources of plant protein?

The good news is – ALL plants have protein!! The best sources, however, come from the legume family. That is, beans, peas, lentils, soy, tofu, tempeh, etc. Also, grains such as quinoa and oats, and nuts, seeds and nut butters (although you want to take it easy on nuts because of the high fat content). Even leafy greens have more protein than other vegetables. Here is a little diagram to the right to help you out.

How can I get started?

If you’ve been following the Standard American Diet for a lifetime, you’re not alone! Most of us have, and while old habits die hard, it doesn’t mean we have to keep them alive forever. There are countless plant based recipes online (some even here on this blog) to get you started.

Or you can just keep it simple – replace the animal protein on your plate with some beans or lentils instead. Skip the grilled chicken salad for lunch, and do a taco salad using black beans. Replace the meat in your burrito with pinto beans. Instead of making beef and vegetable soup, make a lentil veggie soup. Instead of having a BLT, toast up some slices of tempeh with liquid smoke and liquid aminos and make it a “T”LT. Make tacos with black beans or spicy lentils in place of ground beef. The options truly are limitless!

The most important thing is – don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and try new things. You will learn a whole new lifestyle and new way of eating that will leave you feeling fantastic. Truly – after a few months of eating 95% plant based, my chronic knee pain I had on my daily walks went away, I finally conquered my insomnia and now have only the occasional tired day instead of most of my days being low energy, my periods no longer come with cramping, my acne prone skin (which I don’t think is ever going to be completely clear) looks better than it ever has, my focus has improved significantly, and my migraines are completely gone. I haven’t had one single migraine since I took the plunge and went all-in with this lifestyle back in March.

The discomfort of learning something new is very much worth the reward at the end! If you are considering a plant based lifestyle, or have perhaps already started, then I hope this information about protein has been helpful. If you have any questions that I didn’t answer, please ask in the comments below and I will get you an answer!

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