A simple guide to protein

Most often, protein is thought of as what makes up our muscles. While this is true, this macronutrient does so much more than build muscle. Protein also forms the structural materials of blood and skin, and it acts as enzymes, hormones, regulators of fluid balance, acid-base regulators, transporters (think hemoglobin), antibodies, and a source of energy and glucose when there’s insufficient carbohydrate intake.

Back to Basics

From the chemist’s perspective, proteins are comprised of small building blocks called amino acids that are linked together by peptide bonds to form long chains. It helps to think of protein as a train, where the entire train is the protein and the individual cars are the amino acids.

There are a total of 20 amino acids, and they all have the same basic structure with an additional side group. These side groups are what distinguish one amino acid from another. More than half of these 20 amino acids are nonessential, meaning the body can make them. The remaining 9 are essential, which means they must be obtained from the food we eat. Did I lose you yet?

Your Protein Intake

Those not consuming animal products need to be conscious of their protein intake, but maybe not nearly as much as we think. When you’re eating a well-rounded and even plant-based diet, you’re getting protein from nearly everything you eat without supplementation.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), you’re most likely consuming twice as much protein as you actually need if you’re following the traditional Western diet centered around meat and dairy products (we also call this the Standard American Diet or its acronym “SAD”). But listen up: excessive protein consumption is linked to osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease.

Vegans think anyone on a paleo diet gets too much protein, and the paleos think the opposite of vegans. Let’s focus on you and crunch some [simple] numbers.

According to U.S. guidelines, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein is 10-35% of total calories. Another guideline is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), which is defined as the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. For protein, this number is 0.8g per kg of bodyweight. You should take both recommendations into consideration when thinking about your ideal protein intake. Additionally, many nutrition professionals consider 2g per kg of bodyweight to be a ballpark upper limit

To do this calculation yourself, you can use the formula:

Body weight (in pounds) x 0.36 = recommended protein intake (in grams)

So, for an individual weighing 150lb, his or her recommended protein intake, at minimum, would be 54g/day. On a standard 2,000 calorie per day diet, this equates to 10.8% of total caloric intake, which is at the lesser end of the AMDR recommendation. You can see where this now gives you some wiggle room to tweak your diet to meet your personal needs. Not every person weighing 150lb is the same.

More Plants, Please

The concept of “complementary proteins” is a theory of the past but was (and still is) a common practice for those following a plant-based diet. This theory originally stated that foods with complementing amino acid profiles needed to be consumed at the same time to create complete proteins. For instance, eating black beans with brown rice. But studies have found that as long as there’s a variety of whole, plant-based foods in your diet on a daily basis, you’re most likely meeting your protein needs.

For registered dietitian McKel Hill, these are the plant proteins at the top of her list:

  1. Lentils

  2. Hemp seeds

  3. Chia seeds

  4. Spirulina

  5. Quinoa

  6. Nutritional yeast

  7. Seeds

  8. Nuts

  9. Beans

  10. Tofu + tempeh

Environment x Protein

Eating lower on the food chain via a plant-centric diet is better for the environment, with responsible and organic animal production coming in second. The World Resources Institute calculated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing a gram of edible protein of different foods. They found that foods like legumes, nuts and soy have the lowest impact; poultry, pork, milk and cheese have medium-sized impacts; and the biggest impacts were linked to beef, lamb and goat. Now, let’s not forget that vegans and vegetarians don’t just get handed the gold star when it comes to being green. Highly-processed “fake meat” is also resource intensive, and crops can be resource-intensive, too – we’ve all heard about the almond and how much water it uses.

If you have concerns about your nutrition or simply want to talk about your ideal diet, seeing a dietitian is always an option – and not a bad one either! If you think you’d benefit from seeing our team dietitian, Sarah Waybright, RD, you can use code “V+B2017” at checkout to receive $50 off your Nutrigenomix test and coaching package.


Emily Smith

PR and Marketing Specialist of Vegetable and Butcher and a self-proclaimed nutrition nerd and sustainability junkie. Emily called DC home for three years before making her way to California. Emily has her master's in Nutrition Education and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist® (CNS®) candidate. She's passionate about helping people learn to use food to fuel their outdoor activities, and in her free time you can find her rock climbing. . You can connect with her on her website and on Instagram.

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