Where Do You Get Your (Complete) Protein?

Since I started my journey to switching to a WFPB diet, I’ve gotten the protein question multiple times. I actually now start with a tongue-in-cheek response: “How much protein do I need?” It makes people laugh, but it also gets them thinking because no one knows the answer despite their concern over how much I’m getting. The answer to the question is this:  I only need about 42 g of protein a day, which is 0.8 g/kg of my weight or about 8-10% of my total calories which is the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein. These needs are easily met by eating beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, tofu, and whole grains plus the smaller amounts of protein found in all fruits and vegetables. I honestly don’t even have to try to meet protein requirements as long as I eat enough calories, and I eat as much as I want to without worrying about portion control or calorie count.

But, you may ask, how do I get complete protein in my diet if I don’t eat meat? By eating a variety of plant-based whole foods you ensure that you get all the essential amino acids your body requires, as long as you are eating enough overall calories (you have to eat people!). There is no need to practice food combining at each meal as the body does not work this way; it is your general diet over time that matters. In addition, while plants may have a limited essential amino acid in their protein, it is not zero and we still get enough of the limited amino acid to meet recommended requirements even if we only ate one type of plant. The information on this from the WHO is excellent; here is a table to help explain this concept.

Amounts of Essential Amino Acids Provided by Whole Plant Foods

(Grams per 2200 Calories)

Amino Acid (grams/day) Trp Phe Leu Ile Lys Val Met Thr Total Protein
WHO Recommends .3 1.5 1.95 1.5 2.25 1.95 .8 .3 50
Corn .48 4.47 8.76 3.0 3.0 5.0 1.5 3.3 78
Brown Rice .52 2.3 4.0 2.2 1.8 3.3 .80 1.8 47
Potatoes .8 3.6 4.1 3.6 4.4 4.4 1.0 3.4 82
Broccoli 2.3 8.9 12.1 9.4 10.8 12.7 3.7 9.2 248
Tomato 1.0 3.2 4.5 3.2 4.6 3.1 .81 3.6 110

Key: Trp: Tryptophan, Phe: Phenylalanine, Leu: Leucine, Ile: Isoleucine, Lys: Lysine, Val: Valine; Met: Methionine, Thr: Threonine

The WHO concludes that as long as they are high enough in calories, “few natural diets provide insufficient amounts of indispensable amino acids”.

In other words, plant proteins are referred to as “incomplete” because they do not match our human amino acid profile, but they are not “incomplete” when it comes to fulfilling our dietary needs. This information was truly eye-opening to me! I had always thought an incomplete protein meant the food was missing an amino acid altogether.

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