Protein. We know we need it, but do we know the best way to get it? And how much do we need to thrive?
Some people think eating more protein will make them bulk up like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Conan the Barbarian days. Others think a heaping plate of meat is the only way to get the right amount of protein to keep your body working properly. Many people scoff at the idea of getting protein from plants. But here’s the truth: everyone needs protein, and plants are some of the healthiest and most versatile sources around.
What Does Protein Do?
Think of protein as the body’s maker and mender. Critical to growth, it’s an essential macronutrient for children, young adults, and pregnant people. It also helps repair cells and tissues like muscle, which is why protein and exercise tend to go hand-in-hand. That soreness you feel the day after a tough workout? Protein is what repairs all those tiny muscle tears.
On top of essential interior functions like helping blood clot and regulating the endocrine system, protein also has aesthetic perks. Want shinier hair, stronger nails, and glowing skin? Turn to protein. Many proteins are also great sources of important micronutrients like zinc, B vitamins, and selenium, which can benefit the immune system and improve bone health
How Much Do You Need?
While it’s useful to understand the role protein plays in your body, it’s also important to know how much you need to consume. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the minimum amount of protein you need to get all of the essential nutrients your body needs. Begin with this simple calculation:
body weight in pounds x 0.36 = amount of protein you need per day
This means a sedentary 180-pound man needs at least 64.8 grams of protein per day and a 140-pound woman needs 50.4. However, factors such as age, activity level, and pregnancy affect the minimum amount a person needs. Use this calculator to get a better estimate for your body. Most Westerners have no problem getting enough protein; so unless you’re pregnant, extremely active, or have certain health conditions, there’s likely no need to constantly calculate.
Why Should You Get Protein from Plants?
People tend to think animal-based foods are the only sufficient source of protein. In actuality, plant-based proteins pack a one-two punch: they’re often healthier and more affordable. Eating more plants is also linked to health benefits like lower inflammation, less risk of chronic disease, a decreased risk for certain cancers, and a lower likelihood of obesity.
Plant-forward meals also put much less stress on the environment. According to UCLA, if everyone ate more plant-based diets, we could increase our food supply by up to 49%, decrease carbon emissions, and significantly lower water usage.
But What About Essential Amino Acids?
Your body uses amino acids to create thousands of proteins that perform the above-mentioned important tasks. Of the 20 amino acids, your body produces 11 of them—these are the non-essential amino acids. The other nine are essential amino acids; this means you need to get them from food. Without essential amino acids, you’re at risk of muscle loss, weakened immunity, fatigue, and anxiety.
Animal proteins are considered “complete” proteins because they tend to contain all essential amino acids in one source. One of the most misleading arguments against plant protein is that you cannot get all of the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet. While it’s true quinoa and soy are the only “complete” plant proteins, eating certain combinations of plant-based foods throughout the day will give you all the amino acids you need.
A great way to determine the nutritional value of a protein source is to find its Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) score. Any protein that scores 75% or lower on this scale is considered suboptimal. The best protein sources score 100% or higher and can be paired with lower-quality proteins to ensure you are getting all of the essential amino acids. DIAAS scoring is a promising but relatively new protein quality method; learn more about it here.
The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources
Since plant proteins are often better for the planet, low in saturated fat, and high in fiber, make it a goal to eat more plant-based protein. That said, because of our need for essential amino acids, it’s important to eat the right kinds of plant proteins throughout the day. To get the most benefit, try incorporating several of the following plant proteins into your daily diet:
- Legumes like beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils are a great source of the essential amino acid lysine. Aim to consume at least half a cup of legumes per day. To get higher quality protein, pair a serving of legumes with a whole grain like oats, corn, or rice
- Whole Grains like quinoa, oats, corn, and rice are great sources of protein and fiber. Many have a whopping 12 grams of protein per serving. As with legumes, the inverse is true: pairing a whole grain like quinoa with legumes like chickpeas provides higher quality and more complete protein.
- Nuts and Seeds are another great plant-based protein source. They’re easy to add to salads, stir fry, or just eat as a snack. Almonds, cashews, and sesame are just a few types of nuts and seeds that will help you reach your daily protein quota.
- Soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame have anywhere from 6 to 22 grams of protein per serving. They’re filling and add great texture to a range of dishes.
Thistle’s Commitment to Nutritious & Sustainable Protein
Culled from a wide variety of sources like legumes, ancient whole grains, tofu, nuts, and seeds, Thistle’s vegan meals include 60 grams of plant-based protein per day. Want an extra protein boost? We also offer locally-sourced, pasture-raised eggs as an add-on to your subscription. Sign up for a subscription today and enjoy easy access to delicious meal options like Black Rice & Pomegranate Pilaf, which includes protein from pistachios, tofu “feta,” toasted pepitas, and garlic garbanzo beans.
Who says plant-based proteins have to be boring and unfulfilling? Our mouths are watering just thinking about all the possibilities!