Michelle Davies, Nutrition Intern

Protein is one of three essential macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats are the other two) vital to our health. Protein lays down the foundation for our cells, organs, muscles, connective tissue, and bones. They also serve as enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Without protein we could not survive.

So how much protein do we really need? The answer may surprise you, because in fact, the majority of Americans consume way too much. Extreme athletes, pregnant women, and the elderly need additional protein in their diets, but the rest of us need much less than most think. Some studies have shown an average American consumes upwards of 100 grams of protein per day, whereas most only need about half that amount. Additionally, excess animal protein in the diet has been linked to various ailments like osteoporosis, kidney stones, and certain cancers, which is why it is so important to be aware of how much protein we actually consume. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. An easy way to determine how much you need is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. For example, a 150-lb person would need about 54 grams of protein per day.

When it comes to choosing what sources of protein to include in our diets, it is important to note that not all types are equal. Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids, which are either essential (cannot be made by the body) or nonessential (can be made from other amino acids). Animal proteins like meat, dairy, and eggs are considered complete proteins because they contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Many plant-based proteins, such as nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, and legumes, are considered incomplete proteins because they lack adequate amounts of one or more essential amino acids. Fortunately, for vegans and vegetarians, our bodies are capable of storing amino acids for future use, so as long as a wide variety of protein-rich foods are consumed each day, the body will be able to combine these amino acids to make proteins.

Consider utilizing plant foods as a source of protein in your diet. They are almost always less expensive, lower in calories, better for the environment, and offer a wider range of nutritional benefits compared to animal proteins.

Here are some excellent plant-based sources of complete proteins:

  1. Quinoa – Loaded with fiber, iron, manganese, and magnesium, this ancient seed [which is eaten as a grain] is great in salads and works well as a substitute for rice or pasta. Quinoa has 8 grams of protein per 1 cup cooked.
  2. Soybeans– Commonly consumed as soy milk, tofu, tempeh, miso, and edamame, studies have shown that populations with diets high in soy protein and low animal protein have less prostate and breast cancer than other populations. Be sure to choose organic and non-GMO soy products. The amount of protein will vary depending on the soy product, but it ranges from 7 grams in one cup of soy milk to 18 grams in 3.5 ounces of tempeh.
  3. Chia seeds – Not only are chia seeds high in protein, fiber, iron, calcium, and antioxidants, but they are also the one of the highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids. Their thick, gel-like consistency that develops when combined with liquid makes them the perfect addition to smoothies, oatmeal, and baked goods. They have 4 grams of protein in two tablespoons.