There’s a huge difference between how much protein we think we need per day and how much protein we actually need per day. I, too, have fallen into the trap of believing I was at risk of protein deficiency—especially considering my entirely plant-based diet. However, it turns out that I’m getting more than enough protein from plants alone.
As a vegan in America, the number one question I get is how I get enough protein on a plant-based diet. This led me to wondering: how much protein do I need per day? And how much protein per day can I get from plants?
Should you be worried about protein deficiency?
Western countries like America generally believe the more protein, the better. And yes, we do have specific protein requirements, but protein deficiency is extremely rare because of how easy it is to meet our daily protein needs. In fact, only 3% of Americans are deficient in protein.
Dr. Michael Gregor, the founder of NutritionFacts.org, urges Americans to think about fiber instead of protein. While only 3% of Americans aren’t meeting their protein requirements, a whopping 97% of Americans aren’t getting enough fiber. And 98% are deficient in potassium. Despite our parents telling us to eat our veggies, Dr. Gregor believes these nationwide nutrient deficiencies are due to inadequate plant food intake.
What about where your protein comes from?
What about the source of protein? Americans especially love milk-derived whey protein shakes and lean protein from animal sources but aren’t huge fans of plant-based protein sources. This is because plant-based proteins are often misconstrued for being too low in protein or not containing all of the essential amino acids that make up a complete protein source. It’s time to rethink our relationship with plants and protein because what we’ve been led to believe isn’t all true.
The reality is that how much protein per day satisfies your actual needs is far less than you think. What may be even more shocking to some people is how easily those needs are met with complete plant-based protein sources.
How much protein Americans eat per day
On the spectrum of how much protein is consumed per day, Americans are on the extreme side. Protein is a favorite macronutrient for many reasons: it’s the building blocks of the body, it helps replenish and grow muscles and it speeds wound healing. Bottom line: everyone needs protein to function.
While protein is necessary for many bodily functions, it’s not the only nutrient that Americans should be concerned about. In fact, widespread protein deficiency in America likely won’t happen any time soon. The average American consumes nearly twice the recommended amount of protein per day according to food surveys conducted by the USDA.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans even recommends that males between the ages of 14 and 70 reduce their intake of certain animal products. By reducing intake of protein from meat, poultry, and eggs, these males could increase intake of vegetables and other food groups they don’t consume enough of.
As consumption of protein continues to rise, so does the production and consumption of animal-based protein. Americans consume more than three times the global average of meat, with red meat accounting for 58% and processed meat accounting for 22% of meat consumption.
With Americans consuming almost twice their actual needs, you may be wondering what all the excess protein is used for. Since protein isn’t stored by the body, extra protein isn’t used efficiently by the body and actually imposes several burdens on the organs. Excessive protein consumption is also linked to increased risk of heart disease and kidney disease.
Needless to say, Americans are blowing protein requirements out of the water. How much protein you need per day isn’t rocket science, but the rise of high-protein diets has the average American convinced otherwise.
Our daily protein needs
So, how much protein do I need per day? It’s a simple question but with one with many myths surrounding it.
According to the USDA, how much protein you need per day depends on two factors: your sex and age. The USDA Dietary Guidelines generally recommends 46g of protein per day for adult females and 56g of protein per day for adult males.
Experts acknowledge that everybody is different. Although the protein recommendation for adults is between 46-56g, this figure may vary depending on your weight or calorie needs. For example, two people in the same sex and age group may have drastically different body weights, and therefore may have different protein needs.
For a more accurate estimate, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies says men and women need 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day.
Calculate your daily protein
One kilogram equals approximately 2.2 pounds. Since America uses the Imperial system, let’s convert that into figures we recognize using this formula:
your body weight (in pounds) ÷ 2.2 (to convert to kilograms) × 0.8g = how much protein per day you need in grams
Take a 130-pound woman, for example:
130 lbs ÷ 2.2 × 0.8 = 47g of protein.
Let’s do the same thing with a 150-pound man:
150 lbs ÷ 2.2 × 0.8 = 54g of protein.
There are certain cases where more protein per day may be necessary:
- People in their 60s or older may need 1.0-1.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight due to the risk of sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle mass with age.
- Athletes or people with a very active lifestyle may need extra protein, between 1.3g and 1.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight, for muscle repair.
- Bodybuilders can increase their protein consumption to more than 2.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight to reflect an increase in overall calories and build muscle mass.
Getting your protein from plants
If you’ve been getting your protein from animal products your entire life, switching to plant-based sources or incorporating more vegan meals may seem daunting. Rest assured because it’s a lot easier than you think.
Making plant foods your main source of protein isn’t such a crazy idea since all protein is actually made from plants. Animals don’t create protein, they just ingest it. Only plants have the ability to convert nitrogen into amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Dr. Milton Mills, M.D., a physician featured in the documentary “What The Health,” explains that all animal protein is simply recycled plant protein.
With animal protein, you’re getting nutrients from a secondary source—meaning that protein has been ingested, used, and recycled. With plant protein, you’re getting nutrients from a primary source, so that protein hasn’t been ingested or used yet.
Knowing this makes it a lot easier to understand how much protein per day your body needs and fulfill those needs with plant-based protein sources.
How to meet your protein needs with plant-based protein
Think of all the protein you’re currently consuming in your diet. People who are conscious about their health, fitness and protein intake might gravitate towards high-protein animal foods like chicken breast, egg whites and whey protein powder.
It’s very easy to swap out the protein sources you’re used to with plant foods without relying heavily on vegan protein powders. In fact, you can satisfy your daily protein needs on a vegan diet without giving it much thought or effort because you’re probably already consuming plant-based proteins without realizing it.
Plant-based foods that are high in protein include various grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Depending on how much protein per day you’re aiming for, you can meet your protein requirements with whole, unprocessed foods (a.k.a. no tofu or vegan protein powders necessary).
Plant foods that are particularly high in protein include:
- Lentils, 18g per 1 cup cooked
- Almonds, 15g per ½ cup whole
- Chickpeas, 15g per 1 cup cooked
- Black beans, 15g per 1 cup cooked
- Hemp seeds, 10g per 1 tablespoon raw
- Tofu, 10g per 1 cup cooked or raw
- Quinoa, 8g per 1 cup cooked
If you prefer to consume three large meals per day, aim for 15-20g of protein per meal. Accomplish this by topping your oats or smoothie with hemp seeds and almonds for breakfast. For lunch, toss quinoa in your salad, and swap chicken for tofu or black beans for dinner.
When switching up your diet, creating recipes that are both delicious and nutritious may have a small learning curve. This is where vegan food blogs and vegan cookbooks may come in handy:
High-protein vegan breakfast recipes
- Protein-Packed Tofu Scramble
- Hidden Greens Chocolate Protein Smoothie
- Creamy Chia Pudding
- Peanut Butter Overnight Oatmeal
- Southwest Breakfast Burrito
High-protein vegan lunch recipes
- Protein-Packed Buddha Bowl
- Southwestern Quinoa Pasta Salad
- Grilled Veggie Burrito Bowl
- Protein Fried Rice
- Chickpea Salad Sandwich
High-protein vegan dinner recipes
- Teriyaki Tofu Veggie Stir-Fry
- Lentil Walnut Tacos
- Kidney Bean Red Lentil Chili
- Black Bean Burgers
- Better Than Chipotle Vegan Burrito
It’s easy to go overboard on protein, but that doesn’t mean you should. Take a step back and consider how much protein you’re consuming. Compare to how much protein per day you actually need—you might be shocked to find out you may be consuming twice as much as your protein requirements.
If you’re thinking about switching to plant-based protein sources, there’s no need to be intimidated. Vegan protein is inexpensive, accessible, and easy to incorporate into your diet. Since all protein originates from plants, you may find many benefits from getting protein straight from the source.