Oh, my word. The amount of time’s I’ve had this question. And the funny things is that I’m totally okay with it, because I used to think the exact same thing.
Current protein requirements for athletic performance sit in the range of 1.4-1.8g/kg of bodyweight (1). So for me, currently sitting at 106kg, this is a recommended intake of roughly 148g-190g of protein per day. Many studies conclude that less is also satisfactory (although not necessarily optimal), and very few show than going over that range has any additional benefits, apart from exceptional circumstances like cutting for a show (if you’re a bodybuilder or something silly like that).
Is it essential? Hell yeah it is. Just the obsession with protein intake in the general fitness community is diabolical. Now, I don’t count my calories frequently, and I don’t actually encourage it, as I think it can create a negative relationship/borderline obsession with food (I’ll save that for another post). I literally know dudes who take their scales with them when they’re eating out because they don’t want to go over their calories. Shit is bonkers to me. But, it can be really interesting to track the odd day here and there to give you a (very approximate) idea of what your actual intake is. Every time I do this I’m always pleasantly surprised that I’m not slipping into the total protein deficiency and certain death I once thought would be associated with a fully plant-based diet. Again, I’m not a bodybuilder, and if you are, you may have different practices.
Another thing I hear quite often is to do with amino acids, complete proteins, and plants not being a complete protein. Researchers can measure how much of a specific food ingested is retained by the body for muscle protein synthesis. In the case of one popular scoring method, this measure is called “biological value. ” In early studies, a chicken’s egg white was used as the standard whole food source of protein and assigned a reference value of 100. On German food labeling, the word for Protein is ‘Eiweiß’, which literally means Egg White. Other proteins were compared to egg and given values accordingly. This “biological value” varies amongst food sources, but generally on this scale, animal proteins were given higher values than plant proteins. Absorption of plant protein in short timeframes may be reduced by other compounds present in plant foods, such as fiber (which doesn’t affect total protein absorption). This scale has been the main source of the enduring myth that animal proteins are somehow more valuable than those from plants.
The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) was named the preferred method to measure protein utilisation by the WHO and most other reputable organisations, and gives equal scores to eggs, whey, soy, and many combined plant foods (2) (such as legumes & grains/beans & rice, grains & vegetables, etc). Furthermore, studies looking at actual training results with either plant or animal based protein supplementation show no difference in performance between the two (3). Athletes can for sure obtain sufficient, high-quality protein from plant sources. Animal proteins being superior is an outdated idea.
You heard me mention fiber up above. Fiber is a nutrient of increasing importance, and the more studies that are being done on gut health and our microbiome, the more it’s importance is emphasised. Current estimations are that the less than 3% of people eating a ‘standard diet’ are getting adequate amounts of fiber per day, where recommendations are between 30-45g/day. The majority of vegetarian and vegan diets consume more-than-adequate amounts of fiber (4). Dietary fiber has continuously shown protective effects in population studies with the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and various cancers as well as high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugars (5). So the question shouldn’t be where do vegans get their protein from, it should be where the fuck are you getting your fiber from!
If you’d like me to talk more about high-protein vegan foods, and some of my staple go-to meals, leave a comment on the post, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org