Can I get enough protein eating a plant-based diet?

Do you eat a super healthy diet, like Pritikin, that is mostly plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans? Congratulations!

But are you wondering about your protein requirements, and if you’re getting enough protein? Here’s guidance from the physicians and dietitians at the Pritikin Longevity Center, experts in nutrition and healthy living.

Are you getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet?

Are you getting enough protein on a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet?

Can I get enough protein eating a plant-based diet?

Absolutely. First of all, keep in mind that the protein requirement for humans is highest in infancy. Adults need a much smaller percentage of their calories from protein than infants do, and even infants don’t need that much.

“Most people are surprised to learn that human breast milk, certainly ideal for infants, is actually lower in protein (only about 6 to 7% of calories) than most whole grains, vegetables, and even some fruits,” notes Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN, Director of Nutrition and educator at the Pritikin Longevity Center.

Vegetarian Protein, Vegan Protein

“If a higher protein intake is desired, there are plenty of excellent protein sources in the vegetable world, including legumes, such as edamame [young soybeans], lentils, and all other beans like pinto, garbanzo, and black beans, as well as peas. Also, tofu works as a great protein source,” recommends Tom Rifai, MD, FACP, member of the Pritikin Scientific Advisory Board and Medical Director of Metabolic Nutrition & Weight Management at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Michigan.

Protein and Satiety

Protein is vital. Recent evidence, including the OmniHeart Trial,1 shows that including more healthier sources of protein – vegetable as well as animal sources – may help provide more satiety per calorie, which means that healthy, protein-rich foods can help us curb appetite and feel full, but at a low calorie cost. That’s important because it can help people, particularly those with the metabolic syndrome, lose excess weight, better control their cholesterol and blood pressure, and improve insulin sensitivity.

Do I have the metabolic syndrome?

It's important for people with the metabolic syndrome to eat enough protein. Find out if you have the metabolic syndrome

10 To 35% Of Calories From Protein

The acceptable macronutrient distribution range2 (AMDR) of the Institute of Medicine accepts anywhere from 10 to 35% of calories from protein. So protein is vital, yes, but there is no chance you won’t get enough on the Pritikin Eating Plan, which includes fish, white poultry, lean game meat like bison or venison, nonfat dairy, and egg whites as well as many vegan options that are protein-rich.

Our U.S. government’s recommended daily intake (RDA) is at least 0.8 to 1.0 gram of protein for every kilogram of ideal body weight, which means that a 154-pound person (70 kg) needs at least 56 to 70 grams of protein a day. “Some people may benefit from a bit more protein than this minimal level, so it’s best to discuss your optimal protein intake with your personal physician or your physician and dietitian at Pritikin,” recommends Dr. Rifai.

To get a sense of the number of protein grams on a typical day on the Pritikin Eating Plan, here is a breakdown:

Pritikin Eating Plan

Protein Grams

5 servings of vegetables
(5 is the minimum amount of recommended servings of vegetables on the Pritikin Eating Plan. You are encouraged to eat more.)
About 7
4 servings of fruit
(4 is the minimum amount recommended.)
About 6
5 servings of unrefined complex carbohyrates
(5 is the minimum amount recommended. Examples include oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, beans, and whole-wheat pasta.)
About 24
2 servings of nonfat dairy
(such as nonfat milk and nonfat yogurt)
About 21
1 serving of lean animal meat
4 ounces cooked.  Examples include fish, white skinless poultry, and game meat like bison.
About 30
Egg whites (2)About 7

Total Grams of Protein

About 95

Lean Sources Of Protein

What’s most important is making sure to keep your sources of protein very lean, and very low or devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat. “Otherwise, the benefits of more protein could easily be outweighed by the protein source’s saturated fat and/or cholesterol content. This would be the case for most beef, pork, lamb, whole eggs, whole milk, and even most low-fat dairy products,” warns Gomer.

“All the above, plus poultry with the skin or dark meat and even too much fish (greater than the Pritikin Eating Plan’s guidelines) can raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in the arteries, and so are best avoided.”

The Pritikin Eating Plan’s guidelines for animal flesh like seafood, white poultry, and lean game meat are no more than 3½ to 4 ounces a day.

One could ask a mountain gorilla if he is getting enough protein on a plant based diet to build and maintain muscle mass.

Vegetarian diets decrease muscle mass?  We think not.

Is Vegetable Protein Lower In Quality Than Animal Protein?

The popular (but unscientific) claim that vegetable protein is lower in quality than animal protein is meaningless if you:

  • Eat a variety of foods,
  • Get on average more than 10% of your calories from protein, and
  • Are maintaining a healthy body weight.

Protein is basically a mixture of amino acids that can be found in the vegetable or animal protein worlds. If you eat an appropriate variety of protein-rich foods, even if you are a vegan (you eat no animal foods, meat or dairy), and if you consume the targeted amount of protein determined between you and your physician, you will be getting plenty of healthy protein.

Maintaining Muscle

“Your protein consumption should include adequate amounts of the branched-chain amino acids, plentiful in legumes as well as lean meat and nonfat dairy foods,” says Dr. Rifai.

Recent research3 has found that branched-chain amino acids may be particularly important for maintaining muscle in aging adults. They are found in both animal and vegetable foods.”

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1 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2008; 108 (2): 257.
3 The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 2014; 69 (6): 717.

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