Updated: Mar 21, 2022
If someone you were talking to was concerned about their protein intake if they moved to a plant-based diet (because they heard that plant-based protein isn't as "good" as an animal-based diet), what would you say to them?
If the person asked about how much protein they should be eating in a day, what would you say to them?
What are some examples of plant-based meals that would meet your optimal protein requirements?
Now that I've been on a plant-based diet for almost a decade, I'm tempted to cringe at those who question the adequacy of my protein intake. But I don't, because I remember having those same concerns at the beginning of my transition. As a multi-sport athlete, I also grew up in the protein-meat-gym culture and those misconceptions about protein are very difficult to reverse. I transitioned for health reasons, but I was still concerned that my athletic performance would be negatively impacted by my new plant-based diet. That's why I paid special attention to learning about what makes plant-protein different than animal protein and how to make sure I was getting enough. Turns out that meeting protein requirements is easier than most think.
Protein Quality: Plant-Based Versus Animal-Based Protein
What makes a protein source good or bad? Are there higher quality proteins out there? When considering protein sources, are your goals related to health, weight loss or athletic performance? Turns out that there are many different nuances to take into account when considering the "quality" and "quantity" of protein required.
To understand protein quality, one must understand what protein is. Fortunately, it isn't too complicated. Compare a protein molecule to a chain made out of individual links, or imagine a necklace made out of individual beads. Each link or bead is an amino acid. There are 20 different amino acids, with 11 of them being non-essential, meaning that we can synthesize them from scratch, and 9 of them that are considered essential, meaning that they must be obtained through food since our body doesn't have the biochemical machinery to make them. After passing through the stomach, these links, or beads, are separated from each other into their individual amino acids (or shorter dipeptide or tripeptide chains). At this stage, the body has no way of knowing whether an amino acid molecule is of plant or animal origin, and our body will use these individual amino acids in variable combinations and lengths to create new protein. Once protein is digested into its individual amino acids, plant protein is indistinguishable from animal protein. But determining a protein source's quality is not that simple. We don't just eat macronutrients, we eat food, and food comes as a package containing many other different macro