The Ultimate Guide to Plant-Based Protein
Protein is the macronutrient of the moment.
Forget low fat, zero-carb, or gluten free.
How about protein-infused waffles, protein-packed BBQ potato chips, and even high-protein ice cream!
It’s fair to say we are protein obsessed.
And it’s not hard to see why.
Protein builds strong muscles, healthy joints, and bones, and helps maintain hormonal balance and enzyme production leading to a host of benefits including increased energy, boosted immune function, and fat loss.
But like many things in life, more is not always better.
So let’s draw the curtain back on this amazing little molecule for a moment and get real about our good friend, protein.
What is protein, exactly?
The human body is made up of about 100 trillion cells.
Each cell has thousands of different proteins.
Each protein is built from 22 known amino acids. 
Amino acids are combinations of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sometimes sulfur.
Nearly 17 percent of our body is made up of proteins. 
Proteins go by many different names: enzymes, hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, insulin, hemoglobin, collagen, and the muscular contractile agents myosin and actin are all proteins.
How do we get all these different proteins? Where do they come from, exactly?
Through different combinations of amino acids, the ‘building blocks’ of protein.
The 22 different amino acids are alanine, arginine, asparagines, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, proline, serine, threonine, tryptophan, tyrosine, valine and the two newest, selenocysteine and pyrrolysine. 
These 22 amino acids are combined in thousands of different ways to create the thousands of different proteins needed to keep us alive and well.
Why is protein so important?
Protein is not just responsible for giving us healthy muscles, bones, skin, and hair.
Proteins also serve as the basic structural molecules of the body and play a key role in nearly every biological function.
Enzymes—a type of protein—are catalysts that build and break down molecules.
Hormones—another type of protein—bind DNA and regulate things like the reproductive system.
Proteins are the silent workforce keeping us alive: antibodies fight infection, neurotransmitters like dopamine regulate mood and energy, insulin helps regulate blood glucose, and hemoglobin transports oxygen from our lungs to our cells.
And of course, the proteins that cause our muscles to contract are myosin and actin which in combination work their magic every time you take a walk, go for a run or brush your teeth.
What happens when I eat protein?
Our bodies can create nearly all of the proteins we need to survive, like enzymes, antibodies, neurotransmitters etc. from amino acids we either synthesize ourselves or eat in the form of dietary protein.
Remember, we create the proteins we need with just 22 amino acids, the building blocks of all protein.
The only hitch is that humans cannot synthesize 9 of the amino acids we need to survive.
So, we need to get those 9 amino acids from our diet to make the magic happen.
We call the 9 the ‘essential’ amino acids. 
The 9 essential amino acids we need from food are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
The fact of the matter is, around 99% of the natural, whole food we eat has protein in it.
99% of whole foods contain protein
When we eat food with protein, our bodies break down that protein into its component amino acids.
Then, based on our needs, our body recombines those amino acids into one of the thousands of different kinds of proteins we need to survive.
Plant-based v. Animal-based Protein
All protein—both animal and plant-based—is made from different combinations of the same 22 amino acids.
As we’ve discussed, when we ingest protein, regardless of the source, our bodies break it down into the basic amino acid components.
In a sense, our bodies don’t care where they get those amino acids from.
As long as it gets the amino acids it needs, our body can create all the protein it needs.
However, amino acids are not the whole story.
Ingesting animal protein brings some significant negatives with it like cholesterol, antibiotics, added hormones, bacteria, parasites, and carcinogens. 
Plant protein on the other hand, not only lacks the negatives associated with animal protein, it actually provides added health benefits like healthy fiber, antioxidants, and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. 
Beyond the health benefits, there are two more issues at play when choosing your protein: the environment and animal welfare.
Those issues are beyond the scope of this article, but the short versions of the arguments go something like this:
From an environmental perspective, animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 56% of U.S. water consumption, 80% of U.S. antibiotics use, and over 90% of Amazonian deforestation, and the real possibility of fishless oceans by 2048. 
From an animal welfare perspective, the atrocities that happen on factory farms—the source of 99% of animal protein we eat —include filthy, crowded, diseased living conditions, routine abuse, torture and mutilation by workers, denial of basic medical care, and finally, millions of living creatures suffering a painful, terrifying, cruel death while fully conscious. 
Again, these issues are complex and beyond our focus here.
But if you’re interested in learning more, the links in the notes below are a good place to start.
Plant-based ‘Complete’ Protein?
Back to the science.
A ‘complete’ protein is a food source containing all 9 essential amino acids.
There are many fruits and vegetables that are ‘complete’ proteins, including carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, brussels sprouts, kale, peas, tomatoes, bananas and more.
Many plant proteins are also far beyond complete proteins, containing nearly all 22 amino acids—just as robust as any animal protein—including chia seeds, hemp seeds, quinoa, soy, and spirulina.
However, there is actually no reason to try to get all 22 amino acids from a single food source.
Research has shown that people who eat a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day get more than enough amino acids—including all 9 essential amino acids. 
Food combining to get a complete protein is a myth.
What about bio-availability?
All protein is not created equal.
Bio-availability refers to how much protein from a food source your body is able to process.
Plant proteins can rival animal proteins when it comes to bio-availability, but due to the fiber in plant cell walls, their absorption rates can vary dramatically.
Most of us do not need to worry at all about these minor differences.
But anyone interested in building muscle and improving athletic performance and recovery should be aware of these aspects of the proteins we eat.
The following chart uses PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) to compare the quality of different protein sources.
PDCAAS looks at the amino acid content of the source, the amino acid requirement by humans, and our ability to digest these amino acids. 
Knowledge is power.
Read your labels and make an informed choice.
How much protein do I need?
Like sleep and hydration, protein requirements vary from person to person based on a variety of factors like body weight, activity level, and genetics.
But there are some good guidelines to get us in the ballpark.
According to the American Dietetic Association, average, active adults need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) of LEAN body weight [that is subtracting your body fat] per day. 
This is typically about 56g for men, 45g for women.*
In contrast, the National Health and Nutrition Survey found that the average American male consumes 102g, and American women, 70g. That’s almost double to ADA recommendation.
Americans consume almost 2X the protein they need
If you are very active, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of total body weight per day for very active athletes and weight lifters. 
Will too much protein cause kidney damage, cancer or disease? Not likely. 
Excess protein is either excreted as waste or stored as fat. Again, more is not better.
Athletes, in particular, need to pay attention to protein intake timing.
In addition to spreading protein intake throughout the day, athletes in heavier training cycles should take on protein both before and after training in a 3:1 to 4:1 carb-protein ratio.
Amounts will vary, again by body weight, training cycle, age, and sport.
How can I meet my protein requirements on a plant-based diet?
It’s easier than you might think.
Let’s look at a quick example.
To make it interesting, let’s use an extreme example, Jason, a 6 ft., 200 lb. athlete in his 20s, training for an upcoming Crossfit competition or obstacle course race like Spartan. (If you are smaller, lighter, or have more endurance-oriented goals, your needs will obviously be significantly less, so buckle up!)
Jason is following the top end of the ACSM guidelines, so he’s looking for 1.7g/kg or about 153 grams of protein per day. (Remember, he’s working out 2+ hrs./day and more on the weekends!)
At this activity level Jason needs about 3800 Kcal/day, so if he’s going to eat 6 meals per day including a pre and post workout shake or meal, Jason will need about 25g of protein and 635 Kcal per meal.
Difficult eating only plants you say?
Let’s break it down:
Breakfast: 26g protein, 620 Kcal.
1 Cup Oats-quinoa with 2T peanut butter, chia seeds, and unsweetened almond milk:
Lunch: 55g protein, 800 Kcal
Big bowl – 3/4 C Black beans, half avocado, 1/2 C mixed veggies, 1 C wild rice, 1/4 C cashews, Beyond Meat chick’n strips, topped with Sriracha and nutritional yeast.
Pre-workout: 12g protein, 230 Kcal.
VeganSmart protein + 2 C regular almond milk.
Post-workout: 12g protein, 230 Kcal.
VeganSmart protein + 2 C regular almond milk.
Dinner: 40g protein, 1470 Kcal.
Pasta with red sauce, Simple Meatballs, and quinoa & kale salad with almonds, olives, and hempseed oil. So Delicious – Cashew Milk Salted Caramel Ice Cream, 0.75 cup
Bed: 31g protein, 450 Kcal
VeganSmart protein, 2 T peanut butter + 2 C unsweetened almond milk.
Total: 176g protein, 3800 Kcal — BOOM![Jason will be happy he’s over his protein goal for the day. I will gently suggest he shift his macros toward healthy fats and carbs to maximize his recovery and muscle hypertrophy. Progress, not perfection.]
Remember 99% of the plants we eat every day have protein.
Clean, strong, delicious protein is everywhere!
Here’s a quick-reference guide to the protein content of some tasty, nutritious plant-based whole foods!
Now go out and eat some plants.
And kick some butt.
*Special populations like pregnant women, those over the age of 50, and plant-based eaters may need slightly more protein. See here: http://bit.ly/2tpRRIz