Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Protein please... How much do we really need?

When I tell people that I am a vegetarian, often the first question I get is “where do you get your protein?" In our meat-focused society, it is often assumed that meat is the only good source of protein. Another misconception is that we need to consume a lot of protein, practically making it the staple of our diet. In actuality, it is not difficult to consume sufficient amounts of protein, and many people consume much more protein than necessary.

Protein is essential for the proper functioning of our bodies. It makes up approximately 16 percent of our total body weight, and is in constant use by our bodies.  Protein is used to repair and build muscle tissue, synthesize hormones, and is the main component of hair, skin, connective tissue, and is important for the healthy functioning of our red blood cells. Also, it is important that we continually consume protein, as our bodies have little capacity to store it; within only a couple of days of not consuming protein, our bodies begin to break down our muscles to compensate for our bodies’ protein needs.

However, this should not frighten people into over-consuming protein. While our bodies do need protein, too much is not better. When our bodies digest protein, acids are released that are usually neutralized by calcium (as well as other buffering agents in the blood).  If too much protein is consumed, calcium might be pulled from the bones to adequately neutralize the protein.  Studies have linked consuming large amounts of protein with a greater propensity to incur broken bones.  In addition, eating too much animal protein has been directly linked to the formation of kidney stones and has been linked to colon and liver cancer.

The recommended amount of protein for adults to consume is 0.8 - 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day.  This means that a 60 kilogram woman (132 pounds) needs only 48-60 grams of protein per day.  A 80 kilogram male (176 pounds) needs about 64 - 80 grams of protein. Very active adults, such as those engaging in endurance exercise (eg. long distance running or cycling) or in heavy resistance exercise (eg: body building) require more protein.  Endurance athletes need about 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight and strength training athletes need somewhat more, 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.  However, these enhanced amounts are only necessary for very serious athletes who are constantly breaking down and repairing muscles due to heavy exercise loads.  For most active adults, even those who engage in regular cardio exercise and strength training, the general protein guidelines are sufficient.

In addition, both endurance and strength training athletes need to consume sufficient amounts of carbohydrates and have enough glycogen stores to fuel their workouts.  During exercise, the body uses these sources to provide energy and to fuel the muscles.  Therefore, athletes need to ensure that they consume enough carbohydrates before exercise to provide energy for their workout, and after exercise to restore glycogen levels depleted through exercise.  During longer intensity workouts (longer than 1 or 1.5 hours), athletes need to ensure that they consume easily absorbable sources of carbohydrates to maintain energy (eg: sports drinks, gels or dried fruits).  Protein is also important to consume following exercise, not only to help build and repair muscles, but also to aid in enhancing glycogen replacement after exercise by stimulating insulin, which transports glucose from the blood to the muscles.

When we examine the amount of protein in foods, it shows that we can easily get enough protein from a vegetarian diet.  Protein is readily found in beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy products and whole grains, such as quinoa, kamut, spelt, oats and rice. Recently, I examined how much protein I regularly consume in a day, and found that even without trying, I was consuming enough protein to meet the dietary requirements.

My days usually consisted of:

            Breakfast: oatmeal with fruit and nuts; yogurt, fruit and granola; cottage cheese with fruit and nuts
Lunch: a sandwich (whole-grain rye, spelt or kamut); salad with eggs, spelt, kamut and seeds, beans or chickpeas; a humous wrap; a greek-style wrap, with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, grated carrots, feta cheese, balsamic vinegar, sunflower seeds and cottage cheese; leftovers (soup, a rice or pasta dish etc)
Snacks: peanut butter and jam on crackers or bread, yogurt and fruit, almonds, an apple or other fruit, an energy bar
Dinner: burritos with black beans; potatoes and eggs; tofu and vegetables; stir-fried rice with vegetables and eggs; vegetable soup with bread and cheese; veggie chilli; a pasta dish with chickpeas; curry with rice; lentil soup; rice and lentils

Most foods contain at least a small amount of protein, and if a balanced diet is eaten, getting enough protein is not difficult.  Consuming more non-animal sources of protein is also beneficial, as you get the benefits of protein, as well as other vitamins and minerals, without the added saturated fat that is found in animal sources.

Here’s a sample of high protein foods (all cooked):
Lentils: 1 cup = 18 g protein
Chickpeas: 1 cup = 15 g protein
Black beans: 1 cup = 15 g protein
Kamut pasta: 1 cup = 13 g protein
Cottage cheese: ½ cup = 17 – 22 g protein
Soymilk: 1 cup = 6 g protein
Quinoa: 1 cup = 8 g protein
Kamut: ½ cup = 10 g protein
Eggs: 1 = 6 g protein
Almonds: ¼ cup = 6 g protein

In future blogs, I will provide more recipe ideas for meals high in vegetarian sources of protein.


  1. Great work, Sonja! I love everything about your new blog, from the design to the content! Thank you for talking about your daily diet and vegetarian protein sources--very enlightening and inspirational. Can't wait for the recipes! Happy Blogging! Best wishes, Rebecca.

  2. Excellent information, Sonja! Thank you! I appreciate it!