Promoting Healthy Protein

Protein forms many body structures, including muscles, skin, and hair. It also forms enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions throughout your body. Protein molecules are composed of amino acids.

How much protein do we need?

During World War II, Lydia J. Roberts, Hazel Stiebeling, and Helen S. Mitchell were part of a committee established by the United States National Academy of Sciences in order to investigate nutrition issues. They surveyed all available data, created allowances for calories and 8 nutrients, and submitted them to experts for review. The final set of guidelines, called RDAs for Recommended Dietary Allowances, were accepted in 1941. The allowances were meant to provide superior nutrition for military personnel and civilians, including those needing food assistance, so they included a “margin of safety.” Because of food rationing during the war, the food guides also took food availability into account. The committee was renamed the Food and Nutrition Board in 1941, and they subsequently revised the RDAs every five to ten years. In the early 1950s, United States Department of Agriculture nutritionists made a new set of guidelines that also included the number of servings of each food group in order to make it easier for people to receive their RDAs of each nutrient.

The Reference Daily Intake or Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) is the daily intake level of a nutrient that is considered to be sufficient to meet the requirements of 97–98% of healthy people. The RDI is used to determine the Daily Value (DV) of foods, which is printed on nutrition facts labels in the United States and Canada, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Health Canada. The RDI is based on the older Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) from 1968, and is still used for nutrition labeling.

The RDA recommends that we take in 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram that we weigh (or about 0.36 grams of protein per pound that we weigh). For me, that would come to 40.32 grams. This recommendation includes a generous safety factor for most people.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) was introduced in 1997 in order to broaden the RDAs. The DRI is a system of nutrition recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Both the United States and Canada use the DRI system. The DRI values are not currently used in nutrition labeling, where the older RDIs are still used.

You can calculate your DRI for protein and other nutrients here. My DRI for protein is 41 grams (pretty close to the old RDA); my husband’s DRI is 73 grams. For me, that means that just 12% of my calories need to come from protein; for my husband, it’s less than 11%. And that need wouldn’t change much if we were more or less active than we are now.  Athletes do not need much more protein than the rest of us.

So am I able to meet that requirement for protein on a vegan diet? You bet. My typical daily food intake looks like this:

Breakfast: steel-cut oats with berries and ground flax seeds

Morning snack: fruit

Lunch: huge salad of baby spinach, grated carrots, radishes, beets, sunflower seeds, and Pomegranate Vinaigrette, plus home-made vegetable and legume soup, such as Lentil Minestrone

Afternoon snack: more fruit

Dinner: brown rice, legumes, and steamed kale

I added all this up in the portions I actually eat, and it came out to 1,431 calories and over 62 grams of protein (14% of the calories). There’s plenty of room in there for a little organic dark chocolate and red wine.

So, without even trying, I get 125% of the protein I need, all from delicious fruits, vegetables, and seeds. In fact, if I ate nothing but 4.85 pounds of baked potatoes per day, I would get enough calories (2,068) and more than enough protein (46 grams). I’d get even more protein if I ate nothing but 14 2/3 cups of cooked broccoli per day: 2,041 calories and over 54 grams of protein. If I could manage to pack in 14 1/3 cups of cooked brown rice in a day, I’d get my 2,041 calories and over 72 grams of protein.

A 200-Calorie serving of: Provides this many grams of protein:
Watercress 42
Alfalfa sprouts 35
Nori 35
Gazpacho 31
Mustard greens, cooked 30
Rapini 29
Basil 27
Fiddlehead ferns 27
Bok choy, cooked 26
Spinach, cooked 26
Spinach, raw 25
Spinach, canned 22
Bean sprouts 23
Asparagus, canned 23
Broccoli, frozen, chopped, cooked 22
Chinese cabbage 21
Broccoli, raw 21
Soybeans, cooked 21
Cauliflower, raw 19
Beet greens, cooked 19
Chard, raw 19
Crimini mushrooms 19
Cilantro, raw 19
Napa cabbage, cooked 19
Nopales, cooked 18
Hearts of palm, canned 18
Turnip greens and turnips, frozen, cooked 18
Mushrooms, white, microwaved 18
Brussels sprouts, frozen, cooked 17
Okra, cooked 17
Collards, frozen, cooked 17
Zucchini, cooked 17
Sugar snap peas, raw 16
Cauliflower, cooked 16
Lentils, cooked 16
Radishes, white icicle, raw 16
Fava beans, canned 15
Wheat germ, toasted 15
Zucchini, raw 15
Soybeans, roasted 15
Savoy cabbage, raw 15
Chicory greens, raw 15
Endive, raw 15
Tomatoes, orange, raw 15
Romaine lettuce, raw 15
Split peas, cooked 14
Shiitake mushrooms, stir-fried 14
Mung beans, cooked 14
Turnip greens, canned 14
Great northern beans, cooked 14
Yardlong beans, cooked 14
Snow peas, cooked 14
White beans, cooked 14
Cowpeas, cooked 14
Artichokes, cooked 14
Cranberry beans, cooked 14
Red kidney beans, cooked 14
Broccoli, cooked 14
Kale, cooked 14
Black beans, cooked 13
Kale, raw 13
Yellow tomatoes, raw 13
Iceberg lettuce, raw 13
Green peas, canned 13
Baby lima beans, cooked 13
Pepitas, roasted 13
Pinto beans, cooked 13
Refried beans, canned 12
Radicchio, raw 12
Kohlrabi, cooked 12
Banana pepper, raw 12
Dandelion greens 12
Sweet peppers, cooked 12
Adzuki beans, cooked 12
Vegetarian chili, canned 12
Green beans, canned 12
Scallions, raw 11
Fast food side salad 11
Peas and carrots, canned 11
Salsa 11
Tomato sauce, canned 11
Tomatoes, sun-dried 11
Serrano pepper, raw 11
Chickpeas, cooked 11
Whole-wheat toast 11
Mixed vegetables, canned 11
Tomatoes, red, cooked 11
Black bean soup, canned 11
Pea soup, canned 10
Green tomatoes, raw 10
Tomatoes, crushed, canned 10
Baked beans, canned 10
Multi-grain bread 10
Green hot chili pepers, raw 10
Pickles 10
Winter squash 10
Cucumber, raw 10
Pimento, canned 10
Frozen mixed vegetables, cooked 10
Hummus 10
Turnip greens, raw 9
Peanuts, roasted 9
Puffed wheat 9
Hot sauce 9
Succotash 9
Red cabbage, raw 9
Tomatoes with green chiles, canned 9
Tomato juice, canned 9
Oat bran bread 9
Oats 9
Celery 9
Whole wheat pasta, cooked 9
Radishes, raw 9
Oat bran bagel 8
Enchilada sauce 8
Chickpeas, canned 8
Wheat bread 8
V8 8
Peanut butter, chunk style 8
Sourdough bread 8

As you can see, it is very easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some, and often plenty, protein. Many fruits, plus refined sugars, fats, and alcohol are low in protein, so if you’re living on bananas, cola, frosting, or whiskey, you probably aren’t getting enough protein. However, vegans who eat varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough calories to maintain their weight. The DRI calculator can help you determine special requirements during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, and childhood.

With protein, as with chocolate and wine, more is not necessarily better. Animal protein and protein supplements are expensive, unnecessary, and even harmful for some people. There are no known health advantages to consuming a high-protein diet. In fact, diets that are high in protein, especially animal protein, may even increase the risk of osteoporosis  and kidney disease.

44 thoughts on “Promoting Healthy Protein

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