If you don’t eat meat, but do eat dairy products and/or eggs, know that dairy products and eggs are also very good sources of protein. However, you likely will also get some of your protein from plant-sources, so read on.
If you eat no animal products, you will obviously need to gain your protein from plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. There is a longer list of plant-based proteins (and also non-meat but animal-derived proteins) here.
Protein foods from animal sources (meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, etc.) have all the types of amino acids (protein components) we need. Most protein foods from plant sources have most but not all of the types of amino acids we need. (Learn more about amino acids here).
However, the amino acids missing from one plant food can be filled in by eating a plant food that does have those amino acids. If you are eating a variety of plant-foods you will get enough variety of amino acids to fill your needs. That’s why it is so important as a vegan, or someone who doesn’t eat many animal products to make sure you are eating your protein foods and also whole grains and vegetables.
Whole grains and vegetables have a small amount of protein that will help you meet your protein needs, both the amount and types of amino acids you need. You don’t need to keep track of which amino acids you are eating, just make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables. This also helps makes sure you get enough of other nutrients, like calcium and iron, that are less abundant in plant foods than animal foods.
As far as the amount of plant-based protein you need to eat, the amounts of protein to eat are the same, (read this post about how much protein to eat) but the volume may be higher. This is because the plant foods that provide protein also contain more carbohydrates, fiber, and water than most animal proteins.
For example, to get the same amount of protein as 1 oz of meat, you would need to eat about 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/2 cup cooked lentils, 1/4 cup nuts, or about 2 oz tofu. The protein needs are the same, but the physical portion size is larger. However, along with the protein, you will usually be getting carbohydrates, protein, water, and other nutrients.
In addition, some of the nutrients that are a concern for eating too many animal proteins (like saturated fat and sodium) are naturally low in plant-based protein, so you rarely need to worry about eating too much plant-based protein. The exception would be meat substitutes, or other substitute products, which are often high in sodium or less healthy fats- always check the package.
The main takeaway: your protein needs are the same regardless of where your protein comes from, but if you eat only plants make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables.
If you want more ideas for plant-based meals and recipes, check out Marisa Moore, RDN, a fellow dietitian who posts mostly vegetarian (and often vegan) recipes or Kate of Cookie and Kate, a resource I have used many times for plant-based recipes. I also have a NEW vegan/vegetarian meal plan you can purchase as an instant download here.
There are many many great resources out there, these are just a few I’ve been enjoying lately.
Read about which foods are considered protein foods here. Read about protein and amino acids here.
As always, this post is meant to be informative and educational and is not a prescription or recommendation for you as I cannot know your individual situation and needs. If you have concerns about your protein intake and want a specific recommendation, speak with a dietitian!
My goal in writing these blogs is to give you practical, easy to understand, not overwhelming nutrition information. Breaking down how to eat protein has been more difficult than I expected because there are so many different opinions about what the best amount of protein to eat is.
While this can be confusing and overwhelming, my takeaway for you is this: there is a wide range of protein intake that can be healthy. The amount of protein you eat can be flexible and for the most part can be adjusted to your preferences. (It is harder to get it wrong than a lot of people would like you to think it is.)
Two fast and easy ways to know how much protein to eat:
MyPlate is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended eating pattern. It isn’t perfect, but if about 1/4 of what you eat is protein food, you will most likely get enough protein – pretty easy to visualize if most of your meals are eaten on a plate.
If you only eat plant protein (vegans, and maybe some vegetarians), this still applies, but it is especially important for you to make sure you eat plenty of whole grains and vegetables as well. Keep reading here, but check out this post next.
Another super quick and easy method is to aim for about a palm-sized serving of protein foods with each meal. I like this method because it scales to the size of each person. A large person (who will need more protein) generally has a larger hand size. A tiny toddler (who needs less protein) has a tiny palm.
These two illustrations are also helpful because there is some research showing that eating your protein throughout the day (with each meal) is more beneficial than eating it all at once. (As your body uses protein throughout the day for many many purposes)
Now, as I said above, the amount of protein in a healthy diet can be very flexible, so you can eat more protein than this and totally still be healthy, as long as you aren’t excluding other necessary foods.
Do you like to do math and want to calculate the amount of protein you need? This section is for you.
(If you don’t like math, just skip to the next section 🙂 )
The minimum amount of protein required to prevent loss of lean body mass (muscle) in adults with no physical activity is generally calculated by dietitians as 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. (0.8g protein x kg of body weight). Factoring in a minimal amount of physical activity raises needs to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. In case you don’t feel like converting kilos to pounds, this works out to about 0.45g of protein per pound of body weight. If someone is critically ill, more active, or pregnant, this amount could increase, up to 2.0g/kg.
In terms of actual food, 1g per kg works out to about 1 oz of “meat equivalents” per 15 lbs of body weight. This is a rough estimate best suited to finding the base amount of protein you should eat. If you are concerned about your protein intake, or have questions, consult a dietitian! (I know I said it before – but it’s important! Also that’s what dietitians are here for!)
1 oz “meat equivalent =
1 oz meat, poultry or fish – about matchbox-sized
About 7g protein=
1 8-oz glass of cow milk or soy milk*
1 oz cheese – about thumb sized
1/2 cup beans or lentils
1/4 cup or 1 oz nuts or seeds
2 Tbsp peanut butter or other nut butter
1/4 cup Greek yogurt or 1 cup regular yogurt (check the label)
2 oz tofu
*almond milk, rice milk, and other alternative milks generally have less protein, check the label.
Whole grains and vegetables also contribute a small amount of protein (2-3g per serving)
There are some people who believe that everyone should eat more than this amount, and there are studies showing benefits of higher protein intake – such as improved muscle maintenance and function in older adults (1-1.2 g per kg body weight), improved satiety, and improved blood glucose control, among other things. Most people can eat up to 2g protein per kilogram of body weight without problems (those with chronic kidney disease would be an exception).
For some perspective, The Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of calories come from protein. For a 2000 calorie diet (which is the one used to calculate Nutrition Facts on labels), that is between 50 and 175 g of protein, or between 7 and 25 1-oz “meat equivalents”. Quite a large window. If 10-35% of your calories come from protein foods and you are above the 1g per kg minimum, you will probably be fine. Of course, (yes I’m going to say it again) if you have concerns, speak with a registered dietitian.
What happens if you don’t eat enough protein?
Too little protein intake results in a loss of lean body mass (muscle) because your body will break down the protein it is already carrying (muscle) to maintain its function. That’s why it is important that you are eating at least the minimum that your body needs. See this post for more information about how protein is used in your body.
Can you eat too much protein?
Yes. But if you don’t have a specific condition that would make it directly harmful, harm from eating too much protein is much more likely to be from two other causes:
1. Not eating enough from other food groups, like fruits, vegetables, and grains because of eating so much protein. This might mean missing out on important nutrients like vitamin C or fiber that come from those other food groups. This is especially likely when eating only animal protein foods.
2. Getting too much of the other nutrients that are often present in protein-rich foods. For example, cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, which can be harmful for blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Many processed meats are very high in sodium and saturated fat as well. Again, this is more likely to be a concern with animal protein foods.
Extremely high protein intake can be harmful to the kidneys, however this is usually only in extremely high intake (like more than 2.0g/kg) over a long period of time. If you are getting most of your protein from foods, incorporating your other food groups, not taking excessive protein supplements, and don’t have any medical conditions, you are unlikely to be harmed by eating too much protein. Again, if you are concerned that you may be eating too much protein, consult a dietitian.
If you eat a lot of protein, will it make your muscles grow automatically?. No
If you aren’t exercising (or growing, or using steroids) to stimulate muscle growth, that extra protein will just be used for energy or stored as fat. See this post if you want more information about how this works.
Can you eat as much protein as you want without gaining weight? No
If you eat more protein than your body needs for its building and energy needs, it will still be converted to fat, just like any other food. See this post if you have more questions.
However, diets that allow unlimited protein (and limit carbohydrates or fats) have been shown to be helpful for weight loss. So why is this?
Protein tends to be more satisfying than carbohydrates or fats, so the thought is that eating more protein than other food groups makes you “full” faster and so limits the total amount you end up eating, resulting in weight loss.
So protein isn’t a magical weight loss food. But if it helps you eat less and still be satisfied, then it may help you lose weight (and as long as you are getting all the other nutrients you need, that’s fine).
What if I don’t eat meat? What about plant-based proteins?
Plant-based protein post coming next week! (I tried to fit it all in one post but it was too long!)
What other questions do you have about protein? Leave me a comment!
I wanted to share with you what my weekend was like to illustrate what my more abstract definitions look like practically. Weekends seem like maybe they would be easier because extra free time, but I find when I don’t have the weekday routine, sometimes things get a little piecemeal and hectic. So here’s how it went, food-wise, and how it fits into my definition of nutrition for real humans.
The menu of my weekend
Saturday Breakfast:Fried eggs, whole grain rolls, a perfectly ripe amazing pear, and a cup of coffee with almond milk. So – some protein (even pasture raised eggs because they were on sale – oooh), whole grains, fruit, and some calcium-rich liquid.
Saturday Lunch: Leftover squash soup (yeah veggies!) and whole grain rolls, with pepper jack cheese for some protein and calcium
Saturday Dinner: Slow cooker pot roast with potatoes and carrot: an all-in-one meal with protein, starch, and veggies. Slow cooker meals are awesome for weekends as long as I remember I planned them and start them before it’s 5:30 and we’re getting hungry. Heheh. Thankfully this weekend I put all the ingredients in while we were making lunch and it went about cooking and making the house smell delicious while we went about doing our chores and relaxing.
Saturday Dessert: Cookie dough ice cream. Which while it does have more sugar and fat then say, a glass of milk, is also a source of calcium
Sunday Breakfast: almonds on the way to church and a mini-chocolate donut when we got there because we got up late. Not the ideal breakfast, but better than no breakfast.
Sunday Lunch:Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar (read: box mac and cheese) because we had to rush to a friend’s place to hang out and ate ½ a LaraBar (fruit and nuts) on the way. Still not my ideal nutrition but at least there were more than 2 food groups included and again, better than not eating.
Sunday Second Lunch: Vegetable chili and meat chili and a roll and some shredded cheese and chips made by our friends (and some Halloween candy).
Sunday Dinner:Leftover pot roast with hot sauce – I didn’t love this pot roast, but it provided sustenance.
Sunday Dessert: Microwave brownie with peanut butter and milk. The peanut butter adds some protein and the milk some calcium, but mostly it’s just a winning combination. How can you go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter?
1) Evidence-based. I try and make my day look like USDA’s MyPlate. Obviously not each meal (and sometimes not each day) looks like these portions, but that’s my overall goal for the day. Protein and fruit or veggie with each meal, and multiple calcium-rich servings/day – keep in mind these are the things I’m focusing on. What you focus on may be different which leads me to…
2) Each person has unique needs/goals/preferences. I know for me it’s important that I eat at regular intervals through the day or I can’t think straight. Thus why for me a mini chocolate donut is better than no breakfast.
3) Life and meals don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re affected by your family’s preferences (that’s why we eat dessert more often – I’m married to my husband), friend outings, waking up late, or forgetting the meal you planned.
4) Do-able and practical is better than perfect! It’s why I have Lara Bars and boxed mac and cheese – because having convenient healthy-ish fast meals and snacks can make it easier to eat a meal or snack at home, rather than going out, or eat a healthy snack at all. It’s also why I had leftover pot roast with hot sauce on Sunday because even though it wasn’t my favorite, it’s still fuel.
5) What I eat doesn’t determine if I’m a good person. If Sunday’s nutrition was not “ideal”, it provided me with calories and nutrients to go through my day, and Monday is another day.
Please note, this is a description, not a prescription. See #2: every person has unique nutrition needs and goals, so what you need and what works for you might be different 🙂
Want to see more of my day to day nutrition? Follow me on Instagram.