Whether you’re 100% plant-based or simply plant-curious, you’ve probably wondered whether plant-based proteins are truly sufficient in meeting your needs. Some people swear you need a gram of protein for every pound you weigh, while others firmly believe that you’ll get what you need from broccoli and kale. Today we’re clearing up the mud around protein for women. Let’s dive in.
Why is Protein Important?
Protein is an essential nutrient that provides us with energy and helps build and repair cells and muscle tissue. Getting enough protein helps support your immune system, helps you maintain your lean muscle mass, and supports strong bones. Meeting protein needs is important for all women, but it becomes especially critical during pregnancy when protein is used for fetal development and later in life when women are prone to muscle and bone loss.
You have probably heard plant-based experts tell you not to worry about protein. While the pop culture obsession with protein is unwarranted, it is still a very important part of health. Maybe you’ve also heard claims like “one-hundred calories of broccoli has more protein than one-hundred calories of beef!” It is true that many plant foods (even broccoli!) contain protein. These foods contribute to our daily protein intake, but claims like this are misleading and put plant-based eaters at risk for eating too little protein. After all, one-hundred calories of broccoli equals four cups of raw florets… that is a lot of broccoli!
Best Protein Sources
Not all protein is equal when it comes to health. Because we don’t eat nutrients in isolation, it’s important to look at the entire food package that a nutrient like protein comes in.
Plant proteins come packaged with health-supporting fiber, water, and antioxidants. Animal proteins, on the other hand, are packaged with unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol and are void of fiber and antioxidants.
Replacing protein-rich animal foods with protein-rich plant foods has unique benefits for women. Making this swap can cut infertility risk in half. It can also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, breast cancer, and other cancers.
The Importance of Lysine
Proteins are built from chains of smaller components called amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids. The body makes some amino acids, and your diet provides the others. Essential amino acids are not made by the body and are an essential part of the diet. Plant foods contain all essential amino acids, however one essential amino acid that plant-based eaters should pay special attention to is lysine. Certain plant foods contain an abundance of Lysine, but is low in others (fruits, vegetables, grains).
Lysine-rich plant protein sources:
- Beans (black, garbanzo, pinto, kidney, navy)
- Dried peas
- Peanuts and peanut butter
- Almonds and almond butter
- Cashews and cashew butter
- Brazil nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
How much protein do women need?
Plant foods contain enough protein to meet women’s protein needs. Protein needs are calculated based on body weight. The general protein recommendation is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. Because plant-based proteins are digested differently than animal-based proteins, I recommend that plant-based eaters aim a little higher – about 0.45 grams of protein per pound for women between the ages of 19-60 who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. Women’s protein needs increase during special stages of life as shown in the table below.
Women’s Protein Needs
Tips For Meeting Protein Needs
- Make sure you’re eating enough calories from a variety of plant-based foods
- Eat 3-4 servings of lysine-rich foods each day. For example, one cup of soymilk at breakfast, hummus at lunch, and tofu with quinoa at dinner will meet needs
- Choose soymilk over other plant-based milks more often because it is an excellent source of protein. Other plant-based milks are certainly okay to drink, but they have fewer nutrition benefits.
Common Questions About Protein
Is more protein better?
Eating more protein than you need will not make you leaner, stronger, or healthier. Any excess protein that you eat is either stored as fat in the body or excreted as waste. Eating excessive amounts of animal protein in particular is linked to higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Do you need to combine foods to get “complete” proteins?
No. This myth is rooted in the idea that foods with varying contents of amino acids needed to be eaten in the same meal in order to build complete strands of protein. Luckily, our bodies are very smart and can store amino acids from meal to meal so they can build complete proteins. As long as you are eating a variety of foods throughout the week and emphasizing lysine-rich foods, your body can build all the complete proteins it needs.
Should you use protein powders?
Unless you have special nutrition needs determined by a registered dietitian with expertise in plant-based nutrition, protein powders are likely an unnecessary addition to your eating plan – not to mention an unnecessary expense! Because most protein powders are highly processed, I like to use whole foods to boost protein when needed. Adding beans or tofu to smoothies or adding soymilk to soups and sauces are just a few ideas!