Having gone vegetarian way back in the mid-90s before it was more socially normal to do so, I think I’ve been asked about the adequacy of my protein consumption roughly a bajilion times.
Now, I know people who have asked usually do so with good intentions, but I’ve always found it a wee bit odd everyone is suddenly a concerned nutrition expert when I tell them I don’t eat meat and like fruit, but people rarely feel the authority to directly express concern to people who live off fast food and soda pop.
Anyways, I digress…you’d think the Protein questions would have slowed as vegetarian and veganism have popularized over the years, but with the new market-focus on protein protein protein, the Qs keep coming.
So, I thought I’d type up a quick post about how much protein you actually need.
Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy, non-pregnant or breastfeeding adults. Your needs may vary based on medical status or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
So, how much protein do you need?
According to the Institute of Medicine, protein should make up between 10-35% of your total caloric intake (with carbohydrates accounting for 45-65% calories and fats accounting for 20-35% of calories).
As you can see, there is a wide range of what is considered a ‘healthful’ amount of protein. I always say this, but I’ll mention it again here: there are many different ways you can have a healthy diet. No one way is the best way, and you gotta do what works for you.
Some people are surprised to learn that 10% total caloric intake from protein is considered acceptable, especially in a world of #gains and grocery aisle full of everything from protein-fortified granolas to cereals to waters.
But it’s true. Getting 10% of your caloric intake from protein is considered acceptable. And I’m willing to guess that even if you don’t actively seek out many protein-rich foods, you likely reach the protein target, assuming you consume some grains and produce, both of which have protein that can add up over the day. In fact, most Americans consume over double what they need.
A handy formula to estimate your protein needs:
If the whole ‘% total calories from protein’ thing isn’t tangible for you, there are a couple ways you can quantify or put a number to your needs.
The latest USDA dietary guidelines for Americans advise 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women, but there’s also a formula used in dietetics to your protein RDA (recommended dietary allowance) aka your daily protein needs based on your body size and lifestage. It’s pretty easy and fast to use for a rough estimate.
All you do is:
- Take your weight in pounds,
- Divide by 2.2 to get your weight in kg, and
- Multiple that number by 0.8-1.0 depending on activity level.
I learn by doing, so here’s an example:
- Let’s say you weigh 150 pounds.
- 150 pounds /(2.2kg/lb) = 68.18 kg
- 68.18kg * (0.8g protein/kg) = 54.54 kg protein
If you’re an intense (and I mean intense, like pro-level or marathoner) exerciser, it’s recommended you multiple by a factor of 1.0 instead of 0.8.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, the factor ups to between 1.1-1.8 (depending on who you ask), and if you’re recovering from a lot of burns or surgery, it may be even higher.
But for most of the rest of us, it’s 0.8. And that’s a rough approximation. As long as you fall somewhere close to it, you’re probably doing just fine.
Where do vegans get protein?
Well, a lot of places. Besides the obvious tofu, tempeh, and veggie burger or mock-meat category, non-meat eaters often get protein from a variety of plant-foods, including legumes, seeds, nuts and nut butters, and beans.
Lentils have 18 grams of protein in a single cup, chickpeas and black beans each have about 15 grams per cup, and a cup of peas has about 9 grams per cup.
Grains can also be a good source of protein. A 1/2 cup of quinoa has 8 grams of protein, a 1/2 oats has 5 grams, a slice of whole grain bread 2-5 depending on brand/variety, and a bagel between roughly 7-12.
Fruits and veggies all contain at least some protein, and some can even have a surprisingly significant amount. A medium white potato has 5 grams, a cup of broccoli has 4 grams, and a cup of kale also has 3 grams. 1/2 cup of guava has 4 grams, and 1 cup of blackberries has 2.
Other good sources that are easy to add to meals and enhance flavors and textures of foods include nutritional yeast (2 grams protein per tablespoon), hemp hearts (3.3 grams per tablespoon), and chia seeds (2 per tablespoon).
While none of these sources are very large on their own, over the course of the day, they can really add up. If you eat a diverse diet, you probably reach or exceed your protein needs.
Protein is an important micronutrient, and it’s important to get enough for proper cell function and overall health. That said, most people get enough without great effort, so if you feel stressed about hitting some macro target you were given by some ‘health coach’ with an online certificate you met on Instagram, you can probably chill out a bit.
Over the course of my nutrition educations, I’ve been required to track weeklong dietary intake and assess my nutrient status, and both times I was shocked I consumed over double what I needed without even really trying.
So eat your protein, but don’t feel pressured to buy into the super-high-protein-is-the-only-way-to-health mentality. The healthiest way to life is in a balanced, sustainable way that works for your lifestyle, tastebuds, budget, and overall happiness.
Happy eating! Feel free to drop questions or future post requests below or hit me up on Insta!
**EDIT 1/21/19: Check out my discussion about this topic on my YouTube channel!