Plant-Based Protein 101: How to Get Your Fix Without Meat

One of the biggest questions I get when someone finds out I’m vegan is always the same: how do I get my protein? Honestly, it wasn’t that long ago that I only thought of protein as meat, eggs, fish, and other animal products, too—it’s how the majority of us are raised. The reality, though, is that while meat is the norm, it’s certainly not the best option and you can get everything you need from plants.

What’s the Problem with Animal Protein?

First thing’s first: animal protein might just be the worst way to get your protein fix. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meat is pumped with hormones—including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—which has one purpose: helping animals grow bigger and faster, enabling the meat industry to produce more products and make more money. Since you already have hormones in your own body, taking in excess quantities through your diet, too, isn’t great for your health. Studies have shown it can increase your risk of cancer and even lead to heart attacks, heart failure, or sudden death.

In addition to hormones, the antibiotics in meat are also a problem. Animals are raised in filthy, overcrowded environments, and to ensure they stay alive until slaughter, the meat industry uses 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States. Because of the high amount of antibiotics given to these animals, they become resistant to certain drugs, which potentially lets dangerous strains of bacteria into your body. The foodborne illnesses that result are serious business: Salmonella alone causes 1.2 million illnesses, as well as hundreds of deaths, in the U.S. every year.

Even with the hormones and antibiotics aside, eating animal protein can also lead to some serious health issues. Consuming meat has been found to greatly increase your risk of many different kinds of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer—two of the top killers of women and men. On top of that, it’s also been shown to negatively affect your gut health, increase your risk of having a stroke, and shorten your lifespan. And that’s just the short list. Plant-based protein, on the other hand, does quite the opposite, giving your body the fuel it needs without the consequences.

Busting the Plant-Based Protein Myth

One of the oldest myths about the vegan diet that’s still making the rounds is that it’s not possible to get all the essential amino acids you need from plants. (Something your body can’t make itself, so you have to get them through your diet.) Because of that, you’ve probably heard you have to combine two incomplete proteins (like beans and rice) to get a complete protein. The truth, though, is that the idea—which originated from the book Diet for a Small Planet written in 1971 by sociologist Frances Moore Lappé—has long been disproven.

Want to find out which plants are high in protein?
First read: The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources

In reality, if you’re eating a well-rounded diet, you’ll get all the protein you need—and you don’t have to eat animals to do it. According to the American Heart Association, “whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts all contain both essential and non-essential amino acids”—and as long as you eat a variety and eat enough calories for your body every day, you’ll be A-OK. In fact, Dr. Michael Greger, MD, author of How Not to Die, says you’ll have more than enough, saying those who eat plant-based diets typically have twice the average daily protein requirements. If that wasn’t the case, how would some of the best plant-based athletes—including Tom Brady, who’s still going strong on the football field at 41 years old—be able to stay at the top of their game?

How Much Protein You Actually Need

To figure out your Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, just use a simple formula: take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 0.36. For someone who’s 140 pounds, that would mean they should be aiming for around 50 grams of protein per day. If you want to factor in your needs based on your activity level, there’s a handy calculator for that, too.

It might seem like 50 or so grams is hard to reach, but not if you choose your sources wisely. In fact, if you wanted to, all you’d have to do is eat one cup of lentils. Seriously—one. That legume is just one of the many plants you can pick up at the supermarket to stay strong and healthy, though. For an entire list of other options, head on over to The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources.

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