Let's answer this question once and for all: Where do vegetarians and vegans get their protein? Beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, spinach, edamame, almonds, walnuts, cashews, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, tempeh—so many foods! Contrary to popular belief, meat isn't the only viable protein source; it's not even necessarily the healthiest.
Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein
"The general population consumes way too much meat and processed food," says holistic nutritionist Kristin Dahl. "Eating too much meat over time can be harmful because it creates an acidic environment internally and can eventually lead to issues like heart disease and cancer. Too much animal protein can also lead to an increased risk of kidney problems, liver problems, and bone calcium loss, which can cause osteoporosis and increased growth of bad bacteria in intestines."
Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, tend to be gentler on the body. Dahl says they're more alkaline and easier to digest. And not only do they offer a wide range of nutrients, they also happen to have a whole lot of something meat doesn't: heart-healthy fiber that keeps you fuller, longer, and helps your digestive process run smoothly.
Bonus points for plant proteins' environmental advantages. Meat and dairy require more land, water, and other resources than growing plant-based foods. A public health study from 2015 found that producing 1 kilogram of beef protein required 18 times more land, 10 times more water, nine times more fuel, 12 times more fertilizer, and 10 times more pesticides compared to producing 1 kilogram of protein from kidney beans. Most vegetables and fruits are even compostable and create far less waste and carbon emissions than livestock.
Is Plant Protein Enough?
As long as you eat enough calories and a wide variety of plant-based food, fulfilling your protein requirement is so easy. "The dietary reference intake for protein requirements is 0.36 grams per pound of weight," says Dahl. "So that means an individual that is 150 pounds would need at least 54 grams of protein daily. If they're an athlete or work a labor-intensive job, they would require more."
Let's see—15 grams of protein from a 3-ounce serving of tempeh, 9 grams from 1/2 cup of lentils, 8 grams from 1 cup of quinoa, 9 grams from 1/4 cup of almond butter, 10 grams from 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds, 3 grams from 1/4 cup of cooked spinach—and you're there! Meanwhile, you're also absorbing tons of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from these nutrient-rich foods.
Plant-Based Protein Powders
Protein powder can also help you meet your quota, and there are so many options now besides dairy-based whey protein, which can cause gas and bloating for those who are allergic or sensitive to dairy. "Finding a minimally processed protein powder is key, as the more processed and more ingredients there are, the harder it becomes for the body to digest and break it down," says Dahl. She recommends Moon Juice Plant Proteins, Mattole Valley Naturals Vanilla Plant Protein and Plain Brown Rice Sprouted Protein, and pea proteins by Naked and Growing Naturals. (Pea protein is loaded with iron and helps to regulate blood sugar, according to Dahl.)
Not saying everyone should go vegan, though! Diet is an individual choice, and you should go with what works for your body, lifestyle, and health regimen as advised by your physician. "The idea of adopting a plant-based lifestyle doesn't mean cutting out meat for everyone—it means making the majority of your meals plant-based and treating animal proteins as a side dish versus the main component of the meal," says Dahl. Not such a tall order, right?