Protein!!! It seems everyone is obsessed with “getting enough” protein nowadays. If you eat plant-based, the number one question you get is “where do you get your protein?” Athletes, and increasingly, non-athletes, slog down protein shakes–convinced that such is necessary for health and fitness goals.
Even in the plant-based world, icons for the plant-based movement frequently note “you can get all the protein you need eating plants.” Often, plant-based movement icons note that protein needs are exaggerated by marketers, etc. Yet many of them consume highly processed plant-based protein powders. With so many opinions and apparent contradictions, an evaluation of the current research can be helpful.
What does the research-based, current evidence actually say about protein needs–including for athletes? What daily amount is the right amount? Does it matter where you get your protein in terms of health outcomes? Are high-protein diets healthy? What does the evidence say?
Protein sources & Health: Animal, plant, does it matter?
Sources of protein–animal versus plants, does it matter? Eggs, yogurt, cheese, milk, chicken, fish…or legumes, beans, whole grains, nuts–as long as you stay away from evil fatty, red, or processed meats, does protein source really make a difference in your health according to research? Yes, it does matter–according to a growing body of high-quality research.
In research published in The European Journal of Epidemiology, 7786 participants of the “Rotterdam Study” in the Netherlands were analyzed for dietary patterns and mortality (death) rates. The meta-analysis (where multiple studies are combined and findings analyzed in totality) was conducted for a time span covering nearly 30 years (Zhang, Moumdjian, Gonzalez-Jaramillo, van der Schaft, Bramer, Ikram, & Voortman, 2020). A sub-analysis of the data collected evaluated the impact of protein source (animal versus plant) and all-cause mortality rates along with cardiovascular disease death rates.
As animal protein intake increases, so does mortality rate: Plant protein has the opposite effect
Researchers found that for every 5% increase in animal protein intake (as a percentage of total caloric intake), there was a measurable and significant increase in cardiovascular deaths and overall mortality rates. Those with the highest animal protein intake experienced a 12% higher mortality rate from all causes versus those with the lowest animal protein intake. Protein from meat and dairy strongly influenced the increase in cardiovascular mortality rates (Zhang et al., 2020). Protein from eggs and fish did not appear to impact mortality rates.
Conversely, as protein intake from plant sources (legumes, nuts, vegetables) increased in percentage of total caloric intake, significant REDUCTIONS in mortality rates were noted. Every 3% increase in protein intake from specifically legumes, nuts, vegetables, and fruits (but not grains) resulted in 25% reductions in overall mortality rates during the study period (Zhang et al., 2020).
Bad news for keto enthusiasts: “Evil high-carb” legumes apparently protect you from premature death
Separately, the researchers also performed a meta-analysis on high quality, prospective cohort studies (studies where participants with similarities at the beginning of a study are followed over time to evaluate differences in outcomes and potential causes of such differences). This analysis included data from 350,452 participants and 11 studies, with time periods of the studies covering anywhere from 12 to 28 years. Once again, higher total protein intake, particularly intake from animal protein sources, was associated with higher rates of mortality with a 9% increase in deaths due to cardiovascular disease. The lower quartile of participants took 4.3% of their daily energy from animal protein, with the highest quartile consuming 20% of their daily energy from animal protein sources.
Those with the highest plant protein intake, on the other hand experienced a 7% reduction in all-cause mortality rates and a 14% reduction in cardiovascular death rates (Zhang et al., 2020). Researchers noted that the nature of amino acids found in animal products (branched-chain and aromatic amino acids) differ from those found in plants (which are low in branched-chain and aromatic amino acids). Amino acids in animal products appear to contribute to insulin resistance, obesity, and thereby, increased cardiovascular disease risk (Zhang et al., 2020).
Interestingly, fish, eggs, and grains were neutral, neither protective or particularly harmful (Zhang et al., 2020). This supports findings in the Blue Zones territories where the longest living, healthiest population groups ate scant meat. Frequently, these populations included only up to 3 eggs per week and small amounts of fish in their diets–plant nutrition being their dominant source of protein and caloric intake (Bluezones.com, 2020).
Protein amounts: How much do you need? It depends on your goals
According to the journal Food & Function published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, sedentary yet healthy adults need as little as 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (Wu, 2016). In order to calculate your own protein needs if you are a sedentary (minimally active adult) and you live in the U.S., first divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert your body weight to kilograms.
185 lbs / 2.2 = 84 kgs (My body weight in kilograms)
So pretend I was not very physically active, at 185lbs (84kg), my daily protein requirements to maintain general healthy bodily functions would equate a mere 67 grams per day. Divided into 4 meals (snacks included as “meals”), I would only need 17 grams of protein per meal. This is easily achieved following a plant-based diet. Just 2 pieces of whole grain bread have 10 grams of protein! Add a handful of nuts or soup with beans and the target is easily achieve, no meat, no protein shakes, no dairy required. This applies to the nearly 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. (Americashealthrankings.org, 2020). For those desiring to maximize skeletal muscle tissue and minimize white fatty tissue, protein amounts of 1.4 grams/ kg are determined to be useful per research (Wu, 2016).
As activity increases from mild to moderate to intense, protein needs increase to 1 gram / kg, then 1.3 grams/ kg, then 1.6 grams / kg respectively (Wu, 2016). Using my body weight again as an example, my protein needs with mild activity (such daily mild cardio training) would be 84 grams total, rising to 134 grams daily if I were to be very physically active (which I am). Divided into 4 meals, 33 grams of protein per meal is required for optimal health for a 185lb male. This too is achievable without supplements, powders, or meat, though selection of high protein plant foods (such as lentils, beans, whole grains, nuts, and high protein pasta) is necessary to achieve these numbers.
What if you are an athlete or weight train?
A frequently touted number for protein intake requirements for athletes is simplified to be approximately 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight (if you live in the U.S.) or 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram (if you live pretty much anywhere else). Some plant-based enthusiasts argue that amount is excessive. Some weight training enthusiasts argue that amount is too low. What does the research say?
Guidelines for athletes who resistance (weight) train: Research suggests you may need less than you think
According to the “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand,” the daily recommended amount of protein advised for building and maintaining muscle mass ranges from 1.4 grams/ kg – 2 grams / kg based on current research evidence (Jäger et al., 2017). Twenty to 40 grams of this total protein requirement needs to come from high quality protein (such as protein rich in leucine…a plant-based example being beans). This amount is somewhat less than 1 gram per pound of body weight. In order to calculate your own protein needs if you live in the U.S., first divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert your body weight to kilograms.
Next, multiply your weight x 1.4 grams to find the low range for your daily protein intake needs, or by 2 grams to find the upper range. According to the guidelines, this protein amount should be divided into multiple meals separated by 3 to 4 hours (Jäger et al., 2017). With my body weight of 185 lbs, my protein requirements to build and maintain muscle (paired with resistance training) would be as follows:
185 lbs / 2.2 = 84 kgs (My body weight in kilograms)
84 kgs x 1.4 grams protein / kg = 118 total grams of daily protein needed to maintain and build muscle according to research. Note, this is substantially less than 185 grams (1 gram per pound) suggested frequently by muscle magazines and other popular sources!!! Try the calculation yourself for your own body weight!!!
Divided into 4 meals, this comes to about 30 grams per meal. This amount of protein is easily achieved following a plant-based diet without the use of protein powders. Whole grain pastas with beans and sauce on top, peanut butter sandwiches on whole grain bread with a lentil soup, etc are options that can help achieve an intake over 30 grams per meal. My plant-based, whole foods smoothie in the morning has nearly 50 grams of protein alone with no protein powders added.
At the upper end for muscle maintenance and building, 84 kgs x 2 grams protein/ kg = 168 total grams of daily protein required for my body weight of 185 lbs. This still amounts to less than the 1 gram per pound calculation touted by mainstream sources, but does result in requirements of 42 grams per 4 meals. Such an amount is doable, but a little more difficult to achieve when using strictly plant-based natural sources (excluding protein powder shakes). An option is to eat 5 meals per day instead of 4, bringing requirements down to 34 grams per meal. Another option is to incorporate protein powders, though they seem unnecessary at the lower ranges provided for building and maintaining muscle when resistance training.
Guidelines may be higher than you think if you are in a calorie deficit and want to keep muscle
During periods of calorie deficits (such as “dieting,” or “cutting”) the body enters a catabolic state where both muscle tissue and fat are lost. To reduce or avoid muscle loss during a period of low caloric intake, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends higher protein intakes. Recommendations for preserving muscle tissue during low calorie “cutting” phases equates 2.3 – 3.1 grams / kg / day.
Using my weight again as an example, at 185lbs (84 kgs), this would equal 193.2 grams of protein on the low end to 260 grams on the high end. Divided into five meals per day, approximately 40 grams to 52 grams would be required per meal. Doing this “naturally” without the use of protein shakes or lean animal protein sources while maintaining a caloric deficit would be admittedly difficult.
Chronic, very high protein intakes are not conducive to long term health
It MUST BE NOTED that such a high protein intake (over 2 grams/ kg) is NOT conducive to long term health according to current research (Wu, 2016). Chronically elevated protein intake levels (such as those frequently touted by mainstream popular magazines) are associated with digestive, kidney and vascular abnormalities (Kalantar-Zadeh, Kramer, & Fouque, 2020; Wu, 2016). While protein ingestion at rates over 2 grams/ kg may serve short term interests, they are recommended against for the long term (Wu, 2016). Such high intakes are generally unnecessary, even for highly active adults as noted in the research above.
What are your protein needs? If you are a generally healthy adult, just find your weight in kg and multiply the recommended protein amounts based on your activity levels and goals. According to the research cited above, the appropriate protein amount in grams appears to be as follows (based on personal activities and goals):
- Your weight in kg x 0.8: If you are sedentary
- Your weight in kg x 1.0: If you do mild/ light activity (activity levels can be determined by clicking here)
- Your weight in kg x 1.4: If you do moderate activity and/ OR if you desire to improve your muscle to fat ratio (such as in fighting obesity)
- Your weight in kg x 1.6: If you do intense activities including weight training/ resistance training (up to your weight in kg x 2.0)
- Your weight in kg x 2.3 (up to 3.1): If you weight train/ resistance train and are in a “cutting” phase, such as during a temporary calorie deficit
- No more than your weight in kg x 2.0 over the long term: to preserve long term kidney, digestive, and vascular health.
Further, based on research, the majority of your protein should come from plant-based sources if you are interested in long term health and prevention of premature mortality. For most people, protein powders are unnecessary though they may be convenient. Protein powders may come with their own risks, such as containing high levels contaminants and unknown long term health impacts (Harvard University, 2018). Protein intake requirements are dependent on your activity levels and goals, though frequently research-based intake requirements are lower than reported in popular magazines, books and websites.
Thanks for reading!!! I hope you found this article informative! Feel free to leave a comment, and/ or sign-up to receive email notice of new articles!!! Sincerely, Donovan
Americashealthrankings.org. (2020). Physical inactivity. Retrieved from https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/annual/measure/Sedentary/state/ALL
Bluezones.com. (2020). Food guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.bluezones.com/recipes/food-guidelines/
Harvard University. (2018). The hidden dangers of protein powders. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-hidden-dangers-of-protein-powders
Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Kalantar-Zadeh, K., Kramer, H. M., & Fouque, D. (2020). High protein diet is bad for kidney function. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, 35(1), 1-4. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/924423?nlid=134117_785&src=WNL_mdplsfeat_200225_mscpedit_nurs&uac=223310AV&spon=24&impID=2291225&faf=1
Wu, G. (2016). Dietary protein intake and human health. Food & function, 7(3), 1251-1265. https://doi.org/10.1039/C5FO01530H
Zhang, X., Moumdjian, A. C., Gonzalez-Jaramillo, V., van der Schaft, N., Bramer, W. M., Ikram, M. A., & Voortman, T. (2020). Dietary protein intake and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: results from the Rotterdam Study and a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. European journal of epidemiology, 10.1007/s10654-020-00607-6. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-020-00607-6