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How Much Protein Do You Need on a Plant-Based Diet?

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Are you curious about how much protein plant-based athletes need to fuel their muscles? Saddle up, because we've got answers.

It Depends on Your Goals

For the general population, getting 10–15 percent of daily calories from protein is sufficient. This is true even for people who lead an active lifestyle. What this means, is that as long as you are making sure to eat a balanced plant based diet including nuts, legumes, you shouldn't have any problem hitting your needs.

As we've highlighted in our protein guide, opinions vary on the exact amount needed, but it's generally estimated to be anywhere from 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight (or 1.6-2g per kilogram). But, hold on, the fun doesn't stop there - some studies have even suggested the number could be as high as 1.4 grams per pound!

For a 140-pound person, the U.S. recommended daily allowance translates to about 50 grams of protein a day; if that person consumes 2,000 calories in a day, 50 grams of protein is exactly 10 percent of total calories.

Our Take

Shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass if your goal is to build those biceps! And remember, this is just a starting point, your actual needs may vary.

Plant-Based Protein Supplements

Now, let's dive into a crucial point: Most elite athletes on a plant based diet share one thing in common - they supplement with isolated plant protein. Why you ask? Well, to increase their protein intake without skyrocketing their calorie and carbohydrate intake.

The fact of the matter is that it's tough to avoid carbs on a vegan diet. And if you've been paying attention, you know that plant-based sources have less protein than animal-based sources. For example, 100 grams of black beans contain 8.5 grams of protein, 131 calories, and 24 grams of carbohydrates (with 8.5 grams being fiber). In contrast, 100 grams of chicken breast has 30 grams of protein, 165 calories, and 0 grams of carbohydrates.

So, if your goal is weight loss, you need to be mindful of your calorie intake. And to get the same amount of protein from black beans as you would from chicken, you'd end up consuming 2-3 times the number of calories and a substantial amount of carbohydrates.

This isn't a bad thing - especially if you're an athlete or strength trainer. After all, carbs aren't the enemy. However, if you're going plant-based, you may have trouble reaching certain body fat percentage goals.

We're not passing any judgment or issuing challenges - just laying out the facts.

Building Muscle

Building muscle on a plant-based diet is doable, but the challenge is maintaining low body fat levels. Plant-based protein sources tend to be higher in carbohydrates than proteins and fats, which means that overconsumption of calories can lead to an increase in body fat.

The key to overcoming this challenge is to strike a balance between your carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake. As your carb intake increases to meet your protein goals, it's important to reduce your fat intake to keep your calorie balance in check.

The ideal macro ratio is subjective and varies from person to person. Some people may see better results with a low-fat diet, while others thrive on a high-fat diet. Vegan powerlifter, Hulda B. Waage, recommends aiming for 15-20% fat, 20-30% protein, and 55-60% carbs for those strength training on a plant-based diet. For comparison, the International Society of Sports Nutrition typically recommends 30% fat intake.

The stereotype that vegans are always scrawny weaklings is so widely accepted, that it's hard to imagine someone big and strong following a plant-based diet. But why? Because we've been taught to think that in order to build muscle and strength, we need a lot of animal protein, and that the only source of protein is animal-based foods.

The bottom line is that it's all about getting enough protein regardless of the source.

Whether you prefer a high-carb or low-carb diet, high-fat or low-fat, top athletes make sure they consume enough of it. Remember, you're unique, and your results may differ, so keep track of your macros and how your body responds.

And don't forget, building muscle takes more than just eating right. You've got to hit the gym and train hard too.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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