Protein is NOT a Food Group (But You Still Need to Think About It)

Order a salad in any restaurant and your enterprising, upselling server will inevitably ask you, “and what kind of protein would you like on that?”

The rude answer that I tend to say in my head is, “Every plant food has protein!  Stop believing it doesn’t!”

While I’ve politely learned not to blurt out smarty-pants things to unsuspecting strangers, learning about the protein content of plant foods is important to everyone who is trying to add more nutrition to their plates.

Protein, along with fat and carbohydrate, is an essential macro-nutrient, not a food.

Sure, some foods contain a higher percentage of one macro over another, but we can’t simply dissect the whole into its parts.

But we sure are fixated on trying, aren’t we?  If you wanted to, you could live like George Jetson, and pop pills and powders and shakes to get your scientifically-approved, nutritionally optimal intake.


So with the exception of the Jetsons, we don’t eat nutrients.  We eat food.

This mixed grain hot breakfast with homemade yogurt, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and a banana has 24 grams of protein!

How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

This is the age-old question, for not just athletes and herbivores, but for anyone.

The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.  So for a 150 pound person, that’s a scant 54 grams of protein a day.

You could eat a day’s worth of calories from just white potatoes all day and get that much. I’m not suggesting you actually do that, but it’s very easy to reach that goal from whole plant foods, provided that you are eating enough calories in general.

But is that really enough?

A recent meta-study referenced in the New York Times took a look at 49 high-quality past studies involving protein and muscle building in athletes and in non-athletes.

They found that everyone who strength trained gained muscle, no matter how much protein they ate.

Let me say that again: if you lift weights, you will gain muscle, with or without specifically paying attention to protein.

To me, this is the most important take away, because it means that you don’t need to stress about guzzling protein shakes right after your workouts.

Two of these giant coconut milk waffles with blueberries weigh in at 17 grams of protein for only 450 calories.

But there’s a difference between minimum requirements for protein and optimum

Because we’re not just looking for the bare minimum.  We want to know what’s optimum for both health and athletic goals.

The authors of the study did find that those how increased their protein intakes did gain about 25% more muscle than those who only met the minimum.  That’s certainly significant enough to pay attention to.

As runners we don’t want huge muscle gains, but we do want to be strong and lean to run fast and stay injury free.  This particular study indicates that 1.6 grams a day per kilo is ideal, but going higher than that has no muscular benefit.

That’s important for the protein-shake people.  Extra protein is simply extra calories your body doesn’t need.

So if you’re doing the math, there’s a huge difference between the RDA of 0.8g/kg and the upper limit of 1.6g/kg.

Hey, that’s double the RDA!

So our 150-pound runner is not going to get that kind of protein from the all-potato diet without significantly overeating (if it’s even possible to eat 25 potatoes a day!).

But by eating a variety of whole plant foods including nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains, it’s not as hard as people think to reach the higher protein goals.

The good thing is that our protein intake can be spread out throughout the day since the researchers found no correlation between when you ate your protein or even what type of protein and how much muscle you gained.

My White Bean and Kale Chili boasts 21 grams of protein in each 360-calorie serving. Add a slice of my High Protein Bread and you’re up to nearly 27 grams!

But I’m a runner!  I don’t want to gain that much muscle.

Most runners want to gain nothing but speed.  Weight gain, even the good muscular kind, feels a little scary since we equate it with being slow (which is not entirely true).

In general, yes, most runners could use to gain some muscle and lose some fat, but there is a point where too much muscle would be a problem.

After all, The Rock has never won a marathon.

The thing to remember is protein intake is not the main driver of muscle building.  It’s lifting heavy things.

So if you spend more of your time running than lifting, you’ll end up with the body you need to run.

And with a few conscious choices about what you put on your plate, you can get all the protein you need to optimally (and deliciously) fuel your muscles.

No matter what the waiter thinks…

The Protein Thing

I was raised to believe that a balanced meal included a veggie, a grain, and a portion of meat.  When I was old enough to cook and too old for after-school babysitters, I remember dumping a box of instant scalloped potatoes in a Pyrex, stirring the orange cheese dust and potato poker chips with some water, plopping a few frozen pork chops on top, and going back to watch DeGrassi Junior High with my sister while it cooked in the oven.  An hour later, dinner was served with some peas on the side.

Not exactly the beginnings of a fine culinary career.

Now that I choose not to eat meat or dairy, I often am asked the question about protein.  And I get the curiosity. It kind of feels like taking taking a wheel off a tricycle to think of eliminating the meat.  How can you get rid of the protein?  It’s not balanced!

First of all, you are not “getting rid” of the protein by eliminating meat.  In fact, there are many ways to eat plenty of protein and it doesn’t simply mean swapping the meat for a hunk of tofu. I’m not a nutritionist, but Gena Hamshaw is and she wrote a fabulous piece for Food52 on how to get lots of protein as a vegan.  And, no, you don’t have combine certain proteins with others to create “complete proteins” with all the essential amino acids in the same meal. “Current nutrition wisdom is that we don’t actually have to seek out complete proteins with every meal,” Hamshaw writes, “because our bodies can assemble them efficiently when given an array of amino acids building blocks from a well-rounded diet.”

High-protein homemade vegan sausage crumbles made from walnuts, beans, and mushrooms.
High-protein homemade vegan sausage crumbles made from walnuts, beans, and mushrooms.

But what about runners?  Don’t we need more protein?

Yes, but perhaps not always for the reasons you might think.

Precision Nutrition, a company of fitness trainers and nutrition experts say, “the basic recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 g per pound) of body mass in untrained, generally healthy adults.”  So for a 115 pound female, that’s 41.4 grams a day or a measly 166 calories of protein for the whole day!  “For people doing high intensity training,” they say,  “protein needs might go up to about 1.4-2.0 g/kg (or around 0.64-0.9 g/lb) of body mass.” That brings the range to 73.6 to 103.5 grams for the 115 pound runner.   

But that’s the basic recommendation.  You know, the lowest amount possible to keep your body from consuming your own muscles and to keep your hair from falling out.  There are many really good reasons to get a little more.

“Consuming more protein may help maintain an optimal body composition (in other words, help you stay leaner and more muscular) and a strong immune system, good athletic performance, and a healthy metabolism.” writes Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition.   “It may promote satiety (i.e. make you feel full longer) and consequently help you manage your body weight.”

Protein makes you feel full.  If you are trying to lose fat and/or gain muscle, some extra protein can help, but not simply because protein builds muscle.   Extra protein does not build more muscle.  But it does make you feel fuller longer, which hopefully will keep you from eating extra calories.  Even if you are not trying to change your body composition, extra protein can keep you from feeling so ravenous all the time.

Another cool thing about protein is that it takes a lot more work for your body to break it down and use it.  That means that 30% of the protein’s energy goes toward digestion, absorption, and assimilation, versus only 8% of carbohydrate calories and 3% of calories from fats.

Protein also can help maintain a robust immune system, improve athletic performance, and a healthy metabolism.  Check, check, and check.

But too much of a good thing is too much, so going overboard on protein is not a great idea.  Not only could you end up consuming too many calories overall, but runners risk crowding out essential carbohydrates that fuel optimum running.

So what’s the balance of enough but not too much?  A good rule of thumb for athletes is a gram of protein per pound of body weight.

And it can all come from plants.