Protein Needs through the Lifespan
Proteins are vital macronutrients that play a crucial role in the growth, development, and maintenance of the human body. They are composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. Amino acids are involved in the structure, function, regulation, and communication in the body. They make up 100s of enzymes, transporters for carrying nutrients, antibodies to protect us from bacteria and viruses, and more. Protein needs vary across the lifespan due to the changing demands at different life stages. From conception to old age, understanding and meeting protein requirements are essential for optimal health and well-being.
A plant-based diet, which focuses on consuming whole plant foods, offers numerous health benefits and can meet protein needs throughout the lifespan. Contrary to popular belief, it is entirely possible to obtain all essential amino acids and meet protein requirements without relying on animal products. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you do not have to focus on food combining. All plant foods contain the essential amino acids, AND when proteins come from plants, they are protective.
In the Womb
The nutrient needs of a fetus are critical for its growth and development. During pregnancy, the mother’s diet plays a vital role in providing essential nutrients to support the health and well-being of the developing fetus. Adequate intake of macronutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats is necessary to support the fetus’s overall growth, organ development, and tissue formation. Proteins are particularly important for fetal development as they contribute to the development of vital organs, muscles, and tissues. Carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables provide a steady supply of energy to support fetal growth, while healthy fats found in nuts and seeds are essential for brain development and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Additionally, a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals, such as folate, iron, calcium, and zinc, is crucial for the proper formation of the fetal nervous system, blood cells, bones, and immune system.
The RDA for protein during pregnancy is about 1.1 grams per kilogram of body weight, and during lactation, it increases to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight. When consuming a 100% plantbased diet, the RDA is actually a little higher. The fiber in plants lowers the absorption rate of the proteins. Don’t think that this makes a plantbased diet inferior, the average American doesn’t meet our fiber, vitamin, or mineral requirements, and these come packaged with the plants and are very necessary during pregnancy. On a plantbased diet, the RDA is actually 1.2 grams per kilogram healthy pre-pregnancy weight during pregnancy and 1.4 grams per kilogram healthy pre-pregnancy weight during lactation. This increase is easily met.
Plant-based protein sources such as legumes, tofu, tempeh, seeds, quinoa, and whole grains are valuable during this stage. Incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables provides essential vitamins and minerals as well as protein to support a healthy pregnancy.
Studies show that mothers who eat a 100% plantbased diet during pregnancy have a lowered risk of a c-section, post-partum depression, neonatal and maternal mortality, pre-eclampsia, and less contaminants in their breastmilk.
The mother’s overall calorie intake should also increase during pregnancy to provide enough energy for both her and the growing fetus. It is important to focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients while avoiding excessive intakes of unhealthy fats, added sugars, and processed foods. A whole food plantbased diet of rainbow fruits and vegetables with nuts, seeds, and legumes helps meet these growing needs.
Infants and Toddlers
During infancy and early childhood, protein needs are particularly high due to rapid growth and development. Breast milk or infant formula is the primary source of nutrition for infants regardless of diet type.
Breast milk is rich in high-quality proteins and contains all essential amino acids necessary for the infant’s growth. It also provides antibodies that create a healthy, balanced microbiome and enhance the baby’s immune system. The protein content of breast milk changes over time to meet the evolving needs of the growing infant. On the other hand, infant formulas are specifically designed to mimic the nutritional composition of breast milk. There are times when breastfeeding is not possible, so formula is necessary.
As the infant transitions to solid foods, protein-rich options should be introduced. Plantbased options provide a range of essential amino acids necessary for optimal growth and development packaged with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It is essential to eat/offer a variety to meet the protein needs and support the development of muscles, bones, and tissues during this critical period. Excellent sources of plant-based protein for infants and young children include legumes like lentils and chickpeas, whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and whole oats, and seeds like chia seeds and ground flax seeds, nut butters (e.g., almond, sun-butter), and plant-based milk alternatives. All plantfoods contain essential amino acids, so offer a variety of colorful foods to increase their interest.
As you introduce new foods, remember that taste buds can change. Keep offering foods that they reject. Just place a small amount on their bowl or plate and don’t make a big deal about whether they eat it. It can take 10 tries to get someone to eat a particular food. If you only offer healthy foods, then they are going to eat healthy foods.
Providing adequate protein for infants and young children on a plant-based diet is essential to support their growth and development.
Plant-based diets can adequately support protein requirements for children. The research emphasizes the importance of incorporating a variety of plant-based protein sources to ensure a balanced intake of essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins are associated with lower risks of obesity and chronic diseases, such
as cardiovascular disease, later in life. This finding underscores the long-term health benefits of plant-based protein consumption during childhood.
To support school-aged children in meeting their plant-based protein needs, it is crucial to provide a diverse range of protein-rich plant foods. These can include legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, and whole grains. Keep offering a large variety of foods to children. The more variety in their diet, the more balanced their microbiome, which sets them up for long-term health benefits.
To increase their intake of these foods, try them in different forms. Instead of a side of beans, use them to make bean burgers or falafel or hummus. Instead of a pile of quinoa, add it to a smoothie bowl.
Get your children into the kitchen and into the garden. When they see how the food grows and how they can use it in recipes, it will increase their likelihood of eating it. Have them place the items on the plate, decorate the plates with food, and show off their food art.
The Teen Years
During the teen years protein requirements increase significantly due to heightened production of growth hormones. Adequate protein intake is essential to support the development of lean body mass, bone mineralization, and organ growth during this phase. The RDA for protein during adolescence is approximately 0.85 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Teenagers often have irregular eating habits and a tendency to consume excessive amounts of processed and fast foods. It is crucial to educate teens about the importance of incorporating lean protein sources into their diets. Encouraging healthy eating habits during this stage establishes a strong foundation for lifelong wellness.
For adolescents following a plant-based diet, it is essential to emphasize the inclusion of a variety of plant-based protein sources that provide all the essential amino acids necessary for optimal development. Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are excellent plant-based protein sources that can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes like soups, stews, salads, veggie burgers, wraps, etc. Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole oat groats contribute to the protein intake. Nutrient-dense options like nuts, seeds, and their butters, such as almond butter or tahini, can be added to meals and snacks. Tofu and tempeh can be used in stir-fries, sandwiches, or as substitutes for meat. Additionally, green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale provide noteworthy amounts of protein.
At this stage, teens should be able to prepare some meals. Get them cooking! Show them how to safely use knives and have them select a menu for one night a week. Get them to prepare their own protein-rich breakfast and lunch.
During adulthood, the focus of protein needs shifts towards maintaining muscle mass, supporting tissue repair, and promoting overall health. The RDA for protein in adults is approximately 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, although individual requirements may vary based on factors such as physical activity level, body composition, and overall health status.
Regular physical activity, especially resistance training, increases protein requirements to support muscle repair and growth. Athletes and those involved in intense exercise may have higher protein needs to meet their increased demands. Consuming a well-balanced diet can help fulfill these requirements. For athletes, 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram of healthy weight* is recommended. Many of my clients confuse this information thinking that they need to increase their protein to this higher amount as well, but this increased need is for people who are body building, not strength training, and training for marathons, not daily 45 min to 1-hour jogs or walks.
For individuals following a plant-based diet in adulthood, it is important to adopt a balanced and diverse approach to meet protein needs. Incorporating a variety of protein-rich plant foods is crucial to obtain all the essential amino acids. Legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas are versatile and can be added to salads, curries, soups, or served as side dishes. Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and oats can serve as the foundation for meals or be used as complementary side dishes. Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds can be included in smoothies, breakfast bowls, or used as toppings for salads.
As individuals age, meeting protein needs becomes increasingly important to support muscle maintenance, bone health, and overall well-being. While protein requirements may slightly increase for older adults, it is entirely feasible to meet these needs through a well-planned plant-based diet. Plant-based protein sources offer various health benefits, including reduced risk of chronic diseases and improved heart health.
Optimizing protein intake as an older adult following a plant-based diet involves considering the quality and distribution of protein throughout the day. It is important to prioritize a variety of plant-based protein sources to ensure a diverse range of amino acids.
Aim for protein-rich foods at every meal.
For example, sprinkling nuts or seeds on breakfast bowls or yogurt, incorporating legumes into salads or soups, adding tofu or tempeh to stir-fries or casseroles can significantly boost protein intake.
Distributing protein intake evenly throughout the day is beneficial for muscle synthesis and maintenance but avoid excessive protein consumption in a single sitting. This approach facilitates better absorption and utilization of amino acids by the body. The body doesn’t have a way to store excess amino acids, so stocking-up on protein at one meal won’t help later.
Additionally, ensuring adequate calorie intake is crucial as protein needs are often related to energy needs. Older adults may have a decreased appetite or difficulty consuming large meals, so incorporating protein-rich snacks like hummus with vegetables, edamame, or nut-based energy bars can help meet protein requirements.
Understanding and meeting protein needs across the lifespan is crucial for optimal health and well-being. A plant-based diet can provide all the essential amino acids and meet protein requirements at every stage of life, including pregnancy, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. By incorporating a variety of plant-based protein sources such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, individuals can ensure they obtain the necessary protein to support growth, development, muscle maintenance, and overall health.
It is important to note that individual protein requirements may vary based on factors such as age, activity level, and health status. Regardless of dietary preferences, adopting a balanced and diverse approach to nutrition, focusing on nutrient-dense whole foods, and paying attention to the quality and distribution of protein intake throughout the day are essential for supporting optimal health and well-being at every stage of life.
*When calculating your protein needs, calculate based on a healthy weight for your height. If you are a body-builder, you may have more muscle mass, and this will not work for you. If you have more body fat on your body, you do not want to calculate using the fat weight. Use a healthy weight for your height.
Here are some calculators you can use to calculate your own needs.
There are several trackers out there. I really like Chronometer. No, I’m not an affiliate, though I should be! It is great for tracking protein needs, as well as omega-3s and minerals.
Do you need help planning protein-rich plantbased meals? I can help! Schedule a call to see if we would work well together.
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