05/10/2012 04:23 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

A Primer on Protein

Perhaps the most common question veggies get is "...but where do you get your protein?" Concerned mothers, incredulous friends, or curious coworkers all want to know! Let's take a look at...

Back to Basics

First, protein is made up of amino acids. When you eat protein-rich foods, these are the nutrients your body is after. In all, you need 20 amino acids, and your body can make 12 of them on its own. The other eight "essential" amino acids come from food. Now, here's the crucial part: All eight of these essential amino acids can be found in plants! This needs repeating: You can get all of the amino acids your body needs on a plant-based diet. That's right, no meat required! Quinoa and soybeans are two examples of plant-based foods that contain all eight essential amino acids. It's that simple! Many other plants have five out of the eight amino acids. As long as you eat a diverse diet, you will easily get all you need. For example, when you eat rice with beans, you get the full complement of amino acids. That said, you don't have to get all eight amino acids in the same meal. I think it was back in the '70s when this rumor started, but now we now that you just need to eat a colorful, plant-based diet with lots of varieties of veggies, grains and beans, to fulfill your nutritional requirements.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Protein is not a nutrient your body can store, so if you eat too much of it, your blood gets acidic, and you get sick -- this is the case with many people who follow a typical Western diet. We live in a culture of excessive protein consumption, hence the fear of eating too little of it. The truth is, it's actually difficult to eat too little protein. Just about every food we eat contains it, including grains and veggies!

How Much Is Enough?

Of course, the amounts of protein each food contains varies, but you may be surprised by how little your body actually needs. One protein-dense food per day (tofu, tempeh, seitan, beans), as part of a meal that is roughly one-fourth protein, one-fourth grain, and half veggies should be enough. The rest of your meals can be a 50/50 ratio of grains to veggies. If you follow this plan, you should be getting all the protein you need. There's no need to get anal about the ratios -- these are just rough estimates to keep in the back of your mind.

Also, if you work out a ton, or you just really love the idea of eating tons of protein, it's easy to do. You can eat beans, nuts, tempeh, tofu, and seitan as much as you want to. It won't hurt you the way animal-based protein will. There are also protein powders, but of course food is the better choice if you want to be a superhero.

All of this information is in my book, The Kind Diet. If you'd like to delve even deeper into the science about protein, check out T. Colin Campbell's seminal book The China Study.

I hope you feel better about the veggies around you. If you want to feel better and look better than you ever have, give The Kind Diet a read and check out for more interesting and fun tips about food, health, and beauty for living a kind lifestyle.