If you've ever made the switch from a traditional to a plant-based diet, you’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of your relatives and friends suddenly becoming dietitians when you tell them about the change to your personal menu.

“But where do you get your protein?” they all ask—a surprisingly common query in a country that by all indications consumes too much protein already. In fact, several studies show that excessive protein intake is implicated in conditions ranging from kidney disease to certain malignant cancers. Certainly, experience has taught us to be cautious in a world already inundated by processed foods that bear little resemblance to our ancestral diet.

Here’s the scoop on protein, without the powder.

Proteins, simply, are chains of amino acids bound together into different shapes and functions depending on their composition and order. Ten to fifteen percent of human caloric needs are generally provided by amino acids. Hundreds of different amino acids exist in nature, but humans utilize 20 of them as the building blocks for everything from our skin to the enzymes that break down our food. Of these, our bodies can only synthesize 11, meaning the other 9 types have to come from our diet. Nervousness, exhaustion and dizziness have been reported in people receiving inadequate levels of these “essential” amino acids.

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