• Sumo

One of the most cited pitfalls of the vegetarian diet is its purported lack of protein. This is always one of the top questions asked by people who are thinking about becoming vegetarian – where to get my protein? This is especially problematic for people who are thinking about becoming vegetarian for environmental, ethical, or political reasons, and can be a road block in making the leap to the vegetarian diet.

The fact is, vegetarians are getting more than enough protein on their meatless diet – granted it’s even a remotely healthy diet. When you look at the science, the facts, it becomes abundantly clear that there is more than enough protein to go around.

Myth #1: Plants Don’t Have Protein

Plants actually have plenty of protein. How could they not? They’re made from the stuff. Cauliflower, broccoli, kale, spinach, even lettuce all have protein in them (anywhere from 1-3 grams per serving). Beans have very high levels of protein (15gr per serving). Whole grains, such as brown rice, have plenty of protein (5 gr per serving). Corn – present in so many of our meals – has 16gr in one cup. Even a medium potato has 4gr of protein to offer.

So, there is plenty of plant based protein out there for vegetarians and vegans to subsist off of. The recommended daily intake of protein is put at about 70grams per day – and that’s one cushy quota. More reasonable estimates are about 56grams per day. Either way, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike are getting more than their fair share of protein by simply eating food. A balanced diet can’t help but have sufficient levels of protein – it’s built into its structure.

Myth #2: Meat Protein Is Better Protein 

Protein that comes from meat is complete protein – it has all nine essential amino acids in one convenient food. If you’re vegetarian, though, and choose not to eat meat, and all the chemicals, hormones, and unhealthy fats and cholesterol that come along with it, all the “incomplete” proteins in your diet are easily made complete once you ingest them. Eating a variety of foods (rice and beans, different vegetables, moderate tofu) easily ensures that you’re getting all the different essential amino acids in sufficient levels.

This was first brought to light by the book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe. She makes the convincing argument that the complete proteins found in meat are not necessary to achieve maximum health, and various incomplete proteins ingested together have the exact same effect as the complete proteins found in food.

But wait! A few years later, Lappe countered her own argument by stating,

“In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.

“With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat).”

In short, she’s saying that as long as you eat a reasonably healthy diet – whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, even moderate amounts of dairy – you will get all the protein you need. No problem.

Myth #3: What about malnutrition in the developing world? They don’t have much meat to eat. 

Malnutrition in the developing world has very little to do with protein deficiency. The only time this is an issue is when – as Ms. Lappe points out – a majority of calories come from too few sources – tubers, sugars, etc. And although this is an issue, there are other far more pressing nutrients lacking in the developing world’s diet. The real issues of malnutrition are the other essential nutrients that are not present in a diet that lacks highly nutritious foods – like varied fruit and vegetable intake. These nutrients are iron, zinc, and vitamin A. Various experts on world hunger push for the spread of dietary supplements emphasizing vitamins and micronutrients in the developing world, rather than trying to push expensive proteins on them.

Myth #4:  You can’t build big muscles without eating meat. 

If you are an athlete or breast-feeding mother, you will need more protein to maintain optimum health. Again, all proteins are the same – none is better than any other. Also, plant based foods already have plenty of protein. The key, then – and most people do this on instinct alone – is to eat more food. This includes all foods, not just protein heavy ones. By eating more food, you’ll be compensating for any additional protein your body needs naturally. Carl Lewis was vegan. Bill Pearl – 4 time Mr. Universe – is vegetarian. Joe Namath, also vegetarian. Dave Scott – the most winning-est Iron Man competitor ever – is vegetarian.

Building muscle is clearly a non-issue for vegetarians.

Myth #5: What about The Atkins Diet?

It’s a wonder that The Atkins Diet even caught traction in the American public to begin with. The Atkins Diet works because it is a diet that tricks the body into thinking that it’s starving. When this happens in the body, it triggers the ketogenic process, where by the body burn fat as its main fuel source, rather than sugars and carbohydrates. Sure, you lose weight, but the jury is still out as to whether or not this diet does serious harm to the body or not. Some indicate that it does, others that it actually has benefits beyond losing weight.

As long as your committed to eating a relatively healthy vegetarian diet, do not worry about getting enough protein. Spend your time worrying about more important things – like your family or the world at large. Protein is one nutrient you can be sure you’re getting enough of.