The Great Protein Myth

The first question I always get after telling someone I’m a vegetarian is, “But how do you get enough protein?” The idea that meat is the only source of protein is a myth that has been ridiculously perpetuated through our culture (thanks in part to the USDA, who protects their beef farmers… more on that in a future post). The way Americans talk about protein, you’d think protein deficiency was the numer one health risk. PS – it’s not. In fact, it’s not even on the list of ailments doctors are worried about in any country where basic caloric needs are being met. You’d have to be suffering from starvation (or be on a really terrible crash diet) to acquire a protein deficiency, but at that point, protein deficiency probably wouldn’t be your biggest risk.

Instead, what doctors are concerned about is an intake of too much protein. Humans only need 10-15% of their calories to come from protein , but the average American consumes twice this ammount daily. (Pregnant women and athletes need slightly more, but I’m not talking about people who go to the gym once a day, I’m talking about professional athletes who work out as a job.)

So, why is excess protein harmful? Because your body can store excess carbohydrates and fats, but not protein. The excess protein gets converted into either fat or acid. To try to neutralize this excess acid, your kidneys leech calcium from your bones, stressing the kidneys and putting you at a higher risk of osteoperosis. (Coincidence that the highest rates of osteoperosis are in the most-meat-eating countries? No.)

What about the high protein diets, like Atkins? As your kidneys furiously try to rid the body of excess protein, you lose a significant amount of water which shows up on the scale as weight loss.

But, I still haven’t answered the question of how I, as a vegetarian, get my protein. Of course we all know that beans contain protein (23-54% calories from protein), but so do just about all other unrefined foods including: lettuce (34%), broccoli (45%), spinach (49%), cauliflower (40%), celery (21%), potatoes (11%), grains (8-31%), nuts and seeds (8-21%), and even fruits (5-8%). It would be near impossible to not get enough protein.

There is also a myth floating around out there that plant proteins are “incomplete” proteins. Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 8 “essential” amino acids that we must get from our food because our body can not produce them on its own. While it’s true that meat contains all 8 of these essential amino acids, so do plants. Some plants may be lower or higher in different types of amino acids, but no plants are missing any of them. So, just by not eating the exact same thing over and over, all of them are acquired in ample amounts.


5 Responses to “The Great Protein Myth”

  1. Name a successful body builder who is a vegetarian. Fact is carnivores have the biggest muscles because they provide the most usable proteins. If you eat high protein, you need higher raw vegetables to balance the acidity-heck, working out causes oxidative stress to your cells and tears your muscle fibers breaking them down. So do you complain that working out is bad? Not if it’s counteracted with healthy diets rich alkaline forming foods, plenty of protein to prevent a catabolic state (low protein will reduce nitrogen balance which is dangerous for your body), and sleep. Research has found that high protein diets not only result in better athletic performance but increased muscle growth, and greater fat loss.
    Not to mention the healthy fats (saturated and unsaturated) from organic grass fed beef and fish such as CLA’s that you miss out on. Not to mention the vitamin content of good beef is fantastic.
    Legumes and grains can provide a complete protein, but not near the amino acid profiles meat provides, nor the bio-availability of those proteins, which in vegetables must be manufactured.
    I’d be a vegetarian over a McDonald’s burger any day though.
    Healthy grass fed/organic/natural meat:
    Most usable protein,
    high vitamin content,
    healthy fats and important “non-healthy” fats.

    And about “Doctors”. Most doctors we interact with are doctors of medicine which has nothing to do with health. Most doctors today have degree’s in modern medicine and acute condition treatment. Preventative maintenance has to do with diets, exercise, and technological bio-killing product exposure. I would never take nutrition advice from a doctor – if you do you’re a moron and probably are unhealthy already.

  2. Powered By Produce Says:

    Roy Hilligenn, Mr. America and, according to one website, “arguably the strongest man in the world for his size” was a lifelong vegetarian., it is not my goal, nor probably yours (correct me if i’m wrong), nor the majority of Americans’ goal, to be a bodybuilder. I agree, that professional athletes need more protein than the average person (yes, protein does build muscle), but this amount can still be fulfilled by a vegetarian diet. True, a low protein diet would be detrimental to your health, but a vegetarian diet is not a low protein diet. To the contrary, the average American diet is a high protein one. And the average American (including myself) is not a professional athlete. As for healthy fats, all plant foods have trace amounts of fats, including strawberries (5% fat), bell peppers (6%), spinach (11%), and soybeans (41%). There are several high fat plant foods that contain over 80% fat, including avocados, nuts, olives, and coconuts. On a diverse vegetarian diet, you will consume about 9-15% of your calories from fat, which is ideal, plus you’ll get healthy monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats as opposed to dangerous saturated fats found only in animal products. Future posts coming regarding fast food burgers (which I agree, should be avoided), grass fed animals (agree again, on the superiority of their meat to corn fed animals), and vegetarian athletes.

  3. Powered By Produce Says:

    Oops… forgot the part about doctors! Who I mean by ‘doctors’ is not my personal physician, but rather the PhD’s who have written or been quoted in the books I’ve read.

  4. Leland Says:

    I agree with your point of view. Adam and Eve were vegetarian.

    However, please tell me how I can obtain my same 300g+ protein 300g+ fat intake with vegetarian meals. I’m interested in seeing how to achieve it. I would like to decrease my dependence on meat proteins a little because they are hard to digest – however legumes certainly don’t help me out! And carbs fill me up so I can’t eat anything. Lean meats allow me to pound down a 50g protein 1/2 beef salad for lunch and be hungry a few hours later and not feel nasty and full. A chicken breast salad for my second lunch is the same.

    However, I think fish is something you should be consuming. Problem there again is that you have to worry about where it was raised. So then at least supplement with fish oils such as Carlson’s Cod Liver Oil.

    And where do you stand on dairy products?

    The only bread I eat is God’s recipe: Ezekiel 4:9. Bread that provides a complete protein over a thousand years before protein was even known about, let alone amino acid profiles of food (another thousand plus years).

  5. Powered By Produce Says:

    Well first of all, 300g of protein is a huge amount – WAY more than the average American would want to consume, for reasons outlined in my original post (average would be more like 50-70g protein per day). However, if this is the amount that is recommended for your fitness goal, it may still be acheivable on a vegetarian diet.From some quick internet research, I found that there is actually a vegetarian version of The Zone diet (the high-protein diet fad). It recommends replacing meat proteins with:tofu meat-substitute vegetable protein (also called textured vegetable protein, or TVP)nuts nut-butters eggs cheese soybean protein powder soy based products other meat substitutes such as seitan or tempah

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