Brent Lockridge, CNP
The Protein Myth
“When you think of the biggest animals on the planet – elephants, buffalo, giraffe, huge, huge mammals – they don’t eat meat – where do they get their protein? It grows out of the ground. Plants are full of protein. That’s where these animals get it, and that’s where we can get it as well.”
Michael Klaper, physician, author, speaker
When considering the switch to a 100% Whole Food Plant-based (WFPB) diet, a diet void of any animal products, one is often met with the concern of family and friends regarding their impending protein deficiency. Their concern is misplaced. The truth is, protein is abundant in plant foods, and our bodies are in desperate need of more of these health promoting foods.
When we look at the dietary patterns of North Americans, Europeans, Australians, and many other western countries we see that the vast majority of these cultures use animals, and animal products as their primary source of dietary protein. 66% of the protein consumed in western countries comes from animal products. In the remainder of the world it is the opposite, with 65% of protein coming from plants such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, and the balance coming from much smaller amounts of animal protein.[i]
The western world is obsessed with protein. We see this every day, everywhere. It is very difficult to go into any restaurant, or visit any fast food establishment in North America, and not have every single item on the menu with some form of animal protein. Whether it is meat as the main dish, cheese in a sandwich, or on top of a pizza, or eggs and milk in prepared foods. It is everywhere.
Too Much Protein
Westerners also consume far too much protein in their diets, and they are egged on (pun intended) by the animal agriculture industry and its far-reaching lobby and advertising campaigns that try to convince consumers they are protein deficient. Which, incidentally, is almost a non-existent condition in the western world. The overconsumption of animal-based proteins leads people to foods that are known to cause, obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, and many forms of cancer.[ii]
The majority of our population is convinced that animal derived proteins are necessary for good health. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The 3 Myths
Plant proteins are misunderstood by most people in the developed world. They are perceived as lacking in 3 areas. First, they are considered “poor quality” protein, lacking in the substances needed to fill proteins role in our body. Second, they are considered difficult to assimilate into our system (aka poor bioavailability), and lastly, they are seen as lacking sufficient amounts of protein per serving. I will provide clearer information on each of these.
Let’s take a step back and understand what protein is, why it is required for our bodies to function properly, and where it is obtained.
Protein is made up of 22 amino acids. These amino acids are often referred to as the building blocks of protein. Of these 22 amino acids, 13 are produced by our body, and the remaining 9, called “essential amino acids (EAA)” because they cannot be produced by the body, must be obtained through our diet.
Protein is involved in hundreds of tasks within the body, obviously too many to mention here, so we will just highlight a few. Protein is essential for our body’s structure and movement; it is a major component of our muscles and bones. Proteins help make up antibodies, thus protecting our health. It also aids chemical reactions in our bodies in the form of both enzymes, and hormones. Protein acts as a carrier of various constituents in the body, such as the movement of oxygen through our vascular system. Adults use protein to help maintain and replace cells, while children require extra protein to build new cells. Getting enough is critical!
It’s All There
There is some confusion in the public discourse as to whether one can obtain all EAA in plant foods. To set the record straight I will emphasize that all plant foods have all 9 EAA. Let me repeat that, all plant foods have all 9 EAA.[iii] Where the confusion lies is in the amount of EAA in plant food. Some plant foods such as quinoa and soy products, including soymilk, tofu, tempeh and edamame are rich in all EAAs, similar to animal products, these proteins provide all the EAA in sufficient amounts in each serving. The remainder of plant foods have varying amounts of these EAA, and when individuals eat a variety of plant foods, a full complement of EAA are provided. A few simple diagrams help explain this:
Egg and quinoa contain sufficient amounts of all 9 EAA in a serving.
Beans have all 9 EAA, but are low in tryptophan and methionine, and high in isoleucine and lysine
Grains have all 9 EAA, but are low in isoleucine and lysine, and high in tryptophan and methionine.
Beans and Grains combined provide an adequate amount of all 9 EAA.
It is important to note that you do not need to combine all the essential amino acids at one meal. Your body stores them in a pool and draws upon it when needed. You do, however, need to regularly eat a variety of quality foods that will provide the full complement of amino acids.
Many cultures around the world have used these food-combining techniques for thousands of years to maintain excellent health while eating exclusively, or predominantly plant-based foods. For example, Asian cultures rely on soybeans and rice as a food staple, while South American cultures use beans and corn.
This is why a Whole Food Plant-based diet prescribes the consumption of a calorically sufficient variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nut, seeds, and mushrooms to provide all protein needs, and to deliver optimum health.
By combining these plant food groups (below) you receive a full complement of essential amino acids, and hence a high-quality protein.
I would like to take a pause here just to make a very important point regarding the term “whole grains.” These foods are extremely nutritious, providing high amounts of protein, fiber, zinc, and the energy facilitating vitamin B family. It is important to eat these foods in their whole form, such as brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, barley, oats, wheatberries and corn, to obtain all the nutrients these foods have to offer. Whole grains can be eaten in the form of whole grain bread, tortillas and pastas; however, these processed choices are less nutritious. Any highly refined grain products, such as most crackers, white breads and white pasta have all their beneficial components processed out and should be avoided.
Getting What You Need
It is true that plant protein is slightly more difficult for our bodies to absorb. However, this is easily remedied by a slight increase in the amount consumed, generally about 10%.[iv]
This leads us to the last contention regarding plant protein, that it is insufficient to meet our daily requirement of protein.
So, how much protein do we need? It is generally agreed that individuals require between .8 grams of protein per kg of body weight, and 2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight, depending on activity level, activity type, or stage of life. Athletes need more than sedentary people, a power sport athlete requires more than an endurance athlete, and pregnant women and children need a protein boost as well.
A 160-pound (73 kg) individual would require approximately 58g of protein a day, (73kg x .8g/day) if this person were 100% plant based, they would require 64g (an additional 10%) of protein.[v]
Easily obtained with a WFPB diet.
A hard working 160-pound endurance runner requires about 110 grams (73kg x 1.5g per kg) of protein.[vi] These needs can easily be met in our example by increasing to a larger bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, having a second bowl of soup at lunch, and an extra tortilla for dinner. This would also satisfy the increased caloric need.
So, it is clear that plant-based proteins are high quality, providing all the essential amino acids. They are easily assimilated into our system and provide sufficient amounts of protein to meet our needs.
The Big Bonus
In my opinion however, the tremendous benefit of plant-based proteins is that they come in whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. All of these foods are also rich in high quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, fiber, trace minerals and phytonutrients. The latter three are not found in animal food and are often removed from refined plant foods. Also consider that only 3-5% of North Americans consume the daily requirement for fiber, which leads to many health issues.
So, add lots of plants to your menu, and reap the benefits that a WFPB diet provides, confident that you are meeting all your bodies’ needs.
[i] Davis, Melina; Becoming Vegan, p81
[ii] Weisburger J., Eat to live, not live to eat, 2000, 16, 767-773
[iii] McDougall John, Letter to the AHA; https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/01.CIR.0000018905.97677.1F
[iv] Davis, Melina; Becoming Vegan, p83
[v] Davis, Melina; Becoming Vegan, p409
[vi] Davis, Melina; Becoming Vegan, p410