Friday, March 5, 2010

The Great Protein Myth

Just yesterday another person asked me how I get protein if I am eating mainly vegetables.  And my answer was that vegetables contain carbohydrates, fat AND protein.  Did you know that?  And along with the three macronutrients, vegetables contain thousands of micronutrients that protect us from cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, collard, beet greens, etc. are the highest in micronutrients, plus they have lots of, you guessed it, PROTEIN!  You don't get those micronutrients from a steak.

We really do have a protein obsession in this country.  So I was not at all surprised to wake up this morning to find that some of my favorite people (that I have never met before), Jackie Wicks of and Dr. Joel Fuhrman,  had made a YouTube video about just this topic yesterday!

The following is from Steve Pavlina, and it pretty much sums it up for me:

The Great Protein Myth

"When I tell people I’m vegan, often the first question out of their mouths is, 'Ok, so where do you get your protein?'

As soon as I hear this question, I do my usual eye roll and immediately know that I’m dealing with… well… someone who doesn’t know very much about plants. The idea that plant foods are somehow devoid of protein is nothing but a myth.

Myth #1: Plants are low in protein

Plant foods are generally abundant in protein. For example, lettuce gets 34% of its calories from protein, and broccoli gets 45% of its calories from protein. Spinach is 49%. Cauliflower is 40%. Celery is 21%. Beans range from 23% to 54% depending on the variety. Grains are 8% to 31%. Nuts and seeds are 8% to 21%. Fruits are the lowest at around 5-8% on average.

If you wanted to suffer from protein deficiency, you’d either have to seriously restrict total calories (i.e. starve yourself), or you’d have to eat a really messed up, unbalanced diet like nothing but low-protein junk foods and certain fruits. But in those cases, protein deficiency probably won’t be your biggest risk.

Personally I’ve never met anyone suffering from protein deficiency in the USA, vegan or otherwise. The much greater risk (in the USA at least) is overconsumption of protein.

Myth #2: Plant proteins are incomplete

Another myth is the idea that you need to combine different plant foods to form complete proteins. The idea was that most plant foods only contained some of the essential amino acids, so you’d have to combine “incomplete” foods like beans and rice to form meals that contained complete proteins. This idea was put forth in the 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. It was a million-copy bestseller. Unfortunately, many people still aren’t aware that this theory was later found to be completely false, as Lappé herself recanted her original theory in later works that were far less popular. The truth is that most plant foods do contain all the essential amino acids, but furthermore, your body will store amino acids in a pool between meals — it doesn’t even need to get all the essentials in a single meal. So the theory of combining plant foods to form complete proteins isn’t even remotely correct. Of course, lifelong vegans already knew Lappé’s theory was wrong, as they weren’t suffering from protein deficiencies regardless of how they combined their meals.

Many people today are still under the mistaken assumption that getting enough protein from plants is difficult or impossible. I particularly love it when people explain to me why I should either be dead or suffering from protein deficiency symptoms. I haven’t eaten any animal protein in 8.5 years now, and I’ve never had any protein deficiency symptoms, nor have any other vegans I’ve known.

Plus I’m not dead. On the contrary, I feel fantastic.

So don’t worry about getting enough protein. Just eat your veggies, and you’ll be fine."

Finally, I do want to mention that it is very possible to be an unhealthy vegetarian.  I was one for over 10 years.  Recently I came across the term "junk food vegetarian" and I would say that term applied to me.  I didn't really care about what I put in my body so long as there wasn't any meat from an animal in it.  But I didn't care if I ate a twinkie.  I wasn't healthy, I wasn't fit and I didn't have a surplus of energy.  I don't recommend that!


QZB said...

Another great post. I love Steve Pavlina! And I have to count myself among the masses who did not have a good understanding of protein, before reading Dr. Fuhrman's Eat to Live. Thanks for spreading the word that eating animals is not necessary for health and life!

Karen Hilsberg said...

i learned so much from this! thanks wendy.

Anonymous said...

a head of lettuce 106 cal, with 8g of protien.. the percent of cals to protien may be high in veg but the cals are so low so the protien is going to be really low 2.. as for beans the bv(witch is how much of the protien your body use) rait of bean is really low. so most of the bean protien is in your wast,not being used by your body, as for eggs it as 80 cal for one and 7g protien all so the bv rate of eggs is like 99.6%.. not sure the bv rate of lettuce is but it is nothing close to egg, so if you just had a 3 eggs around 21g you would have to eat 4 to 5 heads to get that much protien, i know i cant eat that much..

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