The Vegan and Vegetarian Protein Myth: Debunked

One of the main concerns consistently surrounding vegan and vegetarian diets involves a lack of protein. However, this concern is largely misplaced—there is no reason that cutting animal products results in protein-deficiency. The myth that protein can only be derived from animal products can quickly be put to rest because protein is found in all plant foods. Harder to demystify are doubts that arise from skeptics regarding a lack of sufficient protein intake from plants alone.

While Americans widely believe protein consumption is necessary in large quantities, the actual amount of protein intake humans require daily is only 0.36 grams for every pound we weigh. This amounts to nearly ten percent of daily caloric intake requirements of protein, which is about 46 grams per day for the average woman, and 56 grams per day for the average man. The largest study conducted on plant-based diets shows almost no discrepancy between strict vegetarian and non-vegetarians protein intake, shown by the data in the graph below. Furthermore, the study found American adults with protein deficiency is a significantly small proportion of the population, representing less than three percent of individuals. So, there is clearly no reason for the concern of vegan and vegetarian protein intake. The average protein consumption of Americans per day is sixteen percent, proving that we are actually over consuming protein. The body cannot store protein, so excess protein will be metabolized and excreted by the kidneys; the kidneys will pull alkalizing minerals, such as calcium, from the body in order to balance the acidic effect of protein on the bloodstream.

Source: Rizzo, Nico et al, “Nutrient Profiles of Vegetarian and Nonvegetarian Dietary Patterns”


So what exactly is protein and why do we require it? Proteins are instrumental in almost everything organisms do; their functions range from speeding up chemical reactions to playing a role in defense, storage, transport, cell communication, movement, or structural support. Humans have tens of thousands of proteins, all with a unique structure that determines its specific function. The same set of twenty amino acids are the building blocks that cells bind together to create these proteins. Eleven of these amino acids are considered nonessential and can be made by the human body. The remaining nine are considered essential, and therefore cannot be made by the body so must be derived from diet.

Animal-based protein such as eggs, cow’s milk, meat, and fish contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids, making them complete proteins. Many plant-based foods, such as soybeans, chia and hemp seeds, spinach, and quinoa are also complete protein sources. Although many plant-based foods are considered complete proteins, some plant based foods may be deficient in one or more essential amino acids. These are known as complementary proteins. Complementary proteins can be combined throughout the day so that if one food is low in one essential amino acid, the deficit can be made up with another food. A variety fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes throughout the day will provide sufficient protein.

In fact, the right plant-based foods are actually healthier sources of protein than animal products since they usually contain fewer calories, less fat, no cholesterol, more fiber, and more nutrients (like potassium, iron, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A and C). So, non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike should strive to incorporate more plant-based variety foods in their diet. Decreasing consumption of animal products has a multitude of environmental, health, and animal welfare benefits, and substituting a plant-based meal for even once per day or for one day per week makes a pivotal impact.

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