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The Protein Myth

Those of us who are vegetarian or vegan have all experienced the concerned friend or relative who poses the question, “But where do you get all the protein that you need?!?” They half ask and half assert you aren’t getting enough protein, as if it is a magical component encapsulated only in animal products.

It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s so much more productive to use that question as an opportunity to have the protein conversation. Most people on the Standard American Diet (SAD) are misinformed by the meat and dairy industries and lobbying groups that prioritize the interests of these powerhouses. They preach that animal-based products are necessary to uphold optimal health and are the “best” sources of many nutrients we need, including protein.. It’s only when we start questioning mainstream propaganda that we are able to see the hidden agendas therein.

Let’s debunk the Protein Myth that so many people tend to believe.

First, let’s look at what the World Heath Organization (WHO) recommends as the amount of protein needed to maintain optimal health. This is where most of the confusion stems as there are vastly varying opinions out there, especially in the world of fad diets. The WHO recommends that we get 5% of our daily calories from protein, 6% for pregnant women. Most research-based information recommends 5%-10% of total calories comes from protein, with 10% being extreme situations. 

Most people are unaware that protein is found in ALL plant foods, and the protein-to-calorie ratio is actually quite high. This is not an elusive component privy only to meat products. Most fruits and vegetables (raw) have between 5-15% protein content. Fruits like strawberries, oranges and peaches have a protein content of 7-9%. Rivaling the calorie percentages in most meat, 20-40% of the calories in beans and broccoli, and an astounding 40-51% in greens, including romaine, kale and spinach come from protein. Legumes and cooked beans have 18-20% protein.

It is also important to look at the quality of proteins that we eat. Proteins are made from a chain of 20 different animo acids. There are 8 amino acids know as ‘essential amino acids’ that people cannot make and must be obtained from our diets. Since plants are made up of perfectly, structurally sound cells of enzymes and hormones, they are very rich sources of proteins. It is important to get a varied array of protein sources to get the full range of amino acids. Eating a mixture of beans and grains help ensure that you are getting the necessary ‘essential’ amino acids as well. For those healthy vegetarians and vegans who actually eat fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes and not just the processed vegan/vegetarian junk foods out there, it is very easy to get the necessary amount and variety of protein for optimal health. Much easier than the meat industry would want you to believe.

Something else to note for those naysayers out there: too much protein is not good for your health. The average American gets around 16% of their calories from protein. That is 3 times the WHO’s recommended amount. Eating more protein than your body needs has been directly connected to cancer promotion, can lead to weight gain as excess protein is stored as fat, can lead to stress on your kidneys from nitrogen waste in your blood, and leach bone minerals, among other health issues.

Next time a concerned party comments on your ability to obtain the proper amount and quality of protein, you can debunk the myth and educate them. At the very least they’ll feel more comfortable knowing that you are aware of what your body needs and are taking the necessary steps to maintain or improve your health.