The Protein Question—Part One

Protein Chart

It will come as no surprise to other vegans that the first question I was asked upon announcing my intention to give up meat and dairy products was “Where will you get your protein?” The answer is a simple one—everywhere! There is protein in everything that I eat. I no more have to keep track of the amount of protein that I eat than I have to keep track of the number of times I chew my food. Eating sufficient calories of whole plant foods means that I am getting plenty of protein.

The attached chart shows the results of a study of the average number of grams of protein eaten by Americans. The daily requirement of protein is indicated in grams with a dotted red line (approximately 42 grams). The average omnivore eats nearly twice the required quantity of protein, but so does everyone else, including vegans. The only people who suffer from a protein deficiency are those who are not eating sufficient calories to sustain life, in which case protein is not their main concern.

Why is it that so many people assume that a vegan diet will be deficient in protein? One main reason for this is the confusing nature of the USDA Food Guidelines as presented on the My Plate graphic,. My Plate seems perfectly clear when it advises us to fill our plates over three quarters full of Fruits, Vegetables and [whole] Grains. These are food types that we can all understand. It is that final scant quarter that is confusing.

Protein is not a food type. It is a nutrient. Listing a nutrient with several food types makes the My Plate graphic inconsistent, and purposefully confusing. The USDA is fully aware that there is protein in fruit, vegetables and whole grains. They even advise that a vegetarian diet is a healthy alternative eating pattern. They include some vegetarian foods in their explanation of what they mean by protein—“legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds and soy products.” They include legumes with the protein portion in spite of the fact that they had also listed legumes with the vegetable portion, because legumes are particularly high in protein content. In fact, soy beans have a higher protein content (36 percent) than beef steak (28 percent). The reason My Plate uses Protein to designate one portion of their plate is to imply that the public should be filling one quarter of their plate with meat.

The message that the USDA has been sharing with the public has remained largely unchanged over the nearly one hundred years since it began to publish eating guidelines. The first graphic they created to promote healthy eating, in the 1940s, has a striking resemblance to the modern My Plate. The primary difference is in the treatment of Dairy (which has now been separated from the plate, but given a prominent position on the side), and the loss of butter as an important component of a healthy diet—certainly not surprising. What is a surprise is what little change they have made to the guidelines in spite of mounting evidence about the harmful effects of animal products on human health.

1940s Food Guides Chart

The trouble is that the USDA has conflicting directives. They are tasked with creating healthy food guidelines that impact school lunches and other governmental food programs, but their primary responsibility is to promote agriculture. They cannot say or do anything that might damage agricultural sales. In fact, they must promote greater consumption of agricultural products above all things. That means that if there is a conflict between health and the consumption of meat and dairy products, then agriculture is going to win to the detriment of public health.

You can do the research yourself. The USDA has their analysis of the nutrient content of hundreds of foods in their searchable database. Or, you could just do an internet search for “black beans nutrition” and let google provide the data. The average female requires 2000 calories per day to maintain her weight and health, the average male will require about 2500 calories. The protein requirement is roughly ten percent of the daily calories. For a women, then, her average intake of protein need not exceed 200 calories per day.

If you are trying to fill up on spinach and romaine lettuce you probably won’t be able to eat enough protein, because you will not be able to eat enough calories in a day! You would need to eat 286 cups of spinach to get enough calories. 286 cups of spinach contain 257.4 grams of protein. So, if you could eat enough spinach, you would be getting more than enough protein! And spinach is particularly low in protein content (.9 grams per cup).

Nobody is going to be eating all of their calories from spinach. On a plant based diet, you will eat much more calorie dense foods, like nuts and seeds, as well as the calorie poor (but nutrient dense) foods like spinach. I know that I like to throw in a handful of slivered almonds or some edamame (green soy beans) into my spinach salad. These calorie dense foods have much more protein in them, as well as more calories. That makes it easy to get enough protein each day. Simply eat enough calories from whole plant based foods, and you will be getting more than enough protein—just like the chart at the top shows. Vegans do not suffer from protein deficiency unless they are eating insufficient calories, or filling up on empty calories—in which case, they are no better off than their omnivorous junk food eating counterparts.

I don’t count my protein grams each day, but then neither do I count my calories. I let my body decide when it needs more fuel, and let my appetite be my guide. I am secure in the knowledge that whatever healthy plant based foods I am eating will have sufficient protein to sustain health.

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