The number one question people have about veganism is often how to get enough protein on a vegan diet. People are so concerned about this one nutrient over all other essential aspects of food because we have been sold the “the protein myth.”
For decades, the animal agriculture industry has pushed the misinformation that we need to consume more protein. With their lobbying power, these myths have even weaseled their way into national dietary guidelines. Fortunately, more health organizations, doctors and nutritionists are taking a stand to correct this harmful myth.
So, let’s get to the bottom of this perennial question: can you really get enough protein on a vegan diet?
- 1. The meat and dairy industries lobbied the USDA to promote increased protein consumption
- 2. International health organizations state vegan diets are nutritionally adequate
- 3. You should be worried about getting too much protein from animal-based sources
- 4. The need to combine plant foods to form “complete proteins” is a myth
- 5. If you’re getting enough calories, you’re getting enough protein
- Why you don’t need to worry about how to get enough protein on a vegan diet
1. The meat and dairy industries lobbied the USDA to promote increased protein consumption
Numerous sources recommend that as much as 35% of your daily calories can safely come from protein, such as the MayoClinic. Yet these guidelines are based on misinformation that the animal agriculture industry has promoted. Animal agriculture industries have successfully lobbied the USDA to increase the “safe upper limit” of consumption of protein, cholesterol and fat. They do this to encourage continued consumption of their products, as animal products contain all of these nutrients together. As a result, government guidelines recommend unsafe levels of these nutrients.
According to The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health (2016), cancer is best prevented with levels at 10% or lower and from plant sources. Yet the government recommends levels as high as 17-21%.
While 35% of heart attack victims have cholesterol levels between 150-200 mg/dL, the government advises that up to 200mg/dL is safe. Fat intake of 10% or lower of total calories most quickly reverses heart disease, but the government recommends levels that lead to a progression of heart disease.
2. International health organizations state vegan diets are nutritionally adequate
World Health Organization (WHO)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we should consume only 5-10% of our daily calories from protein. Most plants meet this percentage naturally. Staples like rice, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and vegetables easily provide us with the 8% of calories from protein. Even fruits typically contain about 5% of calories from protein.
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage.
Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.”
The British Dietetic Association
“Well-planned vegetarian diets [earlier in the document it states a vegan diet as an example of a vegetarian diet] are appropriate for all stages of life and have many benefits.”
The British Dietetic Association has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Vegan Society, pledging to ensure that registered dietitians in the UK are adequately educated about healthy vegan diets and are equipped to give advice to vegans.
The National Health Service (UK)
According to the UK’s National Health Service, “With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs.”
Australia’s government-funded health service
According to Health Direct, Australia’s national health service, plant-based diets can help reduce your risk of disease and provide you with all the protein, minerals and vitamins your body needs.
3. You should be worried about getting too much protein from animal-based sources
Nonvegetarians and vegetarians alike get on average 70% more protein than they need every day. In particular, males between the ages of 19-59 are often consuming excess protein. If you’re eating enough calories, you’re naturally eating enough protein. Not only do we not need to go out of our way to get enough protein, we should be wary of getting too much from animal-based sources.
Strong evidence from decades of high-quality studies links high-protein diets to many chronic diseases due to the fat, cholesterol and protein itself in animal products. Research connects high-protein diets with numerous cancers (colon cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer (2002, 2003, 2020)), type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, dementia, and increased all-cause mortality (2016, 2020).
As more evidence mounts about the connection between animal protein and disease, medical organizations are beginning to take notice. For instance, the American Medical Association has now recommended that meat and dairy be categorized as optional in the US Dietary guidelines.
4. The need to combine plant foods to form
“complete proteins” is a myth
You may have heard the idea that you need to combine plants at each meal to form “complete proteins.” That belief persists despite being dispelled decades ago. Although most plant proteins lack one or more of the 20 essential amino acids, vegans do not need to combine foods to form complete proteins. As long as you are getting enough calories, you will obtain all the essential amino acids naturally from the various plants you eat each day.
5. If you’re getting enough calories, you’re getting enough protein
This myth developed at the beginning of the 1900s and reached its peak in the 1960s. At this time, the UN published a report erroneously declaring a worldwide protein deficiency. But the real issue was “protein-energy malnutrition,” or overall calorie deficit. The issue was just not having enough food. Unless you’re eating a diet of Twinkies and chips, you can effectively only be protein deficient if you’re not getting enough calories.
What about athletes and older adults?
Several factors can increase your protein needs, but only by small amounts. To prevent sarcopenia (losing muscle mass), adults ages 40-50 and above should increase their consumption by about 1g per kg. Those who exercise or lift weights regularly should consume about 1.2g per kg.
For all the evidence you need to demonstrate that plants have more than enough nutrients to for fitness, check out The Gamechangers documentary.
Still not sure you can get enough protein on a vegan diet? Consider this: Some of the strongest animals, like elephants, rhinos, hippos and gorillas, maintain their muscle mass on an herbivorous diet.
Humans can, too.
Why you don’t need to worry about how to get enough protein on a vegan diet
Here’s why you don’t need to worry about how to get enough protein on a vegan diet: 1) the meat and dairy industries lobbied the USDA to promote increased protein consumption; international health organizations state vegan diets are nutritionally adequate across the lifespan; you should be worried about getting too much protein from animal-based sources; the need to combine plant foods to form “complete proteins” is a myth; and finally, if you’re getting enough calories, you’re getting enough protein.
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