The Great Protein Myth

September 6th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

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.



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