The Protein Myth!

It’s funny, but every time I tell peo­ple that I’m vegan they almost always ask, “Where do you get your protein?!”

So, for all of you curi­ous peo­ple out there, here’s the answer!

First of all, there is a myth that we all need way more pro­tein than we actu­ally do! Below, I’m going to share some of an arti­cle that PCRM (Physi­cians Com­mit­tee for Respon­si­ble Med­i­cine) put together called The Pro­tein Myth:

Pro­tein Require­ments

With the tra­di­tional West­ern diet, the aver­age Amer­i­can con­sumes about dou­ble the pro­tein her or his body needs. Addi­tion­ally, the main sources of pro­tein con­sumed tend to be ani­mal prod­ucts, which are also high in fat and sat­u­rated fat. Most indi­vid­u­als are sur­prised to learn that pro­tein needs are actu­ally much less than what they have been con­sum­ing. The Rec­om­mended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for pro­tein for the aver­age, seden­tary adult is only 0.8 grams per kilo­gram of body weight. To find out your aver­age indi­vid­ual need, sim­ply per­form the fol­low­ing calculation:

Body weight (in pounds) x 0.36 = rec­om­mended pro­tein intake

How­ever, even this value has a large mar­gin of safety, and the body’s true need is even lower for most peo­ple. Pro­tein needs are increased for women who are preg­nant or breast­feed­ing. In addi­tion, needs are also higher for very active per­sons. As these groups require addi­tional calo­ries, increased pro­tein needs can eas­ily be met through larger intake of food con­sumed daily. Extra serv­ing of legumes, tofu, meat sub­sti­tutes, or other high pro­tein sources can help meet needs that go beyond the cur­rent RDA.

So, it turns out that pro­tein defi­ciency is not really an issue in North Amer­ica. Actu­ally, there are dan­gers asso­ci­ated with too much pro­tein intake.

The Prob­lems with High-Protein Diets

High-protein diets for weight loss, dis­ease pre­ven­tion, and enhanced ath­letic per­for­mance have been greatly pub­li­cized over recent years. How­ever, these diets are sup­ported by lit­tle sci­en­tific research. Stud­ies show that the health­i­est diet is one that is high in car­bo­hy­drate, low in fat, and mod­er­ate in pro­tein. Increased intake of whole grains, fruits, and veg­eta­bles is rec­om­mended for weight con­trol and pre­vent­ing dis­eases such as can­cer and heart dis­ease. High-carbohydrate, low-fat, moderate-protein diets are also rec­om­mended for opti­mal ath­letic per­for­mance. Con­trary to the infor­ma­tion on fad diets cur­rently pro­moted by some pop­u­lar books, a diet that is high in pro­tein can actu­ally con­tribute to dis­ease and other health problems.

  • Osteo­poro­sis. High pro­tein intake is known to encour­age uri­nary cal­cium losses and has been shown to increase risk of frac­ture in research stud­ies. Plant-based diets, which pro­vide ade­quate pro­tein, can help pro­tect against osteo­poro­sis. Calcium-rich plant foods include leafy green veg­eta­bles, beans, and some nuts and seeds, as well as for­ti­fied fruit juices, cere­als, and non-dairy milks.
  • Can­cer. Although fat is the dietary sub­stance most often sin­gled out for increas­ing one’s risk for can­cer, ani­mal pro­tein also plays a role. Specif­i­cally, cer­tain pro­teins present in meat, fish, and poul­try, cooked at high tem­per­a­tures, espe­cially grilling and fry­ing, have been found to pro­duce com­pounds called het­e­ro­cyclic amines. These sub­stances have been linked to var­i­ous can­cers includ­ing those of the colon and breast. Long-term high intake of meat, par­tic­u­larly red meat, is asso­ci­ated with sig­nif­i­cantly increased risk of col­orec­tal can­cer. The 1997 report of the World Can­cer Research Fund and Amer­i­can Insti­tute for Can­cer Research, Food, Nutri­tion, and the Pre­ven­tion of Can­cer reported that, based on avail­able evi­dence, diets high in red meat were con­sid­ered prob­a­ble con­trib­u­tors to col­orec­tal can­cer risk. In addi­tion, high-protein diets are typ­i­cally low in dietary fiber. Fiber appears to be pro­tec­tive against can­cer. A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and veg­eta­bles is impor­tant in decreas­ing can­cer risk, not to men­tion adding more health­ful sources of pro­tein in the diet.
  • Impaired Kid­ney Func­tion. When peo­ple eat too much pro­tein, it releases nitro­gen into the blood or is digested and metab­o­lized. This places a strain on the kid­neys, which must expel the waste through the urine. High-protein diets are asso­ci­ated with reduced kid­ney func­tion. Over time, indi­vid­u­als who con­sume very large amounts of pro­tein, par­tic­u­larly ani­mal pro­tein, risk per­ma­nent loss of kid­ney func­tion. Har­vard researchers reported recently that high-protein diets were asso­ci­ated with a sig­nif­i­cant decline in kid­ney func­tion, based on obser­va­tions in 1,624 women par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Nurses’ Health Study. The good news is that the dam­age was found only in those who already had reduced kid­ney func­tion at the study’s out­set. The bad news is that as many as one in four adults in the United States may already have reduced kid­ney func­tion, sug­gest­ing that most peo­ple who have renal prob­lems are unaware of that fact and do not real­ize that high-protein diets may put them at risk for fur­ther dete­ri­o­ra­tion. The kidney-damaging effect was seen only with ani­mal pro­tein. Plant pro­tein had no harm­ful effect.

The Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Fam­ily Physi­cians notes that high ani­mal pro­tein intake is largely respon­si­ble for the high preva­lence of kid­ney stones in the United States and other devel­oped coun­tries and rec­om­mends pro­tein restric­tion for the pre­ven­tion of recur­rent kid­ney stones.

  • Heart Dis­ease. Typ­i­cal high-protein diets are extremely high in dietary cho­les­terol and sat­u­rated fat. The effect of such diets on blood cho­les­terol lev­els is a mat­ter of ongo­ing research. How­ever, such diets pose addi­tional risks to the heart, includ­ing increased risk for heart prob­lems imme­di­ately fol­low­ing a meal. Evi­dence indi­cates that meals high in sat­u­rated fat adversely affect the com­pli­ance of arter­ies, increas­ing the risk of heart attacks. Ade­quate pro­tein can be con­sumed through a vari­ety of plant prod­ucts that are cholesterol-free and con­tain only small amounts of fat.
  • Weight Loss Sab­o­tage. Many indi­vid­u­als see almost imme­di­ate weight loss as a result of fol­low­ing a high-protein diet. In fact, the weight loss is not a result of con­sum­ing more pro­tein, but by sim­ply con­sum­ing fewer calo­ries. Over the long run, con­sump­tion of this type of diet is not prac­ti­cal as it can result in the afore­men­tioned health prob­lems. As with any tem­po­rary diet, weight gain is often seen when pre­vi­ous eat­ing habits are resumed. To achieve per­ma­nent weight loss while pro­mot­ing opti­mal health, the best strat­egy involves lifestyle changes includ­ing a low-fat diet of grains, legumes, fruits, and veg­eta­bles com­bined with reg­u­lar phys­i­cal activity.

So what are good vegan sources of protein?

Pro­tein Check­list

High-protein diets are unhealthy. How­ever, ade­quate but not excess amounts of pro­tein to main­tain body tis­sues, includ­ing mus­cle, are still impor­tant and can be eas­ily achieved on a veg­e­tar­ian diet. If you are uncer­tain about the ade­quacy of pro­tein in your diet, take inven­tory. Although all pro­tein needs are indi­vid­ual, the fol­low­ing guide­lines can help you to meet, but not exceed, your needs.

  • Aim for 5 or more serv­ings of grains each day. This may include 1⁄2 cup of  hot cereal, 1 oz. of dry cereal, or 1 slice of bread. Each serv­ing con­tains roughly 3 grams of protein.
  • Aim for 3 or more serv­ings of veg­eta­bles each day. This may include 1 cup of raw veg­eta­bles, 1⁄2 cup of cooked veg­eta­bles, or 1⁄2 cup of veg­etable juice. Each serv­ing con­tains about 2 grams of protein.
  • Aim for 2 to 3 serv­ings of legumes each day. This may include 1⁄2 cup of cooked beans, 4 oz. of tofu or tem­peh, 8 oz. of soymilk, and 1 oz. of nuts. Pro­tein con­tent can vary sig­nif­i­cantly, par­tic­u­larly with soy and rice milks, so be sure to check labels. Each serv­ing may con­tain about 4 grams to 10 grams of pro­tein. Meat ana­logues and sub­sti­tutes are also great sources of pro­tein that can be added to your daily diet.

    Healthy Pro­tein Sources(in grams)

    • Black beans, boiled (1 cup) 15.2
    • Broc­coli (1 cup) 4.6
    • Bul­gur, cooked (1 cup) 5.6
    • Chick­peas, boiled (1 cup) 14.5
    • Lentils, boiled (1 cup) 17.9
    • Peanut but­ter (2 tbsp) 8.0
    • Quinoa, cooked (1 cup) 11.0
    • Sei­tan* (4 oz) 24.0
    • Spinach, boiled (1 cup) 5.4
    • Tem­peh (1/2 cup) 15.7
    • Tofu, firm (1/2 cup) 19.9
    • Whole wheat bread (1 slice) 2.7

    *A veg­e­tar­ian prod­uct made from wheat gluten; pro­tein value from manufacturer’s informationSource: J.A.T. Pen­ning­ton, Bowes and Church’s Food Val­ues of Por­tions Com­monly Used, 17th ed. (Philadel­phia: J.B. Lip­pin­cott, 1998). (Source: PCRM’s The Pro­tein Myth)


    Believe it or not, there are are lots of ath­letes and even body builders who have gone vegan and feel it’s bet­ter for their sport and mus­cle gain. A lot of them claim to have increased energy as a result of adopt­ing a plant based diet.

    Pro­fes­sional body builder and proud vegan Robert Cheeke works out on mus­cle beach:

    You can check out more info on him and other vegan body­builders at

    Triathelete Bren­dan Bra­zier and for­mer Hockey player Georges Laraque are two other great exam­ples of healthy and fit vegans!

    Above: Bren­dan Brazier

    Above: Georges Laraque

    The idea that veg­ans aren’t get­ting enough pro­tein is slightly ridicu­lous as pro­tein defi­ciency is a non-issue in North Amer­ica. Here at oy vegan we call BS on the meat and dairy indus­try for putting this bogus myth about pro­tein into our minds. A plant based diet can deliver not only an ade­quate amount of pro­tein for a well bal­anced diet but a bet­ter, health­ier source of pro­tein with­out all the crappy sat­u­rated fat and cho­les­terol that meat and dairy prod­ucts contain.

    So here’s to Tofu, beans, spinach, grains and nuts! Not only are they tasty, they’re also great nat­ural sources of pro­tein for one and all.

    Oy Vegan!

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