Demystifying Protein – Animal vs Plant Protein

One of the most common questions vegans or vegetarians get is “where do you get your protein?” Animal foods such as meat and eggs are seen by many people as the gold standard of this macronutrient. Plant foods, on the other hand, are often seen as deficient and lacking in ‘complete’ protein. The truth is quite different, so how does the myth of plant-protein deficiency keep being recycled as fact? Well, let’s start by looking at the facts.

DNA Strand

Why is protein so important?

Protein, according to Julieanna Hever, the Plant-Based dietitian,  in her book ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition’ plays a crucial role in most – if not all – structural and functional mechanisms of the human body. Protein makes up part of every cell in the body, including muscles, organs, hair, nails, skin, teeth, ligaments, cartilage and tendons, and, although not as efficient as carbohydrate, acts as source of energy. The building blocks of protein are a total of 20 amino acids. Your body can produce 11 of these amino acids, and there are 9 amino acids you must get from your diet.

Plant protein

If you consume enough calories from a variety of whole plant foods, you will get enough protein. Even mainly carbohydrate foods such as bananas, potatoes and rice have 5, 8 and 9 percent respectively of their calories as protein. The real plant-food superstars of protein though are beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. For example, lentils have 36 percent of their calories as protein, and leafy green vegetables have almost half their calories from protein. Soybeans and its by-products such as tempeh and soybean curd, or tofu, are high in protein, which does have all essential amino acids.

Don’t you need complete protein?

Because most plant foods have less of one or some of the essential 9 amino acids, it was thought that you would need to combine certain plant foods to make up for this ‘deficiency’. This notion was based on the idea that you need all 9 essential amino acids at every meal. Animal foods have all essential amino acids, and, except for a few examples such as soybeans and quinoa, most plant foods don’t. However the fact is that your body needs amino acids, not foods with ‘complete’ proteins, and a varied plant-based diet has every amino acid you need.


How much protein do you need?

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. In Australia, the amounts are very similar: The recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein (measured in grams per kilogram of bodyweight) is:

  • 0.75 g/kg for adult women
  • 0.84 g/kg for adult men
  • Around 1 g/kg for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and for men and women over 70 years.

For example, a 75 kg adult male would need 63 g of protein per day. Consider this (brief) list of regular servings of plant foods and their corresponding protein quantities in grams:

  • Quinoa, half-cup cooked: 11.1 g
  • Tofu, raw, firm, half-cup: 19.9 g
  • Barley, pearled, 1 cup cooked: 16.4 g
  • Chickpeas, 1 cup cooked: 14.5 g
  • Lentils, 1 cup cooked: 17.9 g
  • Baked beans, 1 cup: 12.1 g

Can you have too much animal protein?

There are many high-protein, low-carb diets around today, in particular Paleo and its variations. Typically, lots of meat, no grains or starches, and some veggies feature prominently in such diets. But can you get too much meat and protein?

According to dietitian Amanda Benham, the Human Herbivore,  diets such as Paleo and Atkins “…encourage unhealthy eating patterns such as high consumption of animal products (…meat, eggs, cheese etc.), which are loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol and devoid of fibre and other beneficial plant components.”

Dr Neal Barnard and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) say that “a diet that is high in protein can actually contribute to disease and other health problems.” The PCRM advice is that too much animal protein can lead to increased risk of osteoporosis, as high protein intake is known to encourage urinary calcium losses. An excess of animal protein and foods in the diet can also lead to increased cancer risk, impaired kidney function, heart disease and weight-loss sabotage.

Cornell University Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry, Dr T Colin Campbell, and author of The China Study, tells us that animal protein is a potent carcinogen.

According to Dr Campbell, “Casein [the main protein of cow’s milk] is the most relevant chemical carcinogen ever identified.”


How to get enough healthy plant protein

It is important to get enough protein, however too much animal protein can be harmful to your health. The following guidelines are based on those developed by PCRM:

  • Have a least 5 servings of grains each day, which may include half a cup of hot cereal, 1 ounce of dry cereal, or one slice of wholemeal bread. Each serving contains about 3 grams of protein.
  • Consume three or more servings of vegetables each day. This may include 1 cup of raw vegetables, half a cup of cooked vegetables, or half a cup of vegetable juice (I use my NutriBullet to make vegetable and fruit blended beverages). Each serving contains roughly 2 grams of protein.
  • Try to have 2 to 3 servings of legumes each day, including half a cup of cooked beans, 4 ounces of tofu or tempeh, 8 ounces of soymilk, and 1 ounce of nuts. While protein content can vary significantly, each serving may contain about 4 to 10 grams of protein. Meat analogues and substitutes are also great sources of protein that can be added to your daily diet. (Thanks to PCRM for this checklist).

Still not convinced?

If you’re skeptical about plant foods being able to meet your protein needs, think about the sheer bulk and muscle power of such plant-eaters as gorillas, elephants and rhinos. In the human race, consider the ultra-fit vegan athletes that don’t rely on any animal products for their super-human achievements. Strongman Patrik Baboumian, marathon champion Brendan Brazier and fighter Mac Danzig are elite athletes who swear that a plant-based is the secret behind their success. Patrik Baboumian, an Armenian-German, known as the herbivore strongman with 50-cm biceps, was quoted regarding his change to a vegetarian, then later vegan diet:

”I was amazed by the great gains in lean body-mass and strength I got with the meat-free diet,” says Patrik.

Former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion Brendan Brazier , swears by a whole-food vegan diet. He was also quoted in the article:

“Through good nutrition we can thrive in life without the need for stimulants, sugars and pharmaceuticals, and the Vegetarian, Vegan and Raw Plant Based Whole Food choices are the best,” Brendan says.

American MMA (mixed martial arts) and UFC fighter Mac Danzig has been a vegan since 2004 and follows a high carbohydrate, low fat raw vegan diet. According to the 33-year-old Mac, who has 21 wins under his belt from 33 bouts enjoys a diet rich in nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconuts and “feels amazing”. Maybe it was time you started feeling “amazing” too?

Tom Perry

Protein Myth, Vegan Athletes and Plantbased Diet For Weight Loss


GNN #04

This week my top 5 nutrition news items focus on that perennial source of controversy with vegetarian or vegan diets – protein.

We have the current high-protein vs high-carb diet dichotomy, then there’s animal vs plant protein, and there’s the inevitable question that arises when people don’t eat meat or animal products: “where do you get your protein?”

Hopefully these articles will help to answer these questions. Not to mention the fact that, as a 190cm / 6ft 3” male, I have easily obtained enough dietary protein from plant sources since I went vegetarian (and later vegan) in 1982!

Slaying The Protein Myth

In 2014 Forks Over Knives published an article by vegan ultra-athlete, author and speaker Rich Roll titled ‘Slaying the Protein Myth’. In this article Rich Roll identifies the relentless marketing messages from the wealthy and powerful animal food industry that, naturally, would have us all believe that their products are necessary for protein intake.

Speaking as a plant-based athlete, Rich Roll can confidently say that not only is consumption of animal protein unnecessary, “it’s killing us, luring us to feast on a rotunda of factory-farmed, hormone- and pesticide-laden, low-fiber foods extremely high in saturated fat.” Rich then poses the questions; does it matter if we get our protein from plants, and how much do we need?

As Rich notes, the nine essential amino acids our body needs can readily be synthesized by a variety of plant foods, which, after all, is where herbivorous animals get it from. The danger lies not in getting too little protein, but in consuming too much animal protein. Not only is there evidence that excess protein intake is often stored in fat cells, Rich Roll writes, it contributes to the onset of a variety of diseases, such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, and heart disease.

Compare this to the plant-based lifestyle, which Rich Roll says repaired his health and “revitalized” his “middle-aged self” to teenage proportions.

If you’re not convinced, Rich Roll invites you to consider all the well-known, plant-based athletes (see below), and the huge, powerful animals which build their muscular bulk on raw plant foods, such as elephants, rhinos and gorillas.

Do Vegetarians and Vegans Eat Enough Protein?

The fact is adults require about 42 grams of protein intake each day, and vegetarians/vegans consume, on average, 70% more protein than the recommended intake (over 70 grams).

Another article on the Forks Over Knives website, based on Dr Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts research, answers the question that many ask, or think of; do vegetarians/vegans get enough protein?

The real dietary deficiency in the US and other wealthy western countries (including Australia) is not protein, but fibre, which is found only in whole plant foods like beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

A lack of adequate dietary fibre intake has been associated with a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and various cancers, as well as higher cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Short answer is yes. As long as they eat enough calories to meet their dietary intake, vegetarians and vegans get enough protein.

Dr. Ornish On The Hazards Of The High-Protein Trend

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, physician, author, researcher, and plant-based diet guru Dr. Dean Ornish challenges current notions about the importance of dietary animal protein and fats.

As Dr. Ornish observes, many people have claimed that obesity is linked to the high consumption of sugar and starch, and not enough meat, fat and eggs. Recently the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee lifted recommendations that restricted dietary cholesterol (only found in animal foods), citing research showing that dietary cholesterol doesn’t have a major impact on cholesterol levels.

Contrary to popular claims that people have abandoned meat and fat for sugary processed foods, Americans consumed 67% more added fat, 39% more sugar, and 41% more meat in 2000 than that they did in 1950, and nearly 25% more calories than they had in 1970.

The Australian Health Survey found that Aussies are eating 30 per cent less fruit and vegetables than 15 years ago, with one in four adults eating no vegetables on an average day and only 7 per cent eating the daily recommended five servings. Meanwhile, we have also decreased our grain consumption, with Australians consuming 29 per cent fewer core grain foods in 2014 than in 2011, while six per cent did not eat any at all. Instead, we are filling up more on take away food high in saturated fat, animal products, and sugar. Meat consumption in Australia has increased from 103 kg in 1962 to 111 kg per person in 2011, with chicken and pork significantly increasing their market share, and Australians allocating about 40 percent of their food expenditure on meat. As Dr Ornish notes, it’s no wonder people are fatter and unhealthier.

According to Dr. Ornish, research shows that “animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.” He makes the point that low-carb, high-animal protein diets promote heart disease in ways other than just their effects on cholesterol levels.

The problem with meat and egg yolks is that their increased production of TMAO – trimethylamine N-oxide significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, animal protein increases IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone, and chronic inflammation, an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.

Dr. Ornish has proven in randomized, controlled trials that a whole-foods, plant-based lifestyle can reverse the progression of severe coronary heart disease. After a few weeks of these trials, episodes of chest pain reduced by 91%. After 5 years, there were 2.5 times fewer cardiac events, and blood flow to the heart improved by 300%.

It is possible, writes Dr. Ornish, that these diet and lifestyle changes can alter your genes, turning on the ones that keep you healthy, and turning off genes that promote disease; and even lengthen telomeres – the ends of our chromosones that control aging.

Dr. Ornish found in his research that the more people followed a whole food plant based lifestyle, controlled stress, did regular exercise, and reduced the amount of fat and cholesterol they consumed, the more improvement in their health was measured. As Dr. Ornish puts it, “what you gain is so much more than what you give up.”

10 Male Athletes You Didn’t Know Were Vegan

As legendary US gridiron quarterback Joe Namath once said of his transition to vegetarianism, “It shows that you don’t need meat to play football.”

This list of famous vegan male athletes surely slam-dunks the archaic notion that plant based athletes don’t get enough protein, particularly animal protein, to build serious muscle strength and power.

Some of the names listed may be well known to you, such as healthy vegan diet athletes, authors and plant based advocates Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier, but some, like Mike Tyson, might raise a few eyebrows. It’s good to see an Aussie make the list too: one of our celebrated Olympic swimming champions, the ‘Seaweed Streak’, Murray Rose.

Bodybuilders, Mixed Martial Arts fighters, super-strong men; this roll call of male vegan athletic superstars demonstrates emphatically that strength and endurance can be easily developed on a fully plant based diet.

Plant-Based: Officially The Best Diet For Weight Loss

Plantbased for weightloss

You’ll always find us banging on at Little Green Habits about how a whole food plant based diet is best for long-term health and sustained weight loss. Well, now it’s official!

As recently widely reported, including the New Daily, you can save the planet, your health and your waistline by simply going veggo.

Despite the oft-repeated claims that vegetarians and vegans will waste away due to lack of animal protein, and that scarfing loads of animal protein is best to fill you up and trim off the kilos, a study recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that, on average, vegetarian dieters lost an extra 2 kilos (and vegans an extra 2.5 kilos) than those who ate animal products.

Lead author Dr. Ru-Yi Huang stated:

“Vegetarian diets are more effective than non-vegetarian diets for weight loss.”

Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia) Associate Professor Tim Crowe, who reviewed the study, said that:

Even if you do it for the short term, [going vegetarian] can be an effective way to lose a small amount of weight.

Associate Professor and nutrition expert Tim Crowe encouraged people to follow a mostly plant based diet, low in sugar, and with regular exercise. “Those are the keys to long term health,” Associate Professor Crowe said. For the sake of your health, weight loss, animals and the environment, I heartily agree!

Tom Perry