A Vegan Doctor Addresses The Protein Question

Nearly all of what I treat in the Emergency Department is diet related. We have eaten ourselves into a state of sickness, and it is fueled by misinformation. This is nowhere more clear than in the endlessly circulated protein myth; most of us have been indoctrinated into a belief system which holds the misconception that our only sources of protein are animal-derived. Although animal flesh, eggs and milk are sources of protein which we can utilize, they are in fact inferior to plant-based sources. And ironically, many of the animals we consume for their protein are themselves herbivores. Animal-based sources of protein also have a well-documented association with a myriad of preventable diseases. The list is long, and includes hypertension, type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, coronary artery disease, ischemic strokes, and an array of autoimmune diseases. Interestingly (and tragically), early exposure to cow milk has been implicated in increasing the risk of developing type 1 diabetes (juvenile-onset).

What is protein?

Before making recommendations about plant-based sources of protein, I would like to first address the issue of protein in general. What is protein? The name is of Greek origin, ‘proteios’, which means ‘of prime importance’. Amino acids are organic compounds that form proteins by being linked together. There are 20 in total, of which 8 (or 10, considering the classification system you are using) are considered ‘essential’. An essential amino acid is one which the human body cannot produce on its own, and must be obtained from diet. The functional units of muscle tissue are protein fibers, and enzymes are also considered proteins.

9-time Gold medal Olympian and long time vegan, Carl Lewis.

The scientific literature shows that it’s better to get our protein from plant sources. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., author of ‘The China Study,’ the largest epidemiological study to date on human nutrition (click here to learn more), wrote: “There is a mountain of compelling research showing that plant protein allows for slow but steady synthesis of new proteins, and is the healthiest type of protein.” There are also many record-holding vegan athletes and bodybuilders who demonstrate that not only can we survive, but optimally thrive on a plant-based diet, getting plenty of protein and all other nutrients necessary for peak physical performance. Robert Cheeke (bodybuilder), Carl Lewis (track and field), Steph Davis (mountain climber/base jumper), Brendan Brazier (triathlon athlete) and Patrik Baboumian (world record-holding strongman), just to name a few, all excel on a plant-based diet.

How much protein does a person need?

The question of optimal protein intake was addressed by a joint panel of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations University. Findings were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in an article titled ‘Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition’ co-authored by Vernon R. Young and Peter L. Pellett. They carefully examined requirements at various stages in life, as well as plant versus animal sources of the essential amino acids. It is recommended that adults, both male and female, consume 0.80 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. There are 2.2 pounds per kg, so a person weighing 140 pounds weighs approximately 64 kg. This would mean that they would need to consume approximately 51 grams of protein per day. An example of a typical vegan menu (divide into separate meals) which would meet this requirement: One cup of oatmeal (6 grams), 5 ounces tofu (11 grams), one cup broccoli (4 grams), one cup cooked brown rice (5 grams), 4 tablespoons almonds (7 grams), one cup chopped kale (2.9 grams), one cup cooked beans (12 grams), and one cup avocado (2.9 grams).

The truth is that people commonly eat more animal protein than they can process, and even vegetarians (those who abstain from flesh but consume milk and eggs) often consume too much as well. Excessive animal protein is incredibly toxic to our bodies. The liver’s ability to convert excess nitrogen to urea is saturated, and the blood becomes acidic. This can cause you to lose a significant amount of water (leading to dehydration), muscle mass, and bone calcium.

What are the best plant-based sources of protein?

There are numerous options for protein-dense, plant-based sources of protein. Some great ones include: tempeh, cooked soybeans, seitan, lentils, refried beans, chickpeas (and hummus), avocados, tofu, versatile grains such as quinoa and teff, peas, peanut butter, almonds, sunflower seeds, whole wheat bread, soy milk, spinach, broccoli, oatmeal, kale, and the list goes on! For a breakdown of protein content in these and other plant foods, please see this chart.

While whole foods are healthiest by far, sometimes those transitioning to veganism prefer foods that closely mimic the shapes, textures and flavors of the animal foods they are eliminating. Many grocery stores carry several varieties of pre-packaged, protein-rich meat and dairy alternatives, including vegan deli slices, ‘bacon’, burgers, ‘chicken’ patties and tenders, non-dairy cheeses, butters and milks. For help ditching dairy, check out Free from Harm’s feature, ‘Groundbreaking, Game Changing Vegan Cheese Is Here.’

What about “Complete Proteins” and Amino Acids?

Regarding ‘complete’ proteins- it is unnecessary to meticulously combine various plant-based sources of protein; the body combines them for you. As Virgnia Messina, R.D., has written: “Myths about amino acid shortages and food combining were put to rest decades ago by experts and researchers in protein nutrition. Every plant food that provides protein — which includes all grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables — contains all of the essential amino acids that are needed by humans. Individual plant foods have lower percentages of some of the amino acids relative to needs, but it doesn’t matter for those who eat a healthy vegan diet. For one thing, the body maintains its own temporary storage of amino acids. And amino acids from different foods work together throughout the day to produce the right amounts and ratios of these protein building blocks.”

As long as you are consuming a variety of plant-based foods that includes a few servings of legumes (beans, peanuts or soy foods) and/or protein-rich grains every day, you’ll have no trouble meeting protein requirements without animal foods. Need more reasons to go vegan? Explore the Free from Harm website, or start here for information on the suffering of animals exploited for food. When you make compassionate food choices, everyone wins.

The links below provide more information on vegan nutrition:

The Vegan RD

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About Holly Wilson MD

Holly Wilson M.D. is board certified in Emergency Medicine and has been vegan since February 2007. She is an outspoken advocate for the animals and the vegan lifestyle.


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  12. Great article, but Carl Lewis was not a marathon runner. He has records and gold medals in sprinting and long jumping.

      • Searching for a Vegan Marathon Runner…? here is the link to your query. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fauja_Singh
        As far understanding of a proper Vegan diet, west is still far away from accurate truth as far as science behind food is considered. As in west food is seen just as in number for its calories, cholestrol, vitamin and minerals. Indian ancient food analysis goes far ahead linking with its medicinal effect, nutrition aspects of food before and after digestion. Yes food properties do change after digestion just how you eat it cold, warm or in hot state.

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  14. Great Article thank you and it is so good to see a vegan doctor. How lucky her patients are to have such a wise doctor who knows the value of food and health. I have sent this link to my friends and will be posting on Facebook.

  15. Thanks so much for posting this wonderful article! I will surely pass it on to those I know and love who first exclaim “Wow! You’re Vegan!?” and then ask: “Are you sure you’re getting enough protein?”

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