This was my first question when I started a whole food vegan diet (a la Forks Over Knives), and it continues to be one of the first questions I am asked by people who are curious about beginning this way of eating. Why is this question so common? For me the connection was as simple as “meat = protein, so if I don’t eat meat I won’t get protein.” I was amazed to learn that all whole plant foods contain carbohydrate, fat, and protein.
Russet potatoes? They have protein.
Strawberries? Protein, check.
Broccoli? 43% Calories from protein!
Iceberg lettuce? Yes, even this veggie has protein.
In fact with just a quick internet search I was able to credibly confirm that a diet based on a variety of whole plant foods satisfies protein needs. And with a little more research I found that the protein in plants is not only sufficient, but “complete” (meaning that all plant foods contain all 8 essential amino acids. These are called “essential” since our body can not synthesize them and we must get them from a food source). There is no need to combine foods in a single meal, day, or even in the same week as popular media sources advise.
I won’t delve into the harmful effects of excess protein, since I believe health messages do better when they emphasize the positive; I would like to answer two questions that everyone should ask as they consider whether they are getting enough protein. 1. How much protein do I need? and 2. How much protein am I getting from my diet?
One thing that I love about eating the whole food vegan way is that although I feel safe in knowing “the numbers,” for my nutrient needs, I know that I can totally let go of these figures and follow my hunger. Because fiber and nutrient rich clean fuel is being put into my body, it is able to regulate the amount that I eat without my even being aware of how much I need. I eat when I’m hungry, and I get the right amount of protein. How easy is that? I don’t need the stress or extra task of tracking the amount of every nutrient that I need. No healthy person needs to be that familiar with the nutrient composition of their food.
When we eat a typical western diet we can double the protein that is needed by our bodies for muscle and tissue repair, hormone synthesis and other tasks. (Fun fact: we lose about 2-3 grams per day in skin and must use protein in replacing it. A gram is about the weight of a paperclip). The excess protein itself from this typical way of eating is harmful, but the source of the protein is more of a concern. Most Americans aren’t getting all that protein from plants. We are talking about foods rich in cholesterol and saturated fat like boneless, skinless chicken breast, processed lunch meat like sliced turkey, eggs, and other animal foods. The total package of these foods are calorie dense, nutrient poor, and generally harmful.
The American Heart Association has been one of the first major agencies to bring their recommendations in line with what credible science has shown for years:
Another source of protein in a typical American diet is fortified foods. These range from cereal to bread, bars, granola, shakes, and myriad other processed foods. These foods often display front of package claims regarding their protein content: “13 grams of protein!” or “Get a boost of protein!” The protein in this type of food is rarely from the “natural” ingredients. Rather, isolated concentrated protein powder is added to the normal recipe to boost the nutritional profile. Unfortunately isolated nutrients rarely (if ever) behave in the body in the same way as the nutrient in its whole food form. Protein powder can be made from whey (dairy), soy beans, peas, or other sources. Consumers may not realize this fact but similar to the way olive oil is 100% fat extracted from olives, and corn oil is the fat from corn, so soy protein 100% protein extracted from soy beans. Pea protein comes from peas. When we eat the peas in their whole form we enjoy all of the protein in them along with the fiber, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B-6, iron, and magnesium found in nature’s perfect little green package. Why consume the isolated protein on its own?
How Easy is it to Meet Protein Minimums on a Whole Food Vegan Diet?
What follows is a days menu of whole plant based food (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and a nutritional analysis of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Spoiler alert! Even if just 2/3 of the amount of food on the menu were eaten protein needs would easily be satisfied for most people.
Energy | 2160.5 calories
Protein | 94.8 g – 169%
Fiber | 92.3 g – 308%
Vitamin A | 55246.6 IU – 1842%
Folate | 1072.0 µg – 268%
B1 (Thiamine) | 3.1 mg – 258%
B2 (Riboflavin) | 2.5 mg – 196%
B3 (Niacin) | 30.9 mg – 193%
B5 (Pantothenic Acid)| 8.1 mg – 162%
B6 (Pyridoxine) | 4.6 mg – 273%
Vitamin C | 456.3 mg – 507%
Vitamin E | 18.9 mg – 126%
Vitamin K | 431.6 µg – 360%
Calcium | 1285.3 mg – 107%
Copper | 3.8 mg – 426%
Iron | 31.9 mg – 398%
Magnesium | 838.2 mg – 200%
Manganese | 14.5 mg – 632%
Phosphorus | 1978.4 mg – 283%
Potassium | 7651.4 mg – 163%
Selenium | 142.8 µg – 260%
Sodium | 655.1 mg
Zinc | 16.0 mg – 146%
Saturated | 2.9 g – (1.2% of calories)
Omega-3 | 3.0 g – 188%
Omega-6 | 5.5 g (Ratio 6/3 1.88)
Cholesterol | 0.0 mg 0%
Many people on the path to a healthful way of eating are concerned about the nutrient sufficiency of a plant based way of eating. Everyone who hopes to eat healthfully should be well informed on what their food choices will provide (or damage they will do) to their body. I hope that a better understanding of the protein in a whole food vegan diet will help readers feel confident in their food choices. The fact is: without powders, shakes, bars, or potions a diet of whole plant foods will meet your protein needs at all stages of life!
Sources: “The Starch Solution” by Dr. John McDougall, “Vegan Nutrition” by Gill Langley, PhD, and “A Day in the Life” by Jeff Novick, RD (https://www.drmcdougall.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=43281)