The Already Solved Mystery of Protein in the Plant-Based Diet

Myth #1: Vegans can’t possibly get enough protein from a plant-based diet. You need to eat a lot of chicken, fish, and red meat to get adequate protein. Not to mention, you should drink at least a glass of milk a day for some liquid protein.

Protein is a macro-nutrient that is often discussed as if it is the only part of a person’s diet.

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In order to grow larger muscles, it is important to have protein in our diets. Bodybuilders tend to load up on large quantities of protein, sometimes far more than the human body can really even handle. But even non-athletes have started to pay close attention to the amount of protein in their diets, because it is said to influence a range of things from emotional mood swings to providing strength to lift boxes at work. While there is no denying that protein is important, it is often over-emphasized as the solution to many of life’s woes. The reality is that protein is just a part of a larger diet – and without other nutrients being optimized, protein can’t save you. 

Where did this myth of protein primarily being derived from meat come from?

It is hard to say where exactly this line of thinking began. One can easily imagine that there are many influences ranging from simple and unintentional to the result of social pressure and influence coming in the form of government regulation and big business. While there are likely these major influences operating in the background – and directly impacting the true continuation of belief that “meat-is-the-only protein source” in our daily lives, there is a simple reality I experienced growing up, and likely you have as well: the myth that meat is the only real source of protein in our diets is pressed upon us from a young age by our family and friends. 

Like most things, the impact from environmental factors on our health and lifestyle can be significant. Our environments can influence so many things in our lives – even more so when we are young children and have no ability to escape these influences. Given that meat consumption has been a large part of Western culture for decades, and has been advocated directly by the US government as a staple part of a “healthy” diet, it is no wonder that this false perception exists that meat is necessary – and that meat is required to get this vital macro-nutrient: protein.

What is plant-based protein? And what benefit can it offer me?

As society has started to open up to “alternative” diets, that would include vegan, vegetarian, and whole food plant-based diets (like I adopted and advocate), so too has the way we have started to have conversations about protein begin to open up. It is hard to say when exactly the world started to recognize plant-based proteins as existing or even being valuable, but one can imagine that through the continued scientific study of food chemistry one thing became jarringly apparent. That one thing? That plant-based protein sources exist, and in substantial quantities that would allow an entire industry, the meat industry, to be toppled if everyone knew and could wean themselves off eating the flesh of dead animals – most of which human beings actively kill for the purpose of eating.

It is a strange thing that we, as a species, have allowed ourselves to turn into machines that take the lives of other species for the purpose of food and other pleasures. The modern world is driven by consumption – notwithstanding the consumption of the dead. If plant-based protein sources can provide anything to our bodies and minds, it is life (and life more abundantly). A reduction of mass murder farms and the human desire to feast off the bones of these poor animals, like those bred specifically for this purpose, should be reason enough by any standard to abandon meat as a food source.

Of course, there is more to the discussion of plant-based protein than just ethical arguments against eating meat.  

Plant-based protein is, simply put, protein derived from plant-life. We know many plant-based food sources – you should be able to name many off the top of your head (lettuce, kale, tomatoes…the list goes on and on). Depending on who you ask, the quality of protein that comes from fruits, veggies, grains, etc. is on par with, if not better than, meat protein sources. This knowledge was enough, when paired with scientific research indicating how eating meat generally comes with many negative side effects and health concerns in both the short and long term, to help me quit meat for good a few years ago. I exchanged meat protein and a love for hunting, and what would seem like an obsession with an unhealthy and sad diet, for a plant-based diet that enables me to meet all of my nutritional needs without bloodshed wasted on my dinner plate.

The overall outcome of consuming plant-based protein is quite similar to that of meat proteins (on the surface, anyways) in that the protein is synthesized and used by our bodies to create (or retain) muscle mass and provide energy. The real benefit of using plant-based protein will, quite simply, come from the benefit of eating plants as a major component of your diet in a holistic sense. Science over the years has evolved to display the many positive effects such as – a reduction in risk for many diseases, both acute and chronic, such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

To sum up the value added to your life in a simple sentence: plant-based protein will provide you with this essential macronutrient and, whether by intention or not, many other vital nutrients that will sustain your health lifestyle, decrease your risk for disease, and help you to overcome current ailments you may have; all while helping you to remove the toxic chemicals derived from meat sources that have been clinically shown to increase risk for many life threatening diseases.

What are some high quality plant-based protein sources?

So, now that you are starting to see why plant-based protein sources are valuable for your health, it is useful to see some examples that you can choose as, what essentially amounts to, a meat-substitute. Some that I really enjoy are soybean sprouts, peas, Lima beans, kale, Swiss chard, mushrooms, broccoli.

For a more detailed look at of high quality vegetable protein sources: The 30 Vegetables Highest in Plant-Based Protein

What about plant-based protein powders? Are they good for me?

Fortunately, a whole foods, plant-based diet provides an excellent base of nutrition. If done correctly, it should be unnecessary to add any supplements to your diet (with the exception being B12). Plant-based protein powders are a new trend that have been created to fill a vegan-sized hole in the protein supplement industry. More often than not, protein powders are created using whey (which itself is a dairy product). Plant-based protein powders get rid of the whey and often other unnecessary additives and fillers. Given that we know many vegetables have high amounts of protein, it is simple logic to see veggies turned into protein powder supplements. One of the most common I have seen is pea protein powders.

Disclaimer: I have not tried any plant-based protein powders as I get enough protein from my regular diet. For your average person, I would say these supplements are not bad for you (assuming no strange chemical additives or ingredients you don’t recognize as being from this planet), but not necessary. For athletes, bodybuilders, powerlifters, etc. who may need higher levels of protein (and other nutrients), they may be a valuable resource to make getting the necessary protein easier. If you are going to use a protein supplement, it is best to use a plant-based one.

Is the plant-based protein mystery solved?

To give you a short answer: yes.

Plant-based protein has been scientifically studied as being both valuable for your body, and your health in the short and long-term. While protein can certainly be derived from meat sources, plant-based proteins are superior because they do not have detrimental health effects over time and help reduce environmental waste and the needless, inhumane slaughter of animals for consumption. For myself, viewing protein as just one nutrient in a sea of necessary and valuable nutrients has been a better approach, and eating vegetables as a core part of my diet has allowed to get sufficient protein, while also maximizing other valuable vitamins and minerals needed to process the protein content and keep me feeling healthy.