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Published on March 03, 2015

foods eaten on a vegan diet

Journey to Wellness: The Protein Argument

One of the most common questions I get about my diet is, "where do you get your protein?" Let's take a closer look at the protein argument that would apply to any of our diets. The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. Proteins have 20 amino acids and eight of those are known as essential amino acids. That means these essential amino acids must be obtained from the food we eat.

Plant vs. Animal Proteins

One common myth is that eating animal products like meat, eggs, milk and cheese is the only way to obtain our protein needs. Another common myth is that animal proteins are superior to plant proteins. We also have been taught that we need to combine different plant proteins to get "a complete protein." This was based on the sociologist Frances Moore Lappe's book "Diet for a Small Plant." That statement was recanted by Lappe and others as simply not true and that plant proteins provide us with all the essential amino acids our bodies require. So whether you follow a plant-based diet or typical American diet, you get the essential amino acids your body needs. The reason I choose not to eat animal products as a protein source is that I don't want the added cholesterol. I find it interesting that we are all enamored with our weights and cholesterol numbers but continue to consume the very things that are driving our obesity rates and elevated cholesterol levels.

Secondly, if you meet your daily caloric needs, you would consume all the protein your body needs. Only if you were starving would you have to worry about being protein deficient. That is a problem that we really don't have in this country. Certainly, there are those who go without, yet with more than 70 percent of Americans being overweight or obese (including children), our problem is actually the opposite. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we gave out of our bounty to help those less fortunate than ourselves? Then perhaps the statistics wouldn't look quite as dismal.

Protein Requirements

In the end, as long as you are getting enough calories from nutritious, whole foods, you shouldn't have to worry about meeting your protein requirements any longer. Since 1974, the World Health Organization has recommended that we get 10 percent of our calories from protein. That number is 12 percent if you are pregnant. We have been taught since grade school that we need a balanced diet and that around 30 percent of our calories should come from protein. That number was developed in the 1940's, not from science but from speculation and assumption. Research from the World Health Organization has since proven that incorrect but old habits are hard to break.

So let's do the math. I weigh 190 pounds. Just to maintain that weight, I need approximately 1,800 calories per day based on my height and age. So, 10 percent of my calories would equal (1,800 x 0.1) 180 calories. A gram of protein provides 4 calories, so I would need 45 grams of protein in my diet per day (180 / 4 = 45). That's it. Each morning I have a bowl of oatmeal. In just that one bowl of oatmeal without milk, I get 15 grams of protein. If you add a half cup of almond or soy milk, you add even more. There are many great websites that can provide you information about the protein content of various plant-based sources.

In the end, a plant-based diet can provide sufficient protein for any individual. Next month we will discuss, "where do you get your calcium?"

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