Our society loves fads and does a good job at making sure that we know what is in and what is out when it comes to influencing our choices. Unfortunately these fads all too often infiltrate our food and nutrition choices, contributing to misinformation and even harmful advice. One area where this has been very evident is that of protein. The majority of our population today is making choices based on misleading or incorrect information when it comes to their food, nutrition and health. To help us make sense of this topic, in this essay, we will examine 8 protein myths that deal with plant and animal protein sources.
Many people in our world today live with the ideas that plants do not provide protein, or do not provide enough protein, or are sources of an inferior type of protein. But are these ideas correct? If we are to have the right idea, we first have to have the right information. Yet despite living amidst the age of information with a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, when it comes to obtaining the right information about protein, this is actually a challenge. The Internet for example is infiltrated with misleading or flawed information being passed around from one article and site, to the next. Our mainstream media, whether radio, TV or print does not help. It isn’t that we all have to agree, because after all there are many view points and contexts from which to consider any situation. However we do need to clean up some of the mess that has been created because it is influencing people’s health and weight in extremely negative ways.
When it comes to this nutrient (and many areas of nutrition) it is like we are playing a game where we keep passing around the same ball from one to another. We keep at it, quite content to not disturb the flow of the game, even when it isn’t serving us. No one stops to think that perhaps the ball we are playing with isn’t making the game fair or easy. No one stops to ask where did the ball even come from? It isn’t until we actually do inquire and do a little serious digging for the answers, that we expose some interesting revelations.
Going to the Root of It
Before we examine the plant versus animal protein myths, let’s try to understand the common root behind all of the (mis)information that we have out there today when it comes not just to protein, but the entire field of nutrition. If you have been doing your homework and personal research up to this point, you know that it all points to one area: corporate interests. It is no secret today that the milk, dairy, egg and meat farmer groups have immense stakes in their business. In North America, 70% of protein is estimated to come from animal products. On a global basis plants provide 65% of the protein sources. There is no coincidence to this reversal in numbers. Factory farming has become a HUGE business! It is also one that can easily proliferate itself if the “right” ideas are infused into the general populace. Examples of these ideas include fear-based conditioning that you need animal protein for good health or to build muscles, or that you need dairy for strong bones. Even though all of these ideas have been exposed today as clever propaganda, they remain heavily ingrained in the majority of people.
It also does not help that biologically we are wired to crave sugar, salt and fat. Therefore high fat foods, like animal foods are naturally addictive for people. Couple this with the fact that animal foods were always associated with the powerful and wealthy, and you have a virulent combination that attracts the masses to animal foods. However, while these three main areas require their own analyses and solutions, they are each heavily intertwined with the animal food equals the right type and quantity of protein idea. And it is one thing if we at least enjoy animal foods and eat them in healthy low amounts from the highest quality sources. But many people do not enjoy or wish to consume meat, dairy or eggs, and often eat them simply based on the assumption that they “have to”. Others yet simply do not realize the negative health, economic and environmental impacts of eating diets high in animal products.
So let’s explore what we know at this current time on our planet about protein when it comes to plant and animal sources, as well as their quantities by unravelling the common myths. The foundation of this analysis will be based on a 1994 study that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. It is both unfortunate and astonishing that despite the fact that we had this information for over 2 decades (at the very least), the mainstream ideas about protein continue to share inaccurate, outdated information. The study is free and available for all to read, which I highly invite everyone to do.
Now of course, one study does not make for a cornerstone of reliable information. Our science today is skewed and out of balance all over the place due to corporate influence and scientific bias. If you would like to understand this better, watch my interview with Howard Jacobson, co-author of Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition with Dr. T. Colin Campbell. But in this case, this study is neither alone, nor refuted. We have ample evidence and information that backs everything it shares IF we look beyond the surface for answers. So let’s examine the 7 myths this study unveiled, and an 8th one that is perhaps the most common myth of them all, which plagues the human race today.
MYTH 1: Plant Proteins Are Incomplete
REALITY: Usual dietary combinations of protein are complete. Specific food proteins may be low in specific amino acids.
This is perhaps the most shocking piece of information when it comes to understanding plant proteins. Whether from school, or our parents or doctors, we have all been told, probably since we can remember, that plant proteins are incomplete, and thus inferior as compared to animal proteins.
To get to the root of this myth we can start by understanding that low does not equal or mean absent. Yet for decades the idea has been passed around that plant foods do not contain all of the essential amino acids. This made the idea of protein combining, which we will discuss in myth 3 appear reasonable. It is after all common for one myth to propagate another. The second question we must consider is low according to whom and what. It is all too often that nutrient values are created and changed periodically, as we try to understand how specific nutrients act and interact within human bodies. The truth is that nutrients are complex and although we can try to apply reductionist science to this field, it will never sufficiently represent it.
Researchers like Michael Bluejay have examined and written extensively about this myth. In his analytical and research-based article, Setting the Record Straight he shares that this information is neither new, nor a secret. By analyzing data from various sources, including the USDA’s nutrient database, he shows that all plant foods ARE complete proteins in that they do contain all of the essential amino acids.
As for the idea of being low in a certain amino acid. If we take this idea at face value, it would only be an issue if someone were to eat just one specific plant food all day, everyday. But at that point protein would be the least of their worries. Numerous other nutrients will be missing and out of balance as well. The same goes for animal foods. We cannot eat just one specific animal food all day, everyday and think we will be okay. So the pendulum on this one swings both ways. Ultimately we can release the idea that plant proteins are incomplete.
As an extreme example, even if you only ate one kind of grain, bean, potato, or vegetable as a protein source, and ate enough of that food, you could meet your protein and amino acid needs.
Reed Mangels, PhD, RD — The Vegetarian Resource Group
Myth 2: Plant Proteins Are Not As Good As Animal Proteins
REALITY: Quality depends on the source and dietary mixture of plant proteins, which can be equivalent to high-quality animal proteins.
There are many ways that this idea is presented and passed around when it comes to understanding plant versus animal protein quality. Some argue in favor of plant, some in favor of animal proteins when it comes to assimilation. It all depends on the context in which they are examined in how the conclusion will be spun. Regardless, there is no doubt that plant foods are easier to digest than animal foods and this alone will have a big impact on the protein digestion. Secondly, plant foods are also more nutrient dense than animal foods, and provide health benefits for healing and prevention that animal foods cannot. Thirdly, when we look deeper at where these ideas came from, we begin to see that for example the whole idea of plant proteins being seen as inadequate was concluded based on their comparison to egg proteins (as shared in a study from the early 1900’s). So when plant proteins, specifically the amino acids composition of various plant foods was compared to the amino acid composition of eggs, of course the plants seemed like they were lacking or less than optimal. But we have to stop and ask ourselves, why would we think that the egg of another species would be the ideal protein source for us, or have the optimal amino acid profile to begin with? We could have just as easily turned the tables and concluded that the egg amino acid profile is too high or wrong for optimal human nutrition. When we start looking at the issue from multiple angles, and begin to ask critical questions, we expose ourselves to new answers and possibilities.
Today, we have become so blinded by the thinking that animal foods provide superior protein quality, that we fail to see the numerous health risks that they come with. We know today from many experts and scientific fields of study that animal foods, especially the low quality and high quantity that is present in the mainstream, increase the risk of weight and health problems. When we consume common animal foods today, we are exposing ourselves to numerous health imbalances due to the toxicity, pesticides, hormones, drugs and genetically modified organisms that come along with animal foods. Many people have begun to source out wild or so called healthier options, but the nature of animal foods is that they will always come with more risks (being higher up on the food chain) than plant foods. Even a small amount in some cases of certain animal products can create imbalances in our body and cause destructive short-term and long-term health consequences. So it would be one thing if the animal foods were worth it from a health benefit, but today they aren’t. And given that we know that plant foods are capable of supplying us with not just enough, or the right type of protein, but even high quality protein, while protecting our health, should make it clear which is the smart choice to be made if we want to enjoy optimal health and longevity.
Myth 3: Proteins From Different Plant Foods Must Be Combined to Create A Complete Protein
REALITY: Plant proteins do not need to be combined or consumed at the same time. The balance over the course of the day (and even several days), as part of our regular, varied diet is what matters.
It appears that the root of this myth came from a 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. In it, the author stated that plant foods do not contain all the essential amino acids, so in order to be a healthy vegetarian, you needed to eat a combination of certain plant foods in order to get all of the essential amino acids. It was coined as protein complementing.
It was not an intentional mistake. Francis was a sociologist who was working on solutions to ending world hunger, and not a nutrition or health expert. She realized as part of her research the inefficiency of converting vegetable protein into animal protein (i.e. feeding animals plant foods so that we can eat the animals). Therefore she shared that if people simply ate the plant food protein, many more people could be fed, but that it appeared that certain plant foods should be eaten in combination together. In 1981, Francis cleared up the misunderstanding and recanted her claim about the need to combine any plant foods. Unfortunately by that time the idea had already spread like wild-fire and continues to infiltrate numerous sources to this day.
So our take home message should be clear, we do not need to combine any plant foods in order to acquire some “complete” protein idea. Remember what was shared in myth 1. We simply have to eat a variety of real, whole plant food and enough of it, to have our protein needs adequately met.
Myth 4: Animal Studies Are Satisfactory At Determining Human Protein Needs
REALITY: Animal studies can be useful but they may underestimate plant protein nutritional quality for humans.
We have to understand that many studies that have been done surrounding protein, were done on various animals. This alone can have a large margin of error as most animals have much different nutrition requirements than us. This is in addition to the fact that most studies whether done on animals or humans use isolated amino acids, which is not how we naturally consume our nutrients; we eat whole food nutrients. This can additionally create anywhere from small to large differences in the results. Therefore all of this must be factored in before fixed conclusions are drawn. Yet in our society, we often run with a claim not understanding its full spectrum of facts.
For example, a study done by Mendel and Osborne in 1913 reported rats grew better on animal, than on vegetable, sources of protein. If we draw conclusions right there and then we will have to re-visit the second myth discussed when it comes to quality of protein based on its source. However, and this is the case each time, we have to understand more of the context and full picture of every case before jumping to conclusions. As Dr. John McDougall shares, rat milk is 11 times more concentrated in protein than is human breast milk. The extra protein supports this animal’s rapid growth to adult size in 5 months, while humans take 17 years to fully mature. Rats also appear to need a higher amount of protein as adults compared to humans (16-18% vs 5-15%). Couple all that with their basic dietary differences and we can see that we cannot equate what may work best for a rat, with what may work best for us.
Myth 5: Plant Proteins Are Not Well Digested
REALITY: Digestibility varies based on source and food preparation, and digestibility can be high.
As I shared in the second myth, there are many ways that people argue in favor of animal protein quality. This myth is one of them. Many people think that just because animal foods are protein dense, they are automatically better. What is seldom considered is how much of that protein will your body be able to extract, the work it takes to extract it, and how efficiently it will be used. Protein assimilation and bio-availability are vital considerations. And when we do, we begin to find that both regular plant foods, as well as unique plant-like foods, (for example, Spirulina, a blue-green algae) are able to supply us with more protein by gram and by bio-availability than some animal foods in a direct comparison. It is estimated that we are able to digest anywhere from 70-100% of the protein in our food (plant and animal), and our body makes good use of all of the protein it needs. Now think about it, if we are all (generally speaking) eating way more protein than we need, what difference does it make at the end of the day if a food varies in digestibility by a few points. You are still getting more than enough.
Now when it comes to food preparation, this opens up a whole new area of consideration as well. According to the Max Planck Institute as researched by Dr. Gabriel Cousens, cooking foods coagulates around 50% of the protein. This makes it less bio-available to our body. It is a basic biology lesson that heat denatures proteins. That means it can change the protein’s shape or structure, and thus function. A change in structure and/or function means they can become biochemically ineffective for our body’s use. This is just one example why raw food diets have A LOT of validity to them. Our society is just as equally obsessed with cooking everything, as it is with protein, so this is not commonly covered in nutrition literature. So when we think about animal foods, they are almost all exclusively heat-treated in our society, as opposed to plant foods, which can be easily eaten raw. This is something else worthy of consideration if we are focused on quality protein.
Myth 6: Plant Proteins Alone Are Not Sufficient To Achieve Adequate Protein Intake
REALITY: The intake and balance of intakes of indispensable (essential) amino acids and nitrogen are crucial, and can be adequately met from plant (alone) or plant and animal mixed sources.
This myth is perhaps one of the simplest to debunk if only one chooses to look at the quantity of protein, whether that be as a whole or as single amino acids, in plant foods. This information is not secret and it is not hidden. The only thing preventing us from being empowered and properly informed about this fact is that most of us are not going to research our food. We will however easily and readily read news headlines and run with whatever stories they proclaim.
The truth of the matter is that plants provide a lot of protein, and a lot of variety of various proteins. Anyone who is consuming a variety of leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, (unrefined) grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans, is obtaining both enough protein (and easily more than enough), but also the right proteins. Most people are not aware of how complex protein digestion and synthesis is, and that our body makes most of the proteins it needs as long as we support them with a proper diet. (Proper in this sense meaning from whole, natural foods, mostly plants.) So when it comes to being sufficient in reference to plant proteins, we not only have real examples of this all around us today thanks to the increased vegan and vegetarian communities, as well as from the vegan and vegetarian athletes and body builders, but also from thousands of years of human history where most cultures on the planet ate diets predominantly rich in plant foods. (While there are more questions than answers when it comes to what our ancestors really ate, depending on how far back we go, numerous research areas have continued to document that our ancestors’ diets (both from a few decades to a few hundred, to a few thousand years ago) were highly based on plant material due to factors like economic, climate and cultural limitations.)
Myth 7: Plant Proteins Are Imbalanced And This Limits Their Nutritional Value
REALITY: There is no evidence that amino acid imbalances are important. Possible imbalances can be created by inappropriate amino acid supplementation.
As you can imagine, or perhaps know yourself, over the years there have been numerous attempts launched at attacking plant proteins as being inferior compared to animal proteins. However, while popular ideas may run wild with misinformation in many directions, for those who choose to look at the deeper story and evidence, the results present facts that speak to the contrary. What we so often forget and neglect is that nature and our body has innate wisdom. Today, based on reductionist science we have attempted to isolate and dissect everything down to its molecular level and beyond. While this has been beneficial to understanding many parts of our world, it has not always worked to our benefit when it comes to the field of nutrition.
When we look at both the details AND the whole picture, we begin to see that eating is in fact quite easy if and when we follow nature and our body’s innate wisdom. We don’t need to count and we don’t need to fret over nutrients or calories. What we do need to do is simply eat whole, natural food from various sources, mainly plants. It is that simple. It is our highly processed, highly animal food-based and highly isolated nutrient diets that are causing us the majority of the health and weight problems we are seeing or experiencing today. When we ingest isolated nutrients, be they the macro- or micro-nutrients, especially from, or along with, synthetic counterparts, it is then that we risk creating the greatest and most serious imbalances within our body. Be that dealing with protein, or any other nutrient.
The area of isolated protein, or amino acids is huge today, and important to mention here as well. It probably comes as no surprise that the protein supplementation industry has hitched an easy ride here amidst our fears of needing more or not getting enough protein. Anyone who begins a new workout, whether a plant only eater, or mixed plant-animal eater, has an automatic inclination to think that they need isolated protein support. We can thank clever marketing campaigns in part for this one. The isolated products come most commonly in the form of numerous protein shakes and protein bars. Very few stop to consider both the short-term and long-term health consequences of consuming isolated amino acids, never mind the slew of synthetic and chemical ingredients they often come with, which are a huge problem in and of themselves. It is sad to think how much money people are spending and wasting on isolated nutrients, causing unnecessary stress to their body, health and wallet. The sports supplement market has today become a multi-billion dollar industry thanks to us consumers. As a report from Nutraceuticals World shares, “On the subject of proteins, they have remained the golden child of the sports nutrition industry.” This industry competes with the animal-product industry to gain users and preys on the idea that you need these isolated products, lest be “scrawny” or not get the muscle growth you desire.
So in the end, there is nothing imbalanced about the whole, natural plant foods that nature has provided us. What is imbalanced is how we feed ourselves today where we lack real food, and food of a high quality that was meant to heal us, prevent disease and sustain our health.
Myth 8: More Protein Is Better
REALITY: High protein diets create various types of stress and imbalance within the body.
No matter how we look at it, there are just some things in life where more does not equal better. In fact, it can be far from it. To illustrate this point various examples can be used. Is eating more calories better? Not for most people. Is having more debt better? Far from it. Yet when it comes to more protein we seem to think that more is better when the truth is quite opposite.
As we know today from many sources and experts (and for some from personal experience), diets high in protein are linked with numerous health problems. (Here is a summary from a medical report compiled from various studies.) This includes the obvious stress and damage to our liver and kidneys, but also the less obvious such as a link to most chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. Diets high in protein, specifically animal protein, cause a great pH imbalance, having been linked to chronic acidity, immune system imbalances and even auto-immune diseases.
So before you choose to focus on more protein in your diet, address where the idea of “not enough” first came from, and was it correct to begin with. Anyone who digs deeper into this topic, and goes past the industry collusion and conditioning will find that a lack of protein is a non-existent issue whether we eat a 100% whole-foods, plant-based diet, or one that includes animal products. The key is simply eating enough food and a variety of food to have our protein needs not just met, but comfortably surpassed.
When it comes to having a proper understanding of protein today, I equate it with the phenomenon of growing up and learning the truth or big picture story about some topic. There comes a time in the growing up process where we must take accountability for our own thoughts and ideas, rather than simply depend on the ideas of others. Our society is awakening today. We are evolving in every area on our planet. The topic of protein is no exception.
Sure there are times in our life, just as there are times in the development of our society, when we are told certain things to conform to a certain way of being. Sometimes those things work to our advantage, but more often than not they work to our disadvantage. All too often ideas are shared and spread to fulfill some agenda, or benefit some specific group. Such is the case when it comes to us and protein today. We have been told a story when we were “young” and didn’t know any better. A story that served a purpose and got us to conform to a certain behavior (i.e. depend heavily on animal products for food). Whether it was due to fear, or simply wanting to fit in, we took those ideas at face value without questioning the foundation they stood on.
But there comes a time to grow up and learn the facts. As our human race matures, more of us are beginning to think for ourselves. We are becoming more accountable for our personal view and understanding of the world. We are asking more questions and seeking more answers; answers that various external sources, organizations and institutions are not always able, ready or willing to provide us with.
So if you are ready to be an independent thinker, I invite you to release the old paradigms and conditioning. Open your mind, sharpen your skills of discernment and become a consciously thinking human being. Don’t live life unconsciously based on the ideas of others. Empowerment and liberation come with taking personal responsibility.
If you would like to go even deeper into this topic and learn more about protein with respect to quantity, quality and sources to make the healthiest choices, check out my online protein class: Protein: Too Much? Too Little?
Here is a quick little video from leading-edge plant-based medical doctor, Michael Greger MD., that echoes what is shared in this article:
References & Further Reading
Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. (Am J Clin Nutr May 1994 vol. 59 no. 5 1203S-1212S)
Where Do You Get Your Protein? by Dr. John McDougall (2007)
Setting the Record Straight by Michael Bluejay (2013)
Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition - World Health Organization (2007)
Meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults. - (Am J Clin Nutr January 2003 vol. 77 no. 1 109-127)
Protein in the Vegan Diet by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD
Where Do You Get Your Protein? by Alan Goldhamer, D.C. ~ T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Complementary Protein Myth Won’t Go Away! ~ Dr. Fuhrman Disease Proof
The Myth of Complementary Protein by Jeff Novick, MS, RD ~ Forks Over Knives
The Protein Myth ~ Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Plant Foods Have a Complete Amino Acid Composition by Dr. John McDougall ~ American Heart Association
7 Ways Animal Protein is Damaging Your Health ~ Forks Over Knives