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In reply to: Protein is a problem for vegans

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Perhaps the most frequently asked question to vegans is, "Where do you get your protein?" The implication is that the plant proteins from a vegan diet lack quantity, quality, or completeness.

We should be vigilant about all of our nutritional requirements, including protein. But the evidence does not justify the near-obsessive level of concern that we have regarding protein. Below, we will show that plants can easily satisfy all our protein needs and then point out that in some ways plant protein is advantageous to animal protein.

Talking Points

Plants readily supply abundant and complete protein.

Abundant protein can be found in such plant foods as beans, peas, broccoli, lentils, peanuts, quinoa, spinach, tofu, corn, and many others. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich contains more protein than a McDonald's hamburger [1], and broccoli has twice as much protein per calorie as steak.[2]

The quantity of protein is not the only concern—some feel that the quality of protein in plants is lacking. Yet authorities agree that if you eat a variety of plant foods and consume sufficient calories, then you get sufficient and complete protein—all nine essential amino acids, in the proportions needed.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even says that "using the terms 'complete' and 'incomplete' to describe protein is misleading." They further state that "eating a variety of plant foods will supply all the protein you need."[3]

The British Dietetic Association agrees: "As long as you’re eating a mixture of different plant proteins you’ll be getting all the essential amino acids your body needs."[4]

Dr. Andrew Weil sums it up best: "Research has discredited that notion, so you don’t have to worry that you won’t get enough usable protein if you don’t put together some magical combination of foods at each meal."[5]

Finally, Harvard Medical School, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, NewYork-Presbyterian, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Dietitians of Canada, the British Dietetic Association, the Dietitians Association of Australia, and others have declared a vegan diet to be not only sufficient but advantageous. They would not make this pronouncement if there were a problem with getting complete protein from plants.

Essential amino acids are manufactured only by plants.

Many people are surprised to learn that the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that we must get from food, are manufactured only by plants. When we eat animals, we are getting essential amino acids originally made by plants that were then eaten by animals.

Since all the essential amino acids are made only by plants, it's illogical to believe we must eat animals to get them.[6]

Protein deficiency is rare.

Hospitals don't have kwashiorkor units. You will find cardiovascular, endocrinology, hematology, nephrology, oncology, pulmonary, and rheumatology units at your local hospital. You would be hard pressed to find a unit for treating kwashiorkor, the protein-deficiency disease. It is almost unheard of in the developed world, and when it happens, the underlying cause of the protein deficiency is a calorie deficit.[7]

It's difficult to design a protein-deficient vegan diet. Dr. Joel Fuhrman "tried to compose a natural-foods diet deficient in any required amino acid" and declared, "It was impossible."[8]

Jeff Novick, Registered Dietitian, tried as well: "Any single whole natural plant food, or any combination of them, if eaten as one’s sole source of calories for a day, would provide all of the essential amino acids and not just the minimum requirements but far more than the recommended requirements."[9]

Animal protein carries health risks.

Animal protein promotes disease. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman (and others), animal protein promotes cancer, bone loss, and kidney disease. It also raises cholesterol and accelerates aging.[10]

Animal protein is associated with higher mortality risk. A study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine in August, 2016, the largest study yet to examine the effect of different sources of protein, found that animal protein is associated with higher mortality risk while plant protein is associated with lower mortality risk.[11]

Animal protein is packaged without fiber. When you eat mostly animal protein, you may not be getting enough fiber in your diet. Fiber is packaged with plant protein and does not exist in animals. While a protein deficiency is rare, fiber deficiency is rampant, with only 3 percent of Americans meeting the daily requirements for fiber. Most get less than half the requirement.[12]

You need less protein than you may think.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of ideal or healthy body weight. A safety factor of almost double is built into the Recommended Daily Allowance. Ideal body weight is used because extra fat tissue requires relatively little protein.[13]

For a 150-pound person (based on your ideal or healthy body weight), the RDA for protein calculates to 54 grams—or 34 grams when you remove the built-in safety factor. The average American consumes 100 grams of protein per day, which is unhealthy.[14]

The strongest animals get their protein from plants.

Vegans get their protein from the same source that the strongest animals on the planet get their protein—plants. These animals include elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and horses. It's also noteworthy that almost all the land animals we eat, namely cows, pigs, and factory chickens, get their protein from plants.

Although these nonhuman examples don't prove anything specific to humans, they do suggest that since plants alone are capable of providing the protein needed by these animals, plants alone might also provide the protein that humans need.

Some prominent bodybuilders rely on vegan protein.

Kendrick Farris, the only American weight lifter to compete in the 2016 Olympics, the gold-medal winner at the two Pan American Championships before that,[15] and whom Men's Fitness Magazine called America's strongest weight lifter, is 100 percent vegan.[16] He adopted a vegan diet for ethical reasons.[17]

Patrik Baboumian, at the time of this writing, still holds the world dead-lift record five years after adopting a vegan diet. He claims that his meat-free diet gave him more energy and endurance in the gym than ever before.[18]

Barny du Plessis, the 2014 amateur Mr. Universe champion, stated that after he went vegan he "found himself in better shape than ever" and "had more energy and endurance than ever before."[19]

You need only take a look at the bios page of a single vegan bodybuilding site ( to realize this is a robust segment of the bodybuilding community.[20]

Although the preceding examples are from the sport of weight lifting because of its obvious connection to protein, endurance athletes need protein too. So we'll briefly mention that Scott Jurek, the world's most dominant ultramarathon runner, is also vegan.[21]

See Also


  1. The calculation assumes two slices of whole wheat bread and two tablespoons of peanut butter
  2. Fuhrman, Joel, and Mehmet Oz. Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. Reprint edition. Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 138
  3. Melina, Vesanto, Winston Craig, and Susan Levin. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 116, no. 12 (December 2016): 1970–80. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
  4. “Food Fact Sheet | Vegetarian Diets.” British Dietetic Association, March 2016.
  5. Weil, MD, Dr. Andrew. “Vegetarians: Pondering Protein?” DrWeil.Com. Accessed October 4, 2017.
  6. Davis, Brenda, and Vesanto Melina. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Reference to Plant-Based Nutrition. Comprehensive edition. Summertown, Tennessee: Book Pub Co, 2014, 83
  7. Allowances, National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary. Protein and Amino Acids. National Academies Press (US), 1989.
  8. Fuhrman, Joel, and Mehmet Oz. Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. Reprint edition. Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 139
  9. Novick, Jeff. “The Myth of Complementary Protein.” Forks Over Knives, June 3, 2013.
  10. Fuhrman, Joel, and Mehmet Oz. Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. Reprint edition. Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 140
  11. Massachusetts General Hospital. “High Animal Protein Intake Associated with Higher, Plant Protein with Lower Mortality Rate.” Science Daily, August 1, 2016.
  12. Greger, Dr. Michael. “Where Do You Get Your Fiber?” NutritionFacts.Org, September 29, 2015.
  13. Davis, Brenda, and Vesanto Melina. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Reference to Plant-Based Nutrition. Comprehensive edition. Summertown, Tennessee: Book Pub Co, 2014
  14. Fuhrman, Joel, and Mehmet Oz. Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. Reprint edition. Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 139
  15. Cave, James. “Kendrick Farris, The Only Male U.S. Weightlifter In The Olympics, Is Totally Vegan | HuffPost.” Huffington Post, August 10, 2016. 
  16. Rodio, Michael. “America’s Strongest Weightlifter, Kendrick Farris, Is 100% Vegan,” August 10, 2016.
  17. Steele, Lauren. “Why America’s Best Olympic Weightlifter Is Vegan.” Men’s Journal. Accessed October 11, 2017.
  18. English, Nick. “The 5 Strongest Vegans On Earth.” BarBend, January 3, 2017.
  19. Kirkova, Deni. “Vegan Mr. Universe, 40, Says Meat-Free Diet Has Made Him Stronger than Ever.” Metro News UK, September 24, 2015.
  20. “Bios Page.” Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness. Accessed October 11, 2017.
  21. Finn, Anna. “Vegans in the Rise of Ultra Running - One Green Planet.” One Green Planet, April 12, 2012.


This article was originally authored by Greg Fuller and copyedited by Isaac Nickerson. The contents may have been edited since that time by others.