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BUSTED! The Myth About ‘Incomplete’ Plant-Based Protein


I used to be one of those people who thought that in order to eat vegan, one must eat rice and beans at each meal. Does anyone else remember this mumbo jumbo myth, too? Growing up in South Carolina, I was always taught that if you didn’t have chicken or a burger at the table, then you weren’t getting enough protein in your diet. And breakfast sure wasn’t “complete” without the eggs and bacon. These days, however, we’ve all gotten smarter than that, and burgers and bacon haven’t touched my lips in over 10 years.

Complete plant-based proteins do exist, and you don’t have to eat beans and rice together, or even at all, to obtain enough protein on a vegan diet. Plant-based foods are chock-full of protein, and if you’re concerned about the myth that these proteins aren’t “bio-available” or complete, then not to worry. That idea is likely just a lie someone made up somewhere along the way to make the animal-based food industry a ton of money.

The Real Deal on Protein….

I’m not negating the importance of protein- it’s incredibly important in a major way. Check this out: Protein is basically just a huge string of 20 amino acids, all delicately formed to provide our bodies with support, energy, and sustenance. Fat and carbs do the same, just in different ways. Protein builds our muscles, fuels our brains, keeps our skin and hair healthy, and keeps our organs running properly. It triggers neurotransmitters in the brain to improve our moods, lower our blood sugar, and even help us focus. Protein is an important nutrient, but you don’t need a tub of whey protein or a piece of chicken to get your fill.

The idea that all essential amino acids must be eaten together at each meal isn’t true like we used to think. One can eat a variety of foods that are rich in essential and non-essential amino acids, and completely get their fill of protein. Many plant-based foods are filled with all essential amino acids (hemp, chia, sprouted brown rice, and spirulina, just to name a handful).

Plus, think about this: cows and gorillas grow big and strong from eating nothing but plants (or at least in their natural habitats, that is). Considering that a cow needs nothing more than grass to grow big and strong, why should we think any differently for ourselves? Even vegan bodybuilders know that getting enough protein is absolutely no problem. 

The good news is, you don’t have to graze like cattle or be a gorilla to have access to nature’s finest sources of protein. It’s much simpler than you think, considering that so many vegan foods are packed with high-quality protein. 

Besides, too much animal protein is also a bad thing. It can trigger kidney issues, blood sugar problems, and even weight gain if you eat too much of it. While everyone’s protein needs are different, none of us require animal protein to obtain enough.

Take a look at these awesome plant-based, protein-rich foods:

  • Broccoli: 5 grams per cup
  • Spinach: 5 grams per cup
  • Rye Grains: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Rolled Oats: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Millet: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Amaranth: 6 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Freekah: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Teff: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Buckwheat: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Almond Butter: 7 Grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Spirulina: 4 grams per teaspoon (!!)
  • Chlorella: 2 grams per teaspoon
  • Chia seeds: 10 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Flax Seeds: 5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Cacao Powder: 5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Maca: 3 grams per tablespoon
  • Acai: 5 grams per 3 ounce frozen puree
  • Kale: 5 grams per cup
  • Lentils- 18 grams per cup
  • Black Beans- 13 grams per cup
  • Chickpeas- 13 grams per cup
  • Tofu: 10 grams per 3 ounces
  • Tempeh: 10 grams per 2 ounces
  • Endamame (Soybeans) – 16 grams per cup
  • Romaine Lettuce: 3 grams per cup
  • Sunflower Seeds: 10 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Almonds: 7 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Pumpkin Seeds: 10 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Coconut Flour: 3.5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Quinoa: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Plant-Based Protein Powders (hemp, pea, brown rice, cranberry bean, soy, etc.) : 17-25 grams per scoop (depending on the brand)
  • Green Peas: 8 grams per cup

Even most fruits and the common white potato have a little bit of protein. One would have to eat refined white bread all day to hardly be short of protein (which I don’t think you would want to do, nor would I even advise it!)

No matter what kind of diet you eat, it’s always best to eat one filled with whole foods. When you eat a whole foods, plant-based, healthy diet, you can be rest-assured that you won’t be protein deficient (or carb and fat deficient for that matter either.)

How to Get Enough Protein and Find the Right Amount for You

If you’re still a little antsy and unsure about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet, just figure up how much you need. Multiply your body weight times .40 and that’s the recommended amount of protein you need for everyday functions. If you’re athletic, eat a little more and divide it up evenly between meals – simple as that.

Here are some awesome plant-based protein-rich recipe ideas to give you a boost: 10 Protein-Rich Quinoa RecipesSugar-Free Vegan Protein BarsBrain Food PorridgeAll About Tempeh and 7 Tasty RecipesCreamy Millet and Cashew PuddingThe Ultimate Superfood Detox SmoothieMediterranean Strength MilletVeggie BurgersBanana Oatmeal with Hazelnut Butter, Raisins, and Baobab PowderSupremely Green Power SmoothieCrunchy Raw Vegan Protein Balls (Gluten-Free).

Mother Nature’s got it covered for us in all areas of nutrition; we sure don’t need to insult her and go through the poor cow or chicken to get our protein. Eat your plants people and rock on with your protein-rich selves!

Health and Clean Vegan Sources of Protein

Image Source: Veganbaking.net/Flickr

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7 comments on “BUSTED! The Myth About ‘Incomplete’ Plant-Based Protein”

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Jim Maginnis
8 Months Ago

Most plant foods are low in one or two of the essential amino acids. But, you can get enough of these amino acids by including a variety of plant foods in your diet. It was once thought that plant proteins needed to be combined within a meal by mixing grains and legumes to create a "complete" protein, also called complementary proteins, with good amounts of all essential amino acids. But today, we know that the liver can store the amino acids so we don’t have to combine them in one meal. Animal protein, such as that found in meat, dairy and eggs, is considered "high quality" protein because it has good amounts of all essential amino acids. Meeting your protein needs may be more easily accessed on a vegetarian (versus vegan) diet, because you can include high quality animal protein sources such as milk, cheese, cottage cheese, and eggs to help meet protein needs. (as per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2014)

Vegan diets are usually lower in protein than standard American diets. Humans cannot make nine of the twenty common amino acids, so these amino acids are considered to be essential. We must get these amino acids from our diets. Protein sources of non-animal origin often have all of the essential amino acids, but the amounts of one or two of these amino acids may be low. For example, grains are lower in lysine (an essential amino acid) and legumes are lower in methionine (another essential amino acid) than those protein sources designated as high quality protein. The myth Lappe admitted to creating was that combining was complicated, not that it wasn\'t required. (Dr. Reed Manels, Simply Vegan, 5th edition). Animal sources of protein tend to deliver all the amino acids we need. Other protein sources, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, lack one or more essential amino acids. Vegetarians need to be aware of this. People who don’t eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products need to eat a variety of protein-containing foods each day in order to get all the amino acids needed to make new protein. (www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/)

Protein combining is a dietary strategy originally applied to livestock feed. In the 1950s and 1960s, Nevin S. Scrimshaw used the combination of cottonseed flour with maize in Guatemala and peanut flour with wheat in India. In 2011 PLOS ONE published an article investigating the specifics of protein combining for 1251 plant-based foods. The bases of reference were the amino acids indispensable to human nutrition, and the ideal proportioning of these amino acids in a meal. They explain that "complementation involves consuming two or more foods together to yield an amino acid pattern that is better than the sum of the two foods alone." Many plant proteins are lower in one or more essential amino acids than animal proteins, especially lysine, and to a lesser extent methionine and threonine. And so, it important to eat a variety of plants... just not necessarily at the same meal. Plant protein can meet protein requirements as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs. (as per the current ADA advice)

Complentary plant protein is NOT a myth. Anyone who disagrees should tell us how they came to know better than the experts. Besides normally being low in caclium, vitimin D, iron, and zinc, a vegan diet is dangerously low in B12 (esp bad for pregnant women). Studies show people who eat a strictly plant-based diet often suffer from subclinical protein malnutrition, meaning you\'re likely not getting enough sulfur. By eliminating all animal foods you also run the real risk of a number of other nutrient deficiencies, as some simply cannot be obtained from plant foods. Vegans MUST take supplements for B12 (esp if you\'re pregnant), creatine, carnosine, D (plants contain D2 but alone it\'s not digestable), omega-3 DHA, heme-iron, taurine, sulfur, as well as many others (such as iodine). (as per vegansociety.com) How much effort are you nutrition experts spending busting the myth vegans don\'t need to take a supplement?

A 14-member panel in 2010, organized by the NIH Consensus Development Program, looked at more than 35 studies. The experts were surprised to learn that many people avoid drinking milk in fear of getting sick when their stomachs could most likely handle more than they think. People are self-diagnosing without actually getting a diagnosis from a doctor. People who think they are lactose intolerant need to consider whether they are getting enough nutrients before cutting milk from their diet. The panel also found limiting consumption of dairy foods containing lactose left many people without the necessary amount of calcium and vitamin D important for bone growth, which can lead to osteoporosis and other adverse health outcomes. Moreover, whey (diary) protein has little to no lactose (less than 1%). There\'s another myth that needs busting. Who is up for the task?

Jim Maginnis
10 Feb 2018

Vegan Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees died at the young age of 62 of colon cancer. A recent study linked low vitamin B12 (VERY common to vegans - and why 100% of them need to be taking a supplement) to increased risk for colon cancer. It\'s also possible that Gibb\'s veganism was low in calcium (also common), which would have placed him at increased risk. Calcium regulates cell growth in ways that are thought to lower risk for certain cancers. Then, scientists have found that long term vegetarianism can lead to genetic mutations which raise the risk of heart disease and cancer. The mutation occurrs to make it easier for vegens to absorb essential fatty acids from eating only plants. But, it has the knock-on effect of boosting the production of arachidonic acid, which is linked to inflammatory disease and cancer. When coupled with a diet high in vegetable oils - such as sunflower oil - the mutated gene quickly turns fatty acids into dangerous arachidonic acid. The finding helps explain the previous research which found vegetarian populations are nearly 40% more likely to suffer colorectal cancer than normal meat eaters.

Very smart people can make very dumb choices. Steve Jobs died from his at 56. How else are we to explain Steve Wozniak (an overweight fast-food junkie) outliving him? Steve\'s longstanding food fanaticism, eating disorders, and mood swings started in his teenage years. His diet could easily have lead to pancreatic cancer as per Dr. Healy of the Jonsson Cancer Center and Director of the Pituitary Tumor and Neuroendocrine Program at UCLA. Moreover, Jobs\'s kidney stones were also the predictable result of his high fructose diet. As a tech at Atari, he was known as "a hippie with b.o." He clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor. As Isaacson writes "It was a flawed theory." When he was young, he sadly learned that he could induce euphoria and ecstasy by starving himself. Steve Jobs died regretting that he had spent so long attempting to treat his cancer with alternative medicine before agreeing to undergo surgery, his biographer disclosed. Cancer experts have said Jobs may have extended his life or even survived if he had promptly tackled his cancer aggressively with scientifically proven medical treatments. When asked why "such a smart man could do such a stupid thing,"Isaacson answered: "I think he felt: if you ignore something you don\'t want to exist, you can have magical thinking. It had worked for him in the past. He would regret it." It\'s a lesson for us all.

2 Years Ago

Any website that is using "Cups" to "grams of protein" ratio while trying to sound scientific should be laughed at.

Christina Major
3 Years Ago

You completely ignore the importance of the d- and l- configurations of amino acids and the proper balance of the 22 (not 20) amino acids. Most people do need animal protein because they choose not do the complex calculations required. Improper vegetarianism leads to nutritional deficiencies.

Aqiyl Aniys
15 Dec 2014

Most people do not need to eat animal protein. Calculations are not necessary. Plant based foods contains all the amino acids we need, they are just not in the same ratio as animal protein, and that is a good thing. Animal protein (over 10%) of the diet promotes cancer while plant protein doesn\'t. The growth hormones in animal protein and the similarity of animal protein and our own causes this problem. As long as we eat a well balanced plant based diet we get all the protein (amino acids) we need. I have been vegan for over 3 years now, have lost and kept off 30lbs, haven\'t been sick during this time, and I am always full of energy at 47 years old. I am also highly active and I am a boxer. I am faster now, stronger, and have way better cardio. http://bit.ly/plant-based-diet

JAdele Plotkin
4 Years Ago

our teeth

JAdele Plotkin
4 Years Ago

poppy cock. wild apes do eat animal and insect protein just not as much animal protein nor as frequently as people do. proteins are not strings of 20 amino acids. each protein has its own profile of amino acids, not all of which are accessible for digestion. most proteins do not have the essential [about half of the common amino acids] amino acids in balance. balance is needed for proper body function. without balance adverse health effects can occur such as gout, malnutrition, adverse kidney and GI function [for instance see descriptions/ definitions for "wet litter"], etc. etc... That is not to say that balance can not be achieved through a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it is NOT by just counting the amounts of grams of protein in the sources. Read the writings of true medical professionals and agricultural nutritionists to understand more NOT the rantings of myth mongerers with an agenda to promote veganism or vegetarianism at all costs. Note too that out teeth are clearly omnivore teeth unlike cows and we do not have multiple stomachs or other GI features that cows and other herbivores have to allow proper digestion of such a diet.

JAdele Plotkin
27 Sep 2014

our teeth

01 Oct 2014

The cow/gorilla comment in the article is indicative of someone without scientific understanding of physiology and/or microbiology. Seeing as physiology and microbiology are fundamental to any nutrition argument you should probably not try to make comment simply to \'amp up\' a lay reader when it in turn leads to invalidation of your own argument.

01 Dec 2014

Amino acids dehydrate the interstitial fluid between cells and the lymphatic system that moves the cellular waste down the road to the kidneys. When the lymph fluid stops moving it causes acids to damage cells where ever that flow has stopped. We must stay alkali our bodys with real fruits and veggies.
Robert Morse, he is the alpha male in the regeneration of cells!!!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhMdDSNVzYY

22 Sep 2017


All the analogies in this are so flawed it\'s untrue. Cows etc "grow big" on vegetable matter only because they have a herbivores digestive tract.

We do not. Our digestive system is that of a carnivore. We are not set up the same way as a cow, or any other herbivore. It demonstrates a massive lack of understanding in the subject matter you are trying to be an authority on.

Yes, plants seem to suit cows ok. But that takes the passing of it through multiple stomachs, regurgitating, even the eating of faeces to ensure that all the nutrients are removed.

the digestive systems of herbivores,carnivores and omnivores are all very different. Guess which one the mammals that are people have?

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