By Olivia Hakan
When I tell people I’m a vegetarian, especially one that doesn’t eat eggs or dairy, I’m immediately prompted with the question, “but where do you get your protein from?!” Growing up, even before changing my diet, one of the most common things my parents would tell me is “make sure you’re eating enough protein.” In America, we seem to have this common misconception about how much protein we really need.
The national academy of medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day, or about 10-35% of your daily calories. This translates to an average minimum of 42 grams of protein per day (Imatome-Yun, 2019). To put this into perspective, if you have half a cup of oats with a cup of soymilk for breakfast, you already have 13 grams of protein. Then, if you add toppings like nut-butter and fruit, you’re up to 20 grams (Organic, Original, Natural). That’s almost 50% of the national average minimum in a relatively small meal. If you continued to have this much protein in every meal you would be well above the minimum, at 60 grams (not including snacks). This is clearly a broad generalization of everyone’s nutritional needs, but even for athletes, who need to eat significantly more protein than the average person, consuming a large variety of foods and potentially adding protein supplements into their diet will still ensure that they get enough. Yes, protein is an essential part of our diets as humans; however, in general, if you are consuming enough calories, you are consuming enough protein, whether it is from animal or plant sources (Protein, 2019).
In fact, research has recently shown that it may be healthier to consume our protein from plant sources (Protein, 2019). This is due to what's called the protein package. This means that whatever protein we eat also contains other nutrients. So fat, sodium, and fiber also have an impact along with the protein: it all can be considered one package. For example, a steak has about 33 grams of protein, but it also has about five grams of saturated fat. Similarly with ham, it contains around 22 grams of protein and has little saturated fat, but it’s loaded with 1,500 milligrams of sodium. A cup of cooked lentils, however, provides about 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber, without many of the more detrimental components that animal based products have. And it turns out that its this package that matters to our health, not just the individual nutrient.
Now, no one is claiming that everyone with a plant based diet is the image of perfect health. It’s still possible, and relatively easy in today’s world, to have an unhealthy vegetarian or vegan diet: cookies, candy, and chips all present easy but unhealthy options. It’s easy enough to base your diet, plant based or not, on processed and unhealthy foods, and not get enough of most nutrients (like protein). However, if you have a varied diet of mainly plant-based, whole foods, as long as you are eating enough, chances are you will get enough of all nutrients.
Overall, it's easy to write off things like cutting meat or dairy out of your diet for reasons like not getting enough protein, thinking it’s expensive, or just insisting it's too difficult. But, in reality, many of the misconceptions surrounding these lifestyles are founded on little more than misinformation and convenience. It’s a lot easier to continue living the lifestyle you do, eating the things you like. But not only do you get enough nutrients by getting most of your nutrients from plant sources, but it is also overall healthier than the typical heavily animal product based, “American” diet, more ethical, and more sustainable (Protein, 2019). It's unhelpful when people push their ideals onto others, especially when its in an all or nothing kind of way. But whether people decide to go vegetarian or vegan or not, they should be properly informed so they can make the best decision possible. And remember, it’s much less difficult than anyone believes it is to change your life, and little steps over a large amount of time go a long way.
Resources for more information on the vegan diet:
Imatome-Yun, N. (2019, March 19). Do Vegetarians and Vegans Eat Enough Protein? Retrieved from https://www.forksoverknives.com/do-vegetarians-and-vegans-eat-enough-protein /#gs.39zfu6
Natural Creamy Peanut Butter. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.smuckers.com /products/peanut-butter/natural-peanut-butter/natural-creamy-peanut-butter
Organic Regular Rolled Oats. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bobsredmill.com /organic-regular-rolled-oats.html
Original Soymilk. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://silk.com/products/original-soymilk
Protein. (2019, February 01). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutrition source/what-should- you- eat/protein/