Common vegetables have much more protein than you need, and contrary to popular myth, they're complete proteins as well. The reason you've heard otherwise is that the people spouting protein myths haven't bothered to look up the actual numbers. So let's look at what the science actually says — as well as what doctors and nutritionists who are actually familiar with protein say.
We need only 2.5 to 10% of our calories from protein, according to official sources.1,2,3 And all vegetables have more than that.4 Not some vegetables, all of them. Vegetables average around 22% protein, beans 28%, and grains 13%.4 Have a look at the chart at right.
Professional estimates suggest we need as little 2.5% of our calories from protein.1 The World Health Organization recommends about 5% to 10%, depending on various factors.2 The U.S. government's recommendation is about 9%, depending on calorie intake.3 And the official recommendations are padded with generous safety margins, to account for differences in bioavailability, and to cover even people who need more protein than average.
In any event, whether you think our needs are closer to 2.5% or 10%, you can see from the chart that it's nearly impossible to fail to get enough protein, provided that you make sure to eat food. Every single whole plant food has more than 2.5% protein, and every group averages more than 10% except for fruit. Protein is one of the easiest nutrients to get.
The figures for food are from the bible of nutrition data, the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. (I averaged the numbers for several foods in each category.4 To find the percentage of protein for a sample, multiply the protein grams by 4 and divide by the number of calories.)
So plant foods easily supply our protein needs. In fact, when just about every single food has more than you need, how exactly could you not get enough? The truth is that if you're eating food, you're eating protein. And you're eating more than enough.
It's meaningless to talk about a "source of protein", since all foods have plentiful protein. In other words, every whole food is a "source of protein". You don't have to eat certain, special foods to get protein. You just have to eat any food. That's it.
Any well-read health professional will tell you the same thing. Take Marion Nestle, Ph.D, chair of the Department of Nutrition at New York University:
"We never talk about protein anymore, because it's absolutely not an issue, even among children. If anything, we talk about the dangers of high-protein diets. Getting enough is simply a matter of getting enough calories."4.3Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't bothered to look up the actual numbers. The reason you've heard that plants are protein-deficient is because everyone is simply repeating that misinformation without looking at what the science actually says. The science itself is clear and consistent, for anyone who cares to look.
It's true that meat has more protein than vegetables, but the amount in vegetables is already much more than you need. The extra protein in meat isn't better, it's actually useless. If you're shopping for a car and one goes 200 miles an hour and the other goes 400, it doesn't matter, since the maximum speed limit in the U.S. is 80 mph. Two hundred mph is more than enough for a car, and 22% protein from vegetables is more than enough when your protein needs are only 2.5 to 10%.
Oh, but you've heard that plant protein is "incomplete", right? Well, that's not true either Read more: