Eating an array of fruit and vegetables provides more than enough protein for the average person.
In 1984, Clara Peller asked the United States, “Where’s the beef?” This catch-phrase reverberated throughout the country, and as owner of the 10-acre, 100-percent vegan Stanford Inn by the Sea, I still get asked that question today. In fact, it’s a question my wife Joan and I have been asked since 1980, when we purchased the former Big River Lodge in Mendocino to live a more integrated life. We chose to “grow” the inn sustainably (long before the term was popular), and part of that growth has been the addition of the on-site Ravens Restaurant. The Ravens is where I often overhear people discussing whether or not they are getting enough protein in plant-based food. My answer is always a resounding “yes,” as protein is in every dish we serve. The question should not be “where’s the protein?” but “is this a whole food?” Here are the four responses I most often give to guests who want to know more about protein sources, and why there’s little long-term happiness to be found in Peller’s question.
1. We need amino acids, not protein
Our bodies don’t actually need protein, but rather the amino acids that comprise proteins. In fact, some protein molecules from animals can be used by human cancers to grow faster. There are 22 amino acids and adults synthesize all but eight, which are identified as “essential” amino acids. We construct proteins from amino acids digested from protein, and any undigested proteins that manage to be absorbed into the bloodstream are generally identified as “foreign” and attacked by our immune system. Furthermore, proteins are the source of most inflammation in the body, but amino acids themselves are not inflammatory.
2. Eating a variety of whole plant foods can provide all essential amino acids
Not all plants have adequate amounts of one or more of the eight essential amino acids, but a varied whole food plant diet is rich in all essential amino acids. Many individual plants—including quinoa, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole wheat, and corn—contain all eight essential amino acids. In addition, the complex structures of plants provide all nutrient elements we need, including phytochemicals, enzymes, antioxidants, and micronutrients. Plants are also nutrient-dense, and the complex carbohydrates of whole grains and potatoes produce substantial energy without the fat in animal-based diets.
3. Americans consume more protein than we need
Americans eat approximately five times more protein than recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is more than doctors Garth Davis, Joel Fuhrman, John McDougall, Dean Ornish, and Caldwell Esselstyn recommend based on the latest research (the World Health Organization recommends .8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight). For a 185-pound male, the WHO recommendation for daily protein is 67 grams. On the other hand, Davis calculates that a 185-pound, 18-year-old male requires only 46 grams per day, which is 7.6 percent of the total 2,400 calories recommended for a moderately active person of that age.
4. Plants are good for our guts … and our moods
Many plants are considered “prebiotic,” which means their fiber assures healthy intestinal flora, and healthy flora ensures greater health, vitality, and better moods. In fact, Mycobacterium vaccae—which increases serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain—is the “happy” soil bacteria found in our guts. Diets with excessive protein (especially animal proteins) change the balance of intestinal flora, reducing M vaccae while increasing Clostridium difficile associated with depression and diseases including colitis.