The vegetarian community has experienced an exponential boom in recent years. More and more people are beginning to recognize the fruits of a diet rich in seeds and stems.
Despite the clear health, environmental and moral benefits attached to vegetarianism, many people do not believe the diet is a sufficient source of protein. This is perhaps the most widely cited and most easily refutable argument against vegetarianism, and yet, it continues to prevail.
It’s time to set the record straight. Charles R. Attwood, a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, exposes common myths about vegetarianism in his book A Vegetarian Doctor Speaks Out. The following is an excerpt from the book, which guts the “complete protein” myth like a fish.
Nothing has given vegetarianism a worse reputation than the “Complete Protein Myth.” Meat and dairy products were thought to be necessary in order to obtain all of the amino acids required to build protein. The time has come to finally dispel one of the last great misconceptions of clinical nutrition. Not surprisingly, this myth has persisted largely because of misinformation trumpeted for decades by the beef and dairy industries.
In the 1971 first edition of Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe, she suggested that vegetables be combined carefully with legumes or soybeans to insure a supply of essential amino acids, important components of these so-called “complete proteins.” Later however, in the 1991 edition of the book, she reassured her readers that this was “a myth,” and that any reasonable variety of vegetables would suffice. Unfortunately, the attention this particular subject received in the first edition was essentially overlooked in the last edition. Vegetarianism has therefore been unpopular to millions, regardless of its health benefits, because they considered it to be too complex and cumbersome. It’s time to set the record straight.
Proteins are composed of amino acids, twelve of which are manufactured by the human body. Another nine, known as essential amino acids, must be obtained from food. Most animal foods, such as meat and dairy products, contain all of the essential amino acids, and have therefore been designated as containing complete proteins. This is misleading because most proteins from vegetables also contain all essential amino acids.
Now here’s the part that’s really misunderstood. The proteins we eat are not used as such. They are broken down into these ammo acids, joined by the amino acids produced by the body and even more amino acids from the metabolic breakdown of tissue proteins process known as catabolism. From this enormous pool of amino acids, new specific proteins are built for use throughout the body.
So it makes no difference where these amino acids come from, whether they are from plant or animal sources. Thus, the old myth that vegetarians must carefully combine foods to ensure “complete proteins” makes no sense. Practically, any variety of vegetables supplies adequate amounts of essential amino acids. There will be no protein deficiency from a plant-based diet as long as enough calories are consumed.
It does make a difference, however, whether or not these sources are excessive, as they usually are when obtained from animal sources. In America and other Western nations, over two-thirds of proteins are obtained from meat and dairy products. Their protein consumption, therefore, is excessive, often 100-120 grams daily, when the proper amount for most adults is 50-60 grams. Meat and dairy consumers are overburdened with protein, which has been related to a variety of serious disorders, such as kidney disease, heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. These diseases are almost unknown in two-thirds of the world population, including the rural Chinese and Japanese, who get 90 percent of their protein from vegetable sources.
Although I am a vegetarian, I am concerned, that I’m not getting enough protein in my diet. Currently I derive most of my protein from dairy products such as cottage cheese, yogurt and other milk products, and beans. Are there other suggestions you would make for me to insure I get enough protein?
Let me reassure you, there’s plenty of quality protein in a vegetarian diet even without the dairy products. A reasonable variety of vegetables, grains and legumes will supply all essential amino acids.
Learn more about the myths and benefits of a vegetarian diet by purchasing a copy of Attwood’s book here.