What Vegans Need to Know About Protein, According to the Experts

by Rachel Krantz|
January 5, 2018
What Vegans Need to Know About Protein, According to the Experts

Ask any vegan which question they’re most commonly asked and they’ll probably give you the same answer: Where do you get your protein? Decades of advertising by the meat and dairy industries have duped Americans into thinking they need animal protein, or at least cow’s milk, to be strong. As a result, Americans consume much more protein than they actually need, which is detrimental to their health.

In their new book, Clean Protein: The Revolution that will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy and Save Our Planet, wellness activist Kathy Freston and executive director of The Good Food Institute, Bruce Friedrich, dispel nutrition myths and teach readers to build a healthier diet with protein that has no side effects: plant-based protein.

We at The Green Plate spoke with the authors of this fantastic new book to learn more.

1. Could you explain the concept of clean protein?

BF: When we rely on animal meat, eggs, and dairy, we aren’t just getting protein. In addition to the necessary amino acids, animal products also come with saturated fat and cholesterol. Coming from filthy factory farms, these products may also be tainted with hormones, pathogens, antibiotics, and other contaminants.

There are much better ways to get what we need without all those dirty downsides. Beans, legumes, and nuts are all excellent sources of clean protein. Plant-based meats currently on the market provide us with clean, high-protein foods we’re used to, but again, without the harms that come with conventional animal products.

KF: And there’s nothing like a clean conscience! Just knowing that you’re getting all the protein you need without causing any pain feels empowering and good. Clean for the body, and a clean slate when it comes to personal ethics.  

2. What are the biggest protein myths in America?

BF: You would think there is some big protein deficiency problem in the United States, given the way people are constantly asking vegetarians, “Where do you get your protein?” But of course, that’s not true. Vegetarians, vegans, meat eaters—really, pretty much anybody who is not starving—get plenty of protein. According to published studies, 97 percent of Americans get more than the recommended daily requirement for protein.

But there is a vital nutrient that the vast majority of Americans do not get enough of, and it isn’t protein. It’s fiber, and animal products are entirely devoid of fiber. We just mentioned that 97 percent of Americans consume enough protein; remarkably, 97 percent of Americans get less than the RDA for fiber.

Fiber helps you avoid minor health problems such as hemorrhoids or constipation, while also helping prevent major diseases like colon cancer and heart disease. One study published in the journal Stroke finds that increasing your fiber intake by 7 grams a day—the equivalent of one bean burrito—can lower your risk of stroke by 7 percent. Yale researchers find that premenopausal women who eat 6 or more grams of soluble fiber daily have 62 percent lower odds of breast cancer compared with women who eat less than 4 grams.

But no one ever asks anyone, “Where do you get your fiber?” even though a fiber-deficient diet has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

3. So what is the most concise answer to the “how do you get your protein” question?

BF: As difficult as it can be, we should take the question seriously. When many people think about giving up animal-based meat, they simply see the rest of what they eat—for example, a bun with just pickles and mustard, or a plate of potatoes and a side of peas.

We need to paint a picture of familiar options the person will find appealing, like bean burritos, falafel, and killer burgers with meat alternatives rather than beef. Let them know there are now plant-based meats that are so delicious and satisfying that even avowed carnivores like Bill Gates are eating them and investing in them. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve dealt with people who truly believed they could never give up meat, only to be utterly shocked by Tofurky deli slices and roasted chick’n, Boca chick’n nuggets, Gardein crispy tenders, Gimme Lean’s ground beef, or an Impossible or a Beyond burger.

KF: Agreed, you have to address this question with earnestness because it was (likely) asked earnestly. This is EXACTLY what this book is for, to give to anyone who asks that question. It details why you need protein, what kind you need, and how to fold it into your daily routine. All of the recipes in the book (it’s not a cookbook, but there are over 40 recipes in it) are rich in protein and easy to make. To be honest, I do feel better when I eat a protein-rich diet. Maybe I don’t need as much protein as I consume, but my skin, hair, and weight seem to do better with it. A protein smoothie is my daily savior!  

4. How does the protein myth feed into climate change?

KF: Meat, dairy, and egg producers like to tell a story, both to themselves and to us: that they are feeding a hungry planet whose population is growing, and so they need to amp up the proficiency of (animal) protein production.

All of that mass production is placing immense pressure on our land, water, and air—not to mention on animals themselves. The inefficiencies of cycling crops through animals are catching up with us, and, as the global population grows and continues to demand more and more protein, we will pass the breaking point.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concludes that we’re going to have to increase food production by 70 percent if we want to feed the world’s population in 2050, which is impossible given our current reliance on land-, water-, and energy-intensive animal agriculture. Quite simply, if we keep producing food like we do now, we will not be able to feed the world’s population by midcentury. So as much as they’d like us to believe cheap animal protein is necessary, nothing is further from the truth. We need to pivot toward the basics of whole grains and beans, alternative meats like Beyond and Impossible, and engineered clean meat.

5. How does clean meat factor into the future?

BF: Clean meat is real meat grown directly from cells, no factory farm or slaughterhouse required. This process will provide us exactly the same product, but safely, efficiently, and humanely. Clean meat will also lack bacterial contamination and won’t require antibiotics, the overuse of which is currently driving the development of deadly “superbugs.”

Perhaps the most significant advantage of clean meat is that it is actual meat. We don’t have to convince a restaurant or food service to “substitute” plant-based meats (although more and more are offering those options). We don’t have to convince anyone to “give up” anything. Rather, clean meat can slot right into the current distribution system. The new system will look just like the old one, but without the environmental degradation or immense cruelty.  

Perhaps most interesting, because clean meat is so much more efficient, the meat industry is likely to simply go in that direction. Cargill has already bought a stake in clean meat pioneer Memphis Meats. And Tyson Foods has made positive noises about the technology. Fortunately, it appears that the meat industry sees both plant-based meat and clean meat as the tremendous opportunities that they are.

KF: If our mission is to accelerate the use of more sustainable and less cruel protein, then clean meat must be part of the conversation. There are three prongs to the solution: simple whole foods like beans and grains, alternative plant-based meats, and clean meat. The book explores two of the most important questions of our time: what is the future of protein, and how do we get there quickly and efficiently.  

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