The Protein Myth

Most people I tell my vegan story to, respond by saying,

“Wow, that’s crazy!  Every aspect of your life improved?  I should try that.”

Then I usually respond by saying,

“Yea, it has truly changed my life.  I swear by it.  You should absolutely give it a shot.”

“OK, maybe I will.  How do I start?”

“It’s simple.  Don’t eat meat and dairy.  Try to eat as much whole foods as you can, like vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.  If it came from a plant, you’re good.  If it came from an animal, don’t eat it.”

"OK, no meat and dairy.  But where do you get your protein?"

By far, the most frequently asked question I receive is where I get my protein from on a vegan diet.  Whether it's a 60 year-old woman or a 22 year-old man, everyone wants to know about protein!  For many, it's often the deciding factor about giving a vegan diet a try or not.  At first it sounds like a great idea, and then they decide that it's just not possible to get enough protein eating like that and they abandon the thought altogether.  

So, where did this notion come from that we all need so much damn protein?  Why is protein the major focus of all our diets?  Why do all our meals consist of "a protein" and then plant foods, if they're lucky, as a side?  Even when we decide to skip the protein centered meal and order a salad at a restaurant, we get asked,

"Would you like a protein on that?"

Is it a result of the Arnold Schwarzenegger bodybuilding era or today's Crossfit craze?  I don't know.  Whatever the reason may be, we ended up in a protein obsessed world and it’s an obsession that’s killing us.  The thought that we need protein, I believe is the largest contributing factor to our nation’s epidemic of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a myriad of other diseases.  For some reason, we all think that if we don’t get enough protein, specifically from meats, that we’re going to shrivel up and die.  In short, that’s simply wrong.   

Having now been eating a whole food vegan diet for almost two years, here's what I can tell you.  I've lost 15 pounds of fat, I've cured every single ailment my body previously suffered from (from allergies, to acid reflux, to arthritis, and much more), and I have actually gotten physically stronger!  I'm not kidding.  I've gotten faster on my runs, stronger in the gym, and I feel better than I ever knew was possible.  And, believe it or not,  I actually workout less than I used to.

But, how is that possible?  How could I possibly have gotten stronger by eating less protein?  I’ve actually found the less protein I consume, the better.  High protein diets, particularly from animal products, are harder to digest.  The more energy your body has to spend on digestion, the less energy it has for everything else, including the repair of damaged muscle tissue from exercising. 

So, contrary to popular belief, when you eat a massive protein-dense meal after a workout, I believe you’re actually hindering your ability to recover and develop muscle mass.  Instead, I recommend an easily digestible green smoothie or juice packed with leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits, allowing your body to both digest the nutrients it needs and repair your damaged muscle tissue at the same time.  Or here’s a crazy thought: don’t eat after your workout at all for a few hours, get out of your body's way and let it go to work! 

I go about my day without even giving protein a second of thought.  Instead, I think about one thing: eating whole plant foods, period.  We need to stop categorizing foods as "proteins," "carbs," or "fats" and worrying about whether or not we're getting enough of them.  In fact, we are eating and getting way too much, that's the real problem.

In conclusion, the thought that you're not going to get enough protein from eating a vegan diet is simply bullshit.  I am certainly not suffering from some kind of "protein deficiency."  The amount of protein we need is vastly overstated.  And whatever amount of protein I do in fact need, I'm clearly getting from the plant foods I'm consuming: vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.   

I'll leave you with this thought.  When's the last time you heard of someone dying from protein deficiency?  Exactly.  When's the last time you heard of someone dying from heart disease or cancer (stemming from the consumption of animals)?  Likely just a few minutes ago.  My point is, stop focusing on what you're not eating and start focusing on what you are eating.

Don't let the protein myth stop you from making a positive change in your life!

For more information on protein and other concerns about adopting a vegan diet, there is a whole chapter in my book on the subject.  You can download or purchase it here.