Health & Fitness

Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?


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Vegetarians and vegans are all too familiar with the question: Do you get enough protein?

Well, we can finally put that question to rest thanks to a large study that compared the nutrient profiles of about 30,000 non-vegetarians to 20,000 vegetarians and about 5,000 vegans, 5,000 flexitarians (vegetarian most of the time), and 5,000 pescetarians (no meat except fish). The average requirement is 42 grams of protein a day. As you can see in the graph in the above video, meat eaters get way more than they need, and so does everyone else. Vegetarians and vegans get 70% more protein than they need every day.

It’s surprising that there’s so much fuss about protein in this country when less than 3% of adults don’t make the cut, presumably because they’re on extreme calorie-restricted diets and aren’t eating enough food period. But 97% of Americans get enough protein.

There is a nutrient, though, for which 97% of Americans are deficient. That nutrient is fiber.

Less than 3% of Americans get even the recommended minimum adequate intake of fiber. That’s something we really have to work on.

On average, we get only about 15 grams a day. The minimum daily requirement is 31.5, so we get less than half the minimum. Men are particularly deficient. If we break down intake by age and gender, after studying the diets of 12,761 Americans, the percent of men between ages 14 and 50 getting the minimum adequate intake is zero. (The only nutrient Americans may be more deficient in than fiber is potassium. See 98% of American Diets Potassium Deficient.)

This deficit is stunning in that dietary fiber has been protectively associated in population studies with the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and various cancers as well high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugars. Therefore, it is not surprising that fiber is listed as a nutrient of concern reported by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Protein is not.

One problem is that most people have no idea what’s in their food; more than half of Americans think steak is a significant fiber source. By definition, fiber is only found in plants. There is no fiber in meat, dairy or eggs, and little or no fiber in junk food. Therein lies the problem. Americans should be eating more beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—but how are they doing?

96% of Americans don’t eat the minimum recommended daily amount of beans, 96% don’t eat the measly minimum for greens, and 99% don’t get enough whole grains. Nearly the entire U.S. population fails to eat enough whole plant foods.

Even semi-vegetarians make the minimum, though. Those eating completely plant-based diets triple the average American intake. When closing the fiber gap, you’ll want to do it gradually though, no more than about five extra grams a day each week until you can work your way up. But it’s worth it.

“Plant-derived diets tend to contribute significantly less fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and foodborne pathogens, while at the same time offering more fiber, folate, vitamin C, and phytochemicals, all essential factors for disease prevention, optimal health, and wellbeing.” And the more whole plant foods the better. If we compare the nutritional quality of vegan versus vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diets, traditional healthy diet indexing systems consistently indicate that the most plant-based diet (vegan) is the healthiest one.

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