Is the concern over vegetarians getting enough protein overblown?
August 24, 2021 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I have read more than once that the average vegetarian (a) consumes more than enough protein, including all essential amino acids, for a healthy existence without even giving it much thought and (b) consumes nearly as much protein as the average non-vegetarian. But, on the other hand, there seems to be such a strong, deep-seated cultural message about vegetarians needing to make sure to get enough protein/eat a lot of tofu/make sure they eat both beans and rice etc. that I'm not sure who or what to believe.

Also, I have a secondary hypothesis that the obsession with protein actually is harmful, because it distracts from dietary concerns that may be more important to vegetarians, like Omega-3s, Vitamin B12, etc. Can anyone confirm, deny, or elucidate with nuance? My largely vegetarian family would be most grateful (as would I, as someone who eats very little meat).
posted by rjacobs to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
No longer vegetarian, but previously saw a nutritionist to get dietary advice as a vegan. Nutritionist told me not to worry about protein; if you’re eating enough (I.e., not underfed), you are getting enough protein. This was a certified nutritionist, not any sort of alternative health practitioner. I can’t imagine any reason they would have pandered to my vegan diet. Perhaps some one else has more recent evidence-based intel for you. My anecdata says you’re fine on protein!
posted by tamarack at 9:30 PM on August 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Agree with Tamarack. If you are looking for an in-depth treatment of the issue, consider watching the Netflix doc “the game changers” which surveys a bunch of high -performance athletes who follow plant-based diets.
posted by clownschool at 9:38 PM on August 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Here is a basic overview of getting enough nutrients. The authors have a book for vegans that I've read and am referencing frequently right now, but they have a vegetarian book, too. I have started trying to get all my nutrition from food, and their book is very helpful for that. I think for some people it's easy and/or no big deal, but for me, the amount of beans and greens I'm supposed to be eating to get adequate nutrition is just astounding. Like, a can of beans a day is not unreasonable. Two cups of cooked greens per day is not unreasonable. Etc.

This has nothing to do with whether or not you're eating meat, though. Most of the recommendations I come across discourage eating meat like it's done in the US for sure.
posted by aniola at 9:42 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

You'll notice that protein is absent from that link I included.
posted by aniola at 9:45 PM on August 24, 2021

Like any generalized diets, there are healthy and non-healthy versions. If you are eating a really imbalanced vegetarian or omni or carnivore diet, you'll end up with deficiencies but protein is usually not one of them. The cultural narrative around vegetarians and protein is weirdly focused on bean and nut protein when a lot of greens have good amounts of protein as well - and vegetarians are also eating dairy/eggs in their diets. However, I know a few vegetarians who have struggled with iron deficiency anemia (which fortunately has never been an issue for me either).
posted by vegartanipla at 9:48 PM on August 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

One of the reasons I stopped being vegetarian is that I simply sometimes do not eat enough. A meat protein is a simple way to add meal without much thought.

This had more to do with portion sizes than variety for me. I don't think it is a universal experience, but I did need to make sure I was actively seeking out high protein vegetarian dishes, AND eat enough of them. I didn't do great with the second part at the time.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:37 PM on August 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think this has more to do with people who don't bother to eat healthy in the first place. They think they just need to quit eating meat. I met someone in the 90's whose doctor described her as a french fry vegetarian when she did get a protein deficiency. She was living on rolls and french fries with a little bit of veg. She gave up on being vegetarian at that point and got better.

Now it's so much easier to be vegetarian but it wasn't then. Going out to eat when meeting up with family meant eating an iceberg lettuce salad and a roll a lot of the time. It's so much easier now that I doubt there's many vegetarians having problems. Most restaurants have options. Groceries have so much more choice in vegetarian food. I think it was a problem in the past but not so much now.
posted by stray thoughts at 10:59 PM on August 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

Here’s as much nuance as you might want wrt nutrition as far as pregnancy and lactation are concerned (possibly useful test case for optimal nutrition, or maybe directly relevant to members of your family).

“Vegetarian and vegan diets have been considered a nutritional challenge during pregnancy, and they require strong awareness to achieve complete intake of essential nutrients, as such, these diets are at risk of nutritional deficiencies. As described, several studies have demonstrated the insufficient supply of essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iron, proteins, essential fatty acids, and iodine in vegetarian and vegan diets [46]. Here we discuss the published evidence of the effect of plant food diets on maternal nutritional profile.”

There’s mention there (and in some other articles I read) of a need to increase protein (and calcium) intake by 20% to account for that much less bioavailability. (Calcium in particular is tricky in pregnancy, hypocalcemia has been associated with preeclampsia. Anecdotal and of course can’t say for sure her diet was the reason, but my veggie friend was hypocalcemic and almost died during labour. She’s trying to conceive again and is now a pescatarian, just in case.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:54 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's an overblown concern. I've been vegan since 1993. I'm an epidemiologist-toxicologist who spent a good decade working in food science. There are plenty of good resources out there about this. Dr. Garth Davis is one of the more recent voices who is very vocal about the science of this overfocus on dietary protein (see his book Proteinaholic as a starting point, but he peppers his social media with analyses of published nutrition research, too, if you want more of a gloss). Ditto Dr. Michael Greger, who does arguably the best job synthesizing clinical research on the matter (and everything else). Here's a starting point for his commentary on the matter. There are a lot of other voices in the medical field like this out there and you can find them and their work pretty easily by moseying through the materials Davis puts on social media (and your hunch is pretty spot on, that the protein thing is an epic misdirection). For lols, the vegan fitness subreddit is full of us laughing about how we don't get enough protein and may be a good (but lighter) resource. .
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:46 AM on August 25, 2021 [13 favorites]

For vegetarians, I can't think it can ever have been an issue. But perhaps historically, some vegans who were raised on a Western diet might have had problems because their vegan food lacked diversity and nuance. I found vegan cookbook from the 1970s recently, and it is exactly as I remember vegan food back then: sad. And back then there wasn't a lot of choice of restaurants or ready-made food.
It's not that long ago (perhaps 20-something years) there were regular stories about vegan parents with undernourished children, typically young people with no inherited or learned knowledge of cooking. Given that lots of people don't know the difference between vegan and vegetarian, maybe some of the people who need to meddle in other people's dietary choices may have mixed up the information?

I'm not vegetarian, but when people go on about stuff like that, I can't help but be offended on behalf of the millions and millions of people who are vegetarian or eat very little fish and meat. Specially if they are healthcare or food professionals. What kind of science can disregard the existence of huge parts of the global population?

And anyway, meat-eaters are unhealthy too, in different ways.
posted by mumimor at 6:40 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also, I have a secondary hypothesis that the obsession with protein actually is harmful, because it distracts from dietary concerns that may be more important to vegetarians, like Omega-3s, Vitamin B12, etc.

I think you're right that it's a distraction, not just for vegetarians/vegans, but also for omnivores, who may feel that their diets are fine because they're getting enough protein. Americans as a whole are just not deficient in protein. What they are deficient in is fiber - 95% of Americans don't get the recommended amount. And fiber is found only in plant foods.

Because being vegetarian or vegan is different from the mainstream, that is what people latch onto when talking about someone's diet rather than whether the specific diet is of high or low quality. Occasionally a tragic situation will make the news when parents feed their children an inadequate vegan diet (such as giving a two-year-old only apple juice). This then gets extrapolated to vegan diets in general, which is just nonsense. Children also develop health problems, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, from bad omnivore diets, but that doesn't make the news as a problem with omnivore diets - it's seen as resulting from the way specific children are eating. If you eat the diet Morgan Spurlock ate in Supersize Me, you will get sick, but nobody takes that to mean omnivores should be especially cautious lest they end up eating at McDonald's three meals a day.
posted by FencingGal at 6:49 AM on August 25, 2021 [7 favorites]

As with many things diet related, it depends on the person. There is a subset of the population (that includes me) that simply cannot absorb protein, B12, or iron that well from non-animal sources. They are simply not bio-availabile enough for me.

The severity differs person to person, of course, but in my experience I can only go about a month, even with very nutrient-focused vegetarianism, before they drop to unhealthy levels. I have to make sure I'm eating eggs and lentils frequently, And I *must* supplement with heme iron, vitamin D, calcium, and methyl B12. If I rely only on dietary sources for these nutrients I end up too tired to do much and stumbling around in a fog when I try. Not fun.

Supplements are not fully ideal, but they do allow me to spend time in places where meat is not allowed or is difficult/expensive to obtain. But my personal view on vegetarianism centers on factory farming and carbon footprint, so at home I hunt and fish locally for my meat and feel content with my choices.
posted by ananci at 8:10 AM on August 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

But ananci, you can handle it with eggs, no? For a vegetarian, an egg a day would be fine. On it's own, in an omelet, in a cake or in any of thousands of recipes where eggs play a part. Like a vanilla parfait! Or a cauliflower soufflé.
Or a serving of yogurt, either sweet or as tzatziki or some other savory yogurt dish.

If you are vegan, you need a bit more attention to detail, but there are still thousands of options.
posted by mumimor at 11:51 AM on August 25, 2021

Yes, the protein thing is silly. You’d have to eat a really weird diet to be protein deficient. Like, only apples or something.

A 200 lbs person is recommended to get at least 75 g of protein per day. If they ate 2000 calories of literally only raw broccoli, they’d get 175 g of protein. I wouldn’t recommend that for other reasons, but protein is not the problem.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:53 AM on August 25, 2021

Mumimor - the protein part I can handle with eggs, yes. But the other things I mentioned I cannot absorb from plant sources without supplements.

FWIW, I don't think this is a common issue. Western diets by and large (as I understand it), even vegetarian/ vegan diets, are rarely protein deficient in a way that would result in adverse health effects. Iron, B12, etc. are related but not the same as the question's focus, which is on protein. I brought them up only bc they are sometimes sort of conflated with protein deficiency, even though what they mean is 'nutrients found in animal protein' deficiency.
posted by ananci at 12:41 PM on August 25, 2021

ananci, I didn't want to criticize you in any way. In our household the main focus is on climate and sustainability, so we sometimes eat sustainable seafood and game, and even some farmed foods where we know the provenance. To be honest, I don't believe one can eat eggs and dairy without eating poultry and veal/beef -- what do you think happens to the chickens and the calves that aren't relevant for the egg/milk production? But I believe it should be more like 5% of our diet than 40%, or whatever it is for the western standard.
Most days, we eat vegan food, although we are not vegan. We don't think much about it. But we do have aunts and uncles who talk at us about proteins, which is why I replied to this ask in the first place. We have very close friends of our family who are Jain, and they have dealt with a lot of stuff.
posted by mumimor at 1:06 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

The caution about getting "enough protein" and "the right kind of protein" may be due to the historical prevailing wisdom about protein metabolism. The consensus of most nutritionists (including august institutions like the National Research Council and the American Dietetic Association) was that if you ate a meal that was limited in one essential amino acid, your body would not be able to use the other essential amino acids, and it would have the same effect as eating less protein. One of the first mainstream vegetarian cookbooks, Diet for a Small Planet (1971), spent quite a lot of time explaining this principle and how to construct "complete" proteins from plant proteins.

However, later research found that this is not really a concern unless you are only eating an extremely limited plant-based diet (i.e., only rice or only chickpeas or something like that.) A later edition of Diet for a Small Planet removed the exhortation to balance your proteins; and by the late '80s the American Dietetic Association had come around as well. Still, this idea about "complete" protein was the accepted wisdom for at least a couple of decades, and people who learned this "fact" about vegetarian diets in their youths may never have un-learned it. So it still rattles around in the public consciousness many years later.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:37 AM on August 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

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