Some Americans are obsessed with protein. Vegans—individuals who refrain from eating all animal products—are bombarded with questions about where they get their protein. Athletes used to eat thick steaks before competition because they thought it would improve their performance. Protein supplements are sold at health food stores. This concern about protein is misplaced. Although protein is certainly an essential nutrient which plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it. In reality, we need small amounts of protein. The protein recommendation for vegans amounts to close to 10 percent of calories coming from protein. This contrasts with the protein intake of non-vegetarians, which is close to 14–18 percent of calories.
Being vegetarian does not mean your diet will be lacking in protein. Most plant foods contain protein, and in fact, it would be very difficult to design a vegetarian diet that is short on protein. In the United States, it appears that vegan diets are commonly lower in protein than standard American diets. Remember, though, with protein, more is not necessarily better. There do not appear to be health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease. It is now thought that one of the benefits of a vegetarian diet is that it contains adequate but not excessive protein.
Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids. There are about 20 different amino acids, 8 of which must be present in the diet. These are the essential amino acids. Unlike animal proteins, plant proteins may not contain all the essential amino acids in the necessary proportions. However, a varied vegetarian diet means a mixture of proteins are consumed, the amino acids in one protein compensating for the deficiencies of another.
It is very easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some, and often much, protein. Fruits, sugars, and fats do not provide much protein, so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein. Vegans eating varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to maintain weight.
Eating a variety of unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day, so that if one food is low in a particular essential amino acid another food will make up this deficit, is strongly recommended.