Shift Your Mindset About Protein

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Have you ever ordered a salad at a restaurant and been asked “Would you like protein on that?” The implied idea is that you need meat, fish, or even tofu to make it a complete meal; suggesting the salad has no protein without it.

That scenario says a lot about our cultural misconceptions about protein, including both the general obsession with this macronutrient, as well as which foods contain it. David Katz, MD and Mark Bittman list out these misconceptions in a recent Heated Blog. Dr. Katz is recognized globally for expertise in nutrition, weight management and the prevention of chronic disease. Bittman is an acclaimed author of multiple food books and columns in The New York Times, who is committed to making food understandable. Here are some key take-aways from their recent article, but we highly recommend reading it yourself.



  • Most Americans get more protein than they need. More isn’t better. 

  • An eating pattern composed entirely from whole plant foods is entirely sufficient to provide enough protein.

  • Nearly all plants contain all the necessary building blocks of protein (amino acids) to varying levels. Eating a variety of plant foods provides high quality nutrition.

  • Fully plant-based professional athletes report that their athletic ability has improved.


  • The average American doesn’t get enough protein.

  • Humans need to eat meat, dairy or eggs to get enough protein for health.

  • Only protein within foods from animals is high quality.

  • Athletes need to eat meat, dairy or eggs for best performance. 



Our body’s need protein. Isn’t more better?

We don’t eat protein, we eat foods that contain protein, in addition to other macronutrients and micronutrients. The protein in meat, dairy and eggs is “packaged” with saturated fat, which is well established to promote heart disease, as well as substances that are converted to TMAO (in our body) and and heterocyclic amines (from cooking), which evidence increasingly shows to contribute to disease. In contrast, protein within plants is “packaged” with health-promoting fiber, vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants.   When we eat too much protein from animal sources, not only are we getting too much of the unhealthy stuff, but we are likely not getting enough of the healthy stuff. On top of that, if the excess protein results in taking in more calories than you need, it doesn’t turn into muscle, it turns into fat, as Katz and Bittman point out.

For plants to provide complete protein, don’t we need to eat things like beans and rice in the same meal?

Well, beans and rice are pretty tasty together, but you don’t have to eat them at the same time. Our bodies have the natural capability to store amino acids, the building blocks of protein, in the liver and muscle over a number of days to be used when needed. Remember, almost all plant foods have all the necessary amino acids at various levels, so as long as you are eating a wide variety of whole plant foods, protein from animal sources isn’t required. Some plant foods like soy and quinoa supply high levels of all the essential amino acids, similar to meat. There’s no need for protein supplements or plant-based “meat” products either, just focus on including legumes and whole grains into your meal rotations along with the veggies and fruit.

My teachers and coaches taught me to eat more protein, and they didn’t mean plants. How can elite athletes eat completely plant-based and still be strong and fast?

You can read about completely plant-based athletes in articles from as US News and World ReportBusiness Insider and Sports Illustrated. James Cameron even made a movie about some of them, including members of the Tennessee Titans football team, as well as award winning weight-lifters, cyclists and sprinters. The benefits of plant-based eating for athletes is reviewed in this medical journal and this medical news article and include increased endurance and faster recovery time.

When we think about foods that provide complete and quality protein, there’s a lot to keep in mind, more than just the levels of amino acids. Dr. Katz and colleagues have recently published a medical paper proposing to redefine quality protein to include the bigger picture.

So, getting back to the salad you ordered. If it only has non-starchy veggies, then there’s a good chance it won’t have enough calories to keep you satiated for long. In that case, consider adding that tofu or other plant ingredients that would make it a more filling meal. But if the salad already contains beans, whole grains, starchy vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and/or seeds then it’s probably a great meal already.

Your Challenge: 

  1. Choose one meal this week to swap meat, dairy or eggs for more whole plant food options.

  2. Do a little research into options for that meal that includes only plant foods. For example, you could swap in some beans to your soup, some quinoa into your salad, or some marinated tofu into your burrito.

  3. Give it a try!

EATNicole Landberg