Does All Protein Come From Plants? (busting the protein myth)

Well here we go then. Let’s talk protein! This wouldn’t be a vegan blog if we didn’t take a look at the number one question people ask when they discover you’re a vegan … “but where do you get your protein?”

We are all led to believe you only get a ‘complete’ protein if you consume the flesh of a dead animal. But ask yourself this. Where do the animals get their protein? Yep, from plants; so, does all protein come from plants? Let’s investigate …

Does All Protein Come From Plants?

Yes. All protein ultimately originates from plant based sources. All animals, including humans, are protein reprocessing units! We take in protein through food, break that down into its building blocks and re-combine into proteins we need.

Seedling sprouting from the soil.

So where does the protein myth come from?

Most of us in the developed world (I do wonder what we’re developing into but that’s another article!) grow up absorbing messaging which extols the virtues of eating meat and drinking milk.

We’re told that to live a healthy and vibrant life it’s essential to eat a ‘balanced’ diet which includes these food groups. The industries which surround meat and dairy production go to great lengths to control the narrative.

Profits are huge, after all.

The protein debate, which has sprung up around veganism, is largely the invention of these industries. It’s something they’ve latched on to in order to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the global populace.

To keep those profits flowing.

The pervading myth that vegans don’t get enough protein is now well established in the subconscious minds of many. Probably explains why most vegans have been asked the ‘protein question’.

But a myth is exactly what it is. No basis in fact whatsoever.

Where Do Animals Get Their Protein?

Large Silverback gorilla in the wild.

We all know we need a certain amount of protein in our diet to grow big and strong … and to stay that way.

The level of protein required for the human body to function optimally is the subject of much debate and many argue about whether animal protein or plant protein is the best option.

In reality, protein is protein. Doesn’t matter where you get it from. It is just a catch-all term for over 10 thousand different protein molecules that animals need in order to form skin, hair, bone muscle and the fleshy tissues found throughout the body. [1]

There are 21 different building blocks which are used in various combinations to construct a large protein biomolecule. These building blocks are called amino acids.

Humans and animals are unable to store these amino acids in the body so they must be synthesised on a daily basis. Of the 21 amino acids animals need, only 9 cannot be synthesised within the body. Known as ‘essential amino acids’, they have to come from the diet. [1]

Human and non-human animals are exactly the same in this regard. We can eat animals and get protein that way or we can cut out the middleman (the animal) and go directly to the source … ie: plants.

I’m not suggesting you visit your nearest field and get down on all fours with the cows, chewing the cud. Although you’re welcome to try. I’d hate to suggest you can’t eat this, that or the other and risk the wrath of the Twittersphere 🙂

But whether carnivorous or not, ultimately all animals get their protein from plants.

Do Animals Produce Their Own Protein?

Model of a molecule showing bonds and structure.

Well, all animals (including humans) rebuild proteins from the amino acids circulating in the bloodstream. Thousands of different protein molecules which are used to form all the different tissues and muscles.

Absolutely mind-blowing when you think about it!

Animals consume protein from dietary sources. This is then broken down into the amino acid building blocks which are essential for so many parts of the body to grow and function properly.

So the answer to the question is yes, animals do produce their own protein. As do plants.

Compared to plant proteins, animal protein does tend to have a more balanced amino acid profile. So meat eaters have less trouble getting all 9 essential amino acids on a daily basis.

Having said that, it’s perfectly possible for a vegan diet to include the essential amino acids. You just need to ensure you’re eating a good variety of plants.

Vegan Foods With 9 Essential Amino Acids

Scooping out red lentils from a hessian bag.Day to day, along with a good varied mix of fresh vegetables and fruit, as long as you mix it up from the list below you’ll never be short of a particular essential amino acid, following a vegan diet …

  • Legumes, nuts and seeds (especially hemp seed)
  • Soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk etc)
  • Cereals (wheat, barley, oats, rice etc)
  • Peanut butter (rich in isoleucine)
  • Green, leafy vegetables like spinach
  • Watercress
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Quinoa
  • Wheatgerm

Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds are amino acid powerhouses so it’s well worth including these in your diet.

Hemp protein is actually a complete protein. It contains all 9 essential amino acids in perfect proportion. If I was a religious man, I’d say hemp was sent from the divine being to help humans survive. It really is a wonder plant with so many uses.

Mother Earth Provides All That We Need

Painting of a scene of early humans gathered around the fire against a snowy, mountainous background.

What’s more, she provides everything we need without humans having to eat animal flesh. We evolved only relatively recently to (almost) digest meat but before that, for many millions of years we survived mostly on plants.

For that to have happened and for us to still exist on the planet means nature and her wonderful array of plant life must have provided for us.

Just like those early ancestors of modern humans, you can also live a full and healthy life consuming only plant-based sustenance. As I say, just mix it up a bit more and don’t rely too heavily on one type of meal.

Yes, it’s less effort to satisfy your daily protein requirements by eating meat but you don’t need to in order to get enough of all 9 essential amino acids. There are plenty of vegan bodybuilders out there who will attest.

Since all protein comes from plants, vegans just go to the source.

 

I hope my ramblings have helped you in some way. My goal is to bring you the truthful answer to your question, backed up by facts. If you’d like to leave a comment please do so below.

 

Thanks for reading!

Rohan.


 

[1] – Harvard T.H. Chan. School Of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. What Should I Eat? Protein. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/

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