Do Vegetarians get enough Protein?

Image Credit: Nathan Rupert / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Where Do You Get Your Fiber?

Vegetarians and vegans are all too familiar with the question: Where do you get your protein?

Well, we can finally put to rest the question of whether vegetarians get enough protein 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 video, Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein, meat eaters get way more than they need, and so does everyone else. Vegetarians and vegans average 70% more protein than the recommendation 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 fiber 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 food-borne pathogens, while at the same time offering more fiber, folate, vitamin C, and phytochemicals, all essential factors for disease prevention, optimal health, and well being.” 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 is the healthiest one.

For more on how S.A.D. the Standard American Diet is, see Nation’s Diet in Crisis.

Americans eating meat-free diets average higher intakes of nearly every nutrient. See my video Nutrient-Dense Approach to Weight Management.

Isn’t animal protein higher quality protein though? See my videos:

For more on protein, see: Plant Protein Preferable and Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio.

And for a few on fiber:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


50 responses to “Where Do You Get Your Fiber?

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  1. Diet has a bias from cultural assumptions, and assumptions can be deep and hard to reverse. In the American culture, where business shape beliefs though marketing, and where foods are valued by their price, vegetables are culturally seen as inferior and do not belong to a good quality of life as seen from the ‘American’ point of view.




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    1. Panchito: I agree! Culture is a big part of the problem. I think another huge part of the problem is the conflict of interest the American government allows for food industries to influence government recommendations and the education of our doctors. We have a lonnnnng way to go in America.




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        1. Did you use the words “ethics” and “advertising” in the same sentence. As far as words go, they are very strange bedfellows indeed.




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    2. Panchito: I agree! Culture is a big part of the problem. I think another huge part of the problem is the conflict of interest the American government allows for food industries to influence government recommendations and the education of our doctors. We have a lonnnnng way to go in America.




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    3. I don’t know that people value foods by their price in America so much as that their food traditions (such as they are) were established in a context of cultural flux, industrialization, and hard labor. People in North America probably place somewhat less value on adhering to a longstanding culinary tradition where vegetables played an important part, but this non-traditionalism is also to their advantage where they can avoid ignorance. And it’s not like traditional cultures don’t often massively overvalue meats, refined sugars, or fats.

      It is not entirely a coincidence that California has some of the most health-conscious subcultures in the entire world. People who are prepared to make a break with culinary tradition can reap huge rewards from reconfiguring their plates, and less socially conservative cultures help people to make such a break in tradition, for good or ill.




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  2. I get my fiber from nuts, seeds, fruit. Comes to appx 40 grams per day. Not bad for someone who eats meat, eggs, dairy.

    How much do you get per day?




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    1. I used to eat like you and so did my parents. Yes, we ate vegetables, nuts, fruit, seeds, and beans as well as meat, eggs, dairy, and fish. My mom died of Heart Disease; my dad has had multiple by-passes, takes coumadin and has a pace maker. I eat a whole food plant based diet. My minimum fiber intake is down around 60 g/day; I average 80 to 100 grams daily.




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            1. I don’t disagree with that. I’m quite active and aim to get ~1.3 g/kg/day on my vegan diet, and typically get more than that. I doubt more is needed except perhaps for serious athletes, body builders, etc.




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            2. My recollection is that the Institute of Medicine disagrees. Since there is relative low turn over of protein (most of it is structural, not burned) we don’t need as much as one would think. Plus, according to the IOM, a more active body becomes more efficient in using protein. As a result, a physically active person does not require more protein intake than less active people. Granted, many people disagree.




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              1. I think that Dr. Greger and others have mentioned the crucial role that fiber plays not just in digestion, but also in carrying away toxic chemicals that all of us have, no matter how good your diet is, so I think more fiber is a plus. If you look at real paleo or the people with the lowest Alzheimer’s or cancer rates world wide, their fiber intake is astronomic!
                John S




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      1. Joevegan: Great example! This kind of story helps people (who are interested) to see the benefit of going all the way to eating a healthy diet. Thanks for sharing.




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      2. My dad, 88 years, eats bread, cheese, ham, chocolate, meat, fish, some vegetable, no fruit. Drinks milk, coffeee and wine. Daily. Walked 19 holes at 85. Never any bad health condition, just aging.




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      3. There is no question that genetics plays a huge part in our health, some things we can control and some things we can’t. Some people I know play golf at age 85+ and walk miles and quickly.
        Just living comfortably takes a lot of effort and attention to nutrition and more.




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    2. Charles,

      As Dr. Esselstyn states that the ideal ‘heart healthy’ body-fat number is at 11-12%, what with all the fatty foods you consume I’d be curious to know what your body fat is (mine is 10.8%)…?




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          1. Although dietary fat is the fat that is preferably stored in fat tissues because it is more efficient, what matters is whether you have calorie surplus over your TDEE. It doesn’t really matter if you have calorie surplus from whole plant food or from refined fat or animal fat, though fatty plant foods tend to increase your energy expenditure and refined fat is probably absorbed better. Yes, it is harder to get fat on whole food plant-based diet, but you aren’t protected from getting fat at all.

            Percentage of fat in diet doesn’t translate into percentage of fat in your body, that’s what I’m trying to say. Calories matter. It is just easier to get surplus calories from refined fat and animal fat, that’s the deal. High percentage of fat, even in form of refined fat or animal fat, doesn’t equal obesity if you control your calorie intake.




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  3. One other group is likely to be deficient in protein: vegetarians who eat a narrow diet of mostly fruits and vegetables. Just like animal flesh is marketed as the “gold standard” source of healthy protein, fruits and vegetables are usually associated with the phrase “eat more.” As a result, some vegetarians decide to create a fruit and vegetable centered diet. What can be better than a diet of fruits and vegetables??!! However, fruit is the one plant-based food group that is not a significant source of protein. And vegetables, while sometimes deriving a high proportion of calories from protein, simply do not have that many calories (which means not much protein). A diet of mostly fruit and vegetables is likely deficient in protein. The simple solution, eat from ALL the plant-based food groups.

    But as for fiber, it’s a winner!




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    1. I guess you are saying don’t leave out grains and legumes, and starchy foods? True. But I don’t think calories and protein necessarily go hand in hand.




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      1. Wilma,
        The point regarding calories and protein is that, while some vegetables are considered high in protein (e.g. spinach and broccoli) because close to a quarter of their calories come from protein, what really matters for health is getting an adequate amount of protein (42 grams per day as noted in Dr. Greger’s piece) and since most vegetables have so few calories, a quarter of the calories from of protein still doesn’t add up to much.




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    2. I have easily get 50g per day of protein eating roots and fruits. How much protein do you think you need? Granted, you need to eat enough calories, an important fact for any vegan/vegetarian. One one day where I had 58g of protein made up of just bananas, corn, white potatoes, dates, kale, blackberries, mangoes and some flaxseed I ate 3743kcal of fruits and vegetables.




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        1. But why would I eat only 2000 calories of that food? If I did that I would have been pretty hungry. And even if I did have one or two days at 31g of protein, I’m gonna be fine regardless.

          Protein concerns are simply a non issue on a whole food plant based diet.




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          1. As I’m sure you know, calories is a measure of the energy in food, derived exclusively from the carbohydrates, protein and fat we consume. Generally speaking, the energy that we consume either gets used (metabolized, burned) or stored (mostly as fat). Our goal is to maximize the nutrition (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, etc.) we get while eating an amount of calories that meets our needs, but not more. Just because the food you eat is highly nutritious does not mean you can disregard the amount of calories you consume.

            You are correct that one or two days of low protein will not affect you. But for most people, 3,700 daily calories would make one fat.

            Protein concerns are indeed a non-issue on a WELL DESIGNED whole food plant-based diet.




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    3. Like Dr. Greger said, “97% of Americans get enough protein” and “Vegetarians and vegans average 70% more protein than the recommendation every day”. We are all getting enough protein.
      We don’t need to eat any meat to live well.




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  4. Why only increase fiber consumption by 5g per week? I could see it maybe causing some mild intestinal discomfort, nothing you shouldn’t be able to handle. But also shouldn’t they at least jump up to the daily minimum recommended? (meaning a jump of 16g per day)




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  5. “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.” Why is this please? References to read?




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      1. For intestinal reasons. Bloating Etc. Some people really have a hard time of it. Some people literally eat no or very little plants. When then start consuming them the fiber can both constipate and/or give diarrhea. And well….gas.




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  6. Nobody goes to the doctor and the doctor says “Let me check your protein levels” Protein deficiency is practically unheard of in First world countries where there aren’t many people literally starving to death. You want to see what protein deficiency looks like, go to parts of Africa and look at the starving children with descended stomachs.. that is protein deficiency.




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  7. Great article, and so timely. I must get asked this question a zillion times. Now I can send them the link. :) That being said, I’ve often wondered if I’m likely getting enough protein with my vegan diet. I started out by trying to calculate protein content in everything I ate but this quickly became too time-consuming. I eat nuts daily, but often don’t eat beans as often as I could. Is it safe to safe I’m getting the protein i need?




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    1. dawn: The general wisdom seems to be that if you eat from all of the main food groups (fruit, veggies, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and fungus) in whole food fashion, you are most likely getting *plenty* of protein. However, if you are at all concerned, I recommend checking out the website cronometer.com. My understanding is that you just plug in everything you eat in a day and it will spit out a huge amount of information about the nutrients you are getting. Do that for a typical day or two and I think you will be able to feel confident about whether or not you are getting enough protein.

      Also, I recommend checking out the following page because it has some great protein 101 info. I make this recommendation because you mention nuts and beans, but don’t seem aware of how much protein veggies have too:
      http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/protein.html

      Hope that helps.




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    2. In addition to Thea’s comments, even if you decided to eat one single plant food for all your caloric needs (unrealistic but an experiment), you would still be getting more than enough amino acids and protein in excess. Starvation is the only achievable way to be protein deficient on a plant based diet.




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  8. fresh raw coconut meat or flesh is it healthy from young green thai coconuts? Also How can I get rid of my big bunions on my big toes naturally?

    Is food combining a myth like not to mix acidic fruits with alkaline fruits or with vegetables and proteins, no proteins with carbs?

    Also,

    Is raw unpasteurised mountain honey or Manuka super food or date syrup or date sugar and blackstrap molasses is better?

    Also,

    Is fresh sugarcane juice healthy and is raw fresh cannabis leaf healthy and does it really get people high as the raw vegans claim?




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  9. Animals do the work for you, so creating a big flow of cash is as easy as hooking up a few more cows to your exploitation facility. For this reason alone the meat and dairy industries are at the point where they’re spening billions a year just spreading nonsense about their products.




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  10. It would be really useful to have one or more pictures of what 100 g of fibre looks like, as represented by some typical plant foods. This would be great for communicating to people what they should be eating. Any suggestions?




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