Where do you get your protein?
When most people think of a plant-based meal, “protein” isn’t the first nutrient that comes to mind. In fact it’s probably the last. And this isn’t by accident.
A Unique Selling Point, or Unique Selling Proposition (USP), is a marketing strategy used by companies to convince consumers to buy their product or service by focusing on a single feature they think differentiates them from the competition. The next step is to repeat this “unique” selling point so often that it becomes virtually synonymous with their product/service.
Nowhere has the USP strategy been more effectively employed than by the animal foods industry, who recognized well over a century ago that their products (meat, eggs and dairy) contain more of certain nutrients, like protein, iron, and calcium, and less of others, like carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, folate, and potassium. Since then, these massive food conglomerates have spent literally billions of dollars successfully selling the public on the idea that their products are the best and only reliable source of protein, iron, and calcium, reminding us over and over again that the very building blocks of our bodies — muscles, blood, and bones — are made from them.
At the same time, the animal food conglomerates have also effectively convinced the majority of the population that plant-based foods are low in, or devoid of, these “building block” nutrients, with plants merely playing a supporting role: fiber to help keep us “regular”, with a few vitamins and minerals thrown in for good measure.
Taking all of this into account, it makes perfect sense that animal foods are the centerpiece of most meals, with plant foods reduced to side dishes and garnishes. This is USP marketing strategy at its very best, and plant foods like fruits and vegetables — which receive only a tiny fraction of the government subsidies and marketing/lobbying dollars that the animal foods industry receives — have had no real way to compete.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of researchers, public health organizations, and consumer advocates across the globe, the truth about nutrition is finally starting to reach the public. Including the truth about protein.
The biggest secret that the meat, dairy and egg industries have done their best to keep hidden from the public is one simple concept: animals are just the middlemen, and an ineffective and inefficient one at that. As Dr. James Loomis points out in The Game Changers, “All that protein that you get when you eat a steak or a hamburger, where did it come from? It came from the plants that the cow ate.”
In fact, all protein originates from plants, which also contain all nine essential amino acids we have to get from food. If this wasn’t the case, how would the largest and strongest animals on the planet, including elephants, rhinos, horses, and gorillas — all of which are herbivores — build and maintain such huge amounts of muscle?
Of course humans have different digestive tracts than elephants, but the fact that there is enough protein in the plant kingdom to sustain these massive animals comes as a surprise for most people. As does the fact that, according to the largest study comparing the nutrient intake of people who eat animal products with people who eat only plants, the average plant-eater not only gets enough protein, but 70% more than they need. Even meat-eaters get roughly half of their protein from plants (1).
And yet, if you ask the average person “Where does protein come from?”, their automatic response will almost always be “meat” or some other animal food, even though one big peanut butter sandwich has about as much protein as three ounces of beef, three large eggs, or two large glasses of milk (2).
Despite the animal foods industry’s “unique selling point” (USP) strategy to make us believe that their products are the best and only reliable source of protein (as well as calcium, iron, and other nutrients that also originate in plants), a plant-based diet has its own USP, based not in strategy, but in science: the protein package.
(1) Rizzo NS, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Sabate J, Fraser GE. Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013 Dec;113(12):1610-9.
(2) USDA Food and Nutrient Database.
Can I get enough energy without eating meat or other animal foods?
Despite the common misconception that meat gives us energy, hard-working muscles run primarily on glycogen, a form of carbohydrate stored in our liver and muscle. Carbohydrates, which come almost exclusively from plants, also provide our brain with its primary and preferred fuel — glucose — which helps us stay sharp and focused during intense training sessions, competitions (1), or long days at work or at home (2).
Performance-based diets built around meat and other animal products often provide dietary fat at the expense of carbohydrates (3-6). Unlike carbohydrates, fat can’t produce energy fast enough to meet the demands of intense exercise, so diets that sacrifice carbohydrates typically impair high-intensity performance (1). Low-carbohydrate diets, including the ketogenic (keto) diet, have been shown to cause so much fatigue that they even affect our motivation to begin a training session, let alone finish it (7-9).
Protein can also be used as a fuel source, but it’s highly inefficient, wasting 20-30% of each calorie as heat (10).
All told, carbohydrates are the ideal source of energy for optimized performance, whether it’s doing squats, playing football, or running a marathon.
And as we discuss in Getting and Staying Lean, despite the common misconception that “carbs make you fat”, unrefined carbohydrates — like those found in whole plant foods, including oats, sweet potatoes, and bananas — are consistently associated with decreased body fat, another advantage for most performance and fitness goals.
(1) Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Mar;48(3):543-68.
(2) Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002.
(3) Kanter M. High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutr Today. 2018;53(1):35-9.
(4) Masson G, Lamarche B. Many non-elite multisport endurance athletes do not meet sports nutrition recommendations for carbohydrates. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jul;41(7):728-34.
(5) Clark M, Reed DB, Crouse SF, Armstrong RB. Pre- and post-season dietary intake, body composition, and performance indices of NCAA division I female soccer players. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2003 Sep;13(3):303-19.
(6) Jenner SL, Buckley GL, Belski R, Devlin BL, Forsyth AK. Dietary Intakes of Professional and Semi-Professional Team Sport Athletes Do Not Meet Sport Nutrition Recommendations — A Systematic Literature Review. Nutrients. 2019 May;11(5):1160.
(7) Butki BD, Baumstark J, Driver S. Effects of a carbohydrate-restricted diet on affective responses to acute exercise among physically active participants. Percept Mot Skills. 2003 Apr;96(2):607-15.
(8) Keith RE, O’Keeffe KA, Blessing DL, Wilson GD. Alterations in dietary carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake and mood state in trained female cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Feb;23(2):212-6.
(9) White AM, Johnston CS, Swan PD, Tjonn SL, Sears B. Blood ketones are directly related to fatigue and perceived effort during exercise in overweight adults adhering to low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss: a pilot study. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Oct;107(10):1792-6.
(10) Westerterp KR. Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004;1(1):5.
Are you claiming there are performance benefits to eating plant-based?
As presented in The Game Changers, a diet centered around plants, especially in their unrefined form, can yield significant athletic/performance advantages. These include improved blood flow, increased muscle efficiency, reduced inflammation, quicker recovery times, and enhanced immune function.
While athletes often pick up on these advantages quickly, people from all walks of life who want to look, feel and perform better can benefit from these improvements as well.
For more on that, check out: The Plant-Based Advantage.
Where do you get your calcium?
As discussed in the FAQ response to “Where do you get your protein?”, the animal foods industries have maximized a marketing strategy known as USP (Unique Selling Point) to convince consumers that their products are the best and only reliable source of at least one key nutrient. In the case of the meat industry, the primary USP is protein. In the case of dairy products, it’s calcium.
With billions of dollars of funding (including taxpayer dollars) for marketing and promotion, the dairy industry has spent decades promoting their product as the ideal source of calcium, claiming that cow’s milk “does a body good” and is “nature’s perfect food”.
What the dairy industry neglects to tell you is that it doesn’t have a monopoly on calcium since, just like with the protein found in meat, the calcium in milk comes from the plants the cow ate. Once again, the animal is just the middleman for a nutrient that already exists abundantly in the plant kingdom. If it didn’t, large herbivores like elephants and rhinos wouldn’t have any bones to move around with their massive muscles (which they also build from plants).
While dairy products are touted as the only viable solution to getting enough calcium, there’s nothing special about the calcium in milk. The calcium found in fortified soy milk, for example, is absorbed just as effectively (1), and the calcium in vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and bok choy is 15-30% more absorbable than the calcium in cow’s milk (2).
As such, getting enough calcium from plants needn’t be an issue, as long as you familiarize yourself with the best sources.
But the biggest secret of the dairy industry isn’t that there are other and better sources of calcium, it’s that there are significant health risks associated with dairy consumption.
For starters, nearly 7 out of 10 people around the world are intolerant to lactose, the sugar found in milk, since most people lose the ability to digest milk after weaning (3). In the US, lactose intolerance affects roughly 95 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, 70 percent of African Americans, 53 percent of Mexican Americans, and 15 percent of Caucasians (4). Symptoms can be severe and include cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and excessive gas (5).
Dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the US and other Western countries (6,7). Diets high in saturated fat increase risk of cardiovascular disease (8,9), type 2 diabetes (10), and Alzheimer’s disease (11). Regular consumption of dairy products has been linked to ovarian and prostate cancer (12).
All things considered, “Where do you get your calcium?” is a fair question. And it would seem the best answer is “From plants.”
(1) Tang AL, Walker KZ, Wilcox G, Strauss BJ, Ashton JF, Stojanovska L. Calcium absorption in Australian osteopenic post-menopausal women: an acute comparative study of fortified soymilk to cows’ milk. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2010;19(2):243-9.
(2) Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):543S-8S.
(3) Storhaug CL, Fosse SK, Fadnes LT. Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017 Oct;2(10):738-46.
(4) Bertron P, Barnard ND, Mills M. Racial bias in federal nutrition policy, part I: The public health implications of variations in lactase persistence. J Natl Med Assoc. 1999 Mar;91(3):151-7.
(5) Lomer MC, Parkes GC, Sanderson JD. Review article: lactose intolerance in clinical practice–myths and realities. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2008 Jan;27(2):93-103.
(6) O’Neil CE, Keast DR, Fulgoni VL 3rd, Nicklas TA. Food sources of energy and nutrients among adults in the US: NHANES 2003–2006. Nutrients. 2012 Dec;4(12):2097-120.
(7) Keast DR, Fulgoni VL 3rd, Nicklas TA, O’Neil CE. Food sources of energy and nutrients among children in the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2006. Nutrients. 2013 Jan;5(1):283-301.
(8) Chen M, Li Y, Sun Q, Pan A, Manson JE, Rexrode KM, Willett WC, Rimm EB, Hu FB. Dairy fat and risk of cardiovascular disease in 3 cohorts of US adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Nov;104(5):1209-17.
(9) Li Y, Hruby A, Bernstein AM, Ley SH, Wang DD, Chiuve SE, Sampson L, Rexrode KM, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Saturated fat as compared with unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to risk of coronary heart disease: A prospective cohort study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015 Oct;66(14):1538-48.
(10) Wang L, Folsom AR, Zheng ZJ, Pankow JS, Eckfeldt JH; ARIC Study Investigators. Plasma fatty acid composition and incidence of diabetes in middle-aged adults: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jul;78(1):91-8.
(11) Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, Tangney CC, Bennett DA, Aggarwal N, Schneider J, Wilson RS. Dietary fats and the risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Arch Neurol. 2003 Feb;60(2):194-200.
(12) Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Calcium: What’s best for your bones and health?
Isn’t gluten bad for you?
Gluten is a family of proteins found in some grains, including wheat, rye and barley. For more than 90% of the population, avoiding gluten is not only unnecessary but may be a mistake, since gluten has been shown to improve immune function, and certain starches found in wheat and other grains improve our gut health. More importantly, consuming whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
About 1% of the general population has celiac disease, a genetic condition in which eating gluten can cause an autoimmune response that leads to damage of the small intestine. People with celiac disease should avoid gluten and any food that contains it.
An additional 5-7% of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a milder form of gluten intolerance that can cause a variety of symptoms including intestinal bloating and discomfort, but does not cause damage the small intestine. Even rarer is a wheat allergy, which isn’t directly related to gluten and therefore typically allows for the consumption of gluten-containing grains barley and rye, as well as gluten-free grains like oats, rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, and so on.
All told, less than 10% of the general population has an issue with gluten and/or wheat, while the vast majority (>90%) actually benefit from whole grains, including wheat, and are advised to include them in their diet on a regular basis to help optimize health.
How can you get big and strong without eating animal foods?
As evidenced by the athletes and science featured in The Game Changers, gaining muscle and strength on a plant-based diet shouldn’t be an issue, since the plant kingdom is full of protein-rich foods, which means all that people who are looking to gain size and strength on a plant-based diet need to do is educate themselves on which foods those are and include lots of them in their daily eating schedule.
Aren’t carbs unhealthy, and don’t they make you fat?
While refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour — which have been stripped of fiber and other nutrients — are definitely not healthy and are associated with weight gain, the opposite is true for unrefined carbohydrates like oats, bananas and sweet potatoes — with their fiber and nutrients left intact — which are healthy for a variety of reasons and are consistently associated with decreased body fat.
This would explain why people who eat plant-based diets, despite getting more of their calories from carbohydrates than those on animal-based diets, have lower average levels of body fat. More on that, over at Getting and Staying Lean.
Isn’t plant protein incomplete/inferior?
Another common misconception about protein, paid for again by marketing and lobbying dollars, is that the quality of plant protein is inferior, because plants apparently don’t contain all of the essential amino acids. This is also patently false, since every single plant contains all of the essential amino acids, in varying proportions. While it is true that some plant foods are lower in certain amino acids than others, our bodies break protein down into individual amino acids so that the appropriate proteins can be built at the necessary times. This would explain why, when it comes to gaining strength and muscle mass, research comparing plant and animal protein repeatedly demonstrates that as long as the right amount of amino acids are consumed, the source is irrelevant. More on that, at What About Protein.
Are you telling people they should go 100% plant-based?
We encourage people to move at whatever speed feels comfortable and sustainable for you. As the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of good”, and nowhere is this clearer than with changing how you eat. Contrary to what most diet books and programs suggest, each positive step you take counts, and there is no single approach to changing your diet that works for everyone. This means that you, and only you, should decide what speed you want to move at, and how far you want to go. For more on that, check out Core Principles.
That said, a lot of people who watch The Game Changers try to overhaul their entire diet overnight. While many people are capable of doing this and sticking with it, just as many run into trouble once they get home and realize that their kitchens are still full of their regular food, that they don’t know where to buy (or how to cook) the ‘new’ food, and so on.
In order to help avoid these common experiences, we strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the free resources on this site, including our Recipes, Tips, and Benefits section, and connect with our social media pages. While most people think eating better is simply a matter of willpower, the reality is that being prepared and supported is much more important.
Besides performance advantages, what other benefits can plant-based eating offer?
The same underlying mechanisms that impact athletic performance (blood flow, inflammation, hormone levels, etc.) also affect health, including sexual function, body composition, cognitive function, and many other areas that play a major role in how we look, feel, and function. We discuss how food’s powerful influence over these mechanisms can affect athletics and fitness in Optimizing Health.
Besides the health benefits, what other advantages can plant-based eating offer?
The same underlying mechanisms that impact health (blood flow, inflammation, hormone levels, etc.) also affect athletic performance, sexual function, body composition, cognitive function, and many other areas that play a major role in how we look, feel, and function. We discuss how food’s powerful influence over these mechanisms can affect athletics and fitness in Maximizing Performance and The Plant-Based Advantage.
Why does there seem to be so much controversy about what a healthy diet is?
For the vast majority of people, knowing what to eat is downright confusing. And that’s no accident. (More on this at Core Principles, section: Mass Confusion.) Despite all the confusion though – decades of research from the world’s most trusted research institutions, published in the world’s most respected scientific journals, have painted a very clear picture of which eating patterns tend to improve health and fitness, and which do not. The preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that a standard animal-based diet — where foods like meat, eggs and dairy are at the center of most meals — decreases overall health, increases the risk of numerous diseases, and reduces our lifespans. Conversely, the more plants you eat, the healthier you tend to be, decreasing your risk of many major diseases while increasing the quality and length of our lives. We dig deeper into these subjects in Optimizing Health.