Vegetarians and vegans are frequently asked, “how do you get enough protein?” Never mind that no one checks into a hospital with a protein deficiency, or that it is extremely easy to to consume adequate amounts of all essential amino acids on a whole-food, plant-based diet (check out some of these recipes). The common myth that animal flesh is the best source remains perhaps the single greatest food misconception.
Meat is considered “complete” because it contains almost all the essential amino acids, whereas any individual plant will only contain a fraction of the required amino acids. But assuming that completeness is the same as optimal for health may be misguided; human flesh is the most complete protein, but we shouldn’t eat that. These amino acids can be acquired by eating an array of plants; a diet that doesn’t cause harmful side effects of cancer, heart disease, weight gain and diabetes.
Protein is necessary: the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (use this calculator to help you figure out your number), and higher for athletes and women who are pregnant or lactating.
But should anyone turn to protein powders to “bulk up” or improve the nutrition in their shakes and smoothies? Besides being unnecessary and expensive, protein powders often contain all sorts of harmful additives: Consumer Reports investigated protein powders in drinks an found heavy metals in most brands. While there isn’t currently any research directly linking heavy metal consumption from protein powder to negative health effects, the harmful effects of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury exposure are well-supported. From lead paint removal in homes to filtering out arsenic in our water, it’s generally recommended to avoid these heavy metals to prevent brain damage, lung disease, and certain types of cancer.
Plant-based protein powders without additives exist, but why spend so much money when you can get just as much protein from real food? There is currently no research to support the effectiveness of protein powders over protein from a plant-based diet. If you are trying to build muscle mass, a plant-based diet full of protein from beans, rice, nut, seeds, and soy will be more beneficial to your health and less expensive in the long run than protein powders.