My sister (a nutrition expert in her own right) recently shared an inspiring picture on Facebook which illustrated the concentration of protein in various vegetables and fruits. Near the bottom of the short list was tomato with 18% protein, while up at the top spinach had an astonishing 49% protein! By weight, that figure absolutely wipes the floor with any type of meat, egg or dairy source. Vegans can get all of their protein from vegetables and fruits right? DEAD WRONG (food challenge contestants and strange eaters notwithstanding).

This type of vastly misused statistical reasoning is flawed on so many levels, and yet so convincing that it perpetuates the lie that vegetables and fruits are a great source of protein. In fact, there isn’t another group of foods on this planet that could be worse in terms of their protein content; regardless of what the pro-vegan propaganda states (whether intentional or out of misunderstanding).

Now before you start accusing me of working for the Beef Board of Canada, let’s get one thing straight; vegetables and fruits are MASSIVELY important to a healthy lifestyle (hear me out to the end of the article). The vast majority of fibre, anti-oxidants, phytochemicals and some crucial vitamins and minerals are highly concentrated in fruits and vegetables and their relatively low calorie content by weight (relative to other foods), means that on a per calorie basis, nothing is more nutritious than vegetables or fruits….on a per calorie basis. Let me say that again….on a per calorie basis.

A lot of biased material on the wonders of vegetables and fruits resort to quoting “x” grams of “nutrient” per calorie. Indeed, many an argument have I engaged in with hardcore vegan-types about how broccoli or spinach have more protein than chicken or steak. Allow me to put a big hole into this assertion. If spinach is 49% protein and on a good day meat is only 25% protein, why are we so adamant on eating meat to achieve our protein intake?

While, on a “per calorie” basis, everything they say is true, the fact that vegetables in particular are so incredibly low in calories means that they win nearly every challenge on a per calorie basis. But this stubbornness leads to one major dilemma; impracticality.

Broccoli by Steven Lilley licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s use broccoli as an example. On a per calorie basis, broccoli undeniably has more protein than steak. But did you know that the amount of protein contained in a small 3 oz piece of meat (about the size of a deck of cards), would require 3 entire heads AND stems of broccoli in comparison? Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat 3 heads and stems of broccoli at a single meal to get your 21 grams of protein, what I’m saying is that you probably won’t because nobody ever does – at some point getting through 3 entire stocks and heads of broccoli becomes more of a food challenge than a feasible way to get your protein intake. Animal products as well as beans, legumes, and nuts fair much better in this regard so you`re not left wanting whatever your diet restrictions may be.

Well, we got protein quantity out of the way, now let’s talk about protein quality. Now as you might imagine, there are also a number of vegan propaganda charts and articles and tables about how every gram of protein from vegetables outweighs protein from animal sources and a whole variety of distorted statistics are used to convey this skewed message. Again, this is simply wrong and I’ll tell you why; SCIENCE. That’s right, decades of nutritional research has provided evidence that animal source proteins not only contain relatively more essential amino acids, but nitrogen retention studies show that for every 10 grams of protein ingested, animal proteins are retained and utilized better than vegetarian sourced proteins. Protein from eggs and milk, followed closely by muscle tissues from a variety of animals (chicken, fish, turkey, beef etc), have always ruled the roost on the protein quality scale, with beans and legumes not far behind. Now you may be thinking “what about food allergies, antibiotic use etc, ethical treatment of animals etc”, well those are different issues – we’re talking about protein quality.

Now IF you eat a vegan diet either entirely or largely, you can meet all of your protein needs without having to resort to animal products. Focus your diet on including more nuts, beans, seeds and legumes because those foods DO actually contain reasonable amounts of protein. Thinking that you can form the bulk of your protein needs from fruits and vegetables is an unrealistic expectation, if anything the sheer lack of protein from vegetables and fruits is one of their great weaknesses relative to the other vegan sources. Fortunately they make up for such a weakness with a plethora of unique strengths. Don’t stop eating your veggies, just don’t expect to achieve your protein requirements from them. In fact, if you`re like most people, it wouldn`t be a bad idea to increase your veggie intake so go for it.

How much protein do you need? That’s a topic for another day so stay tuned!