But where do you get your protein? It's the question vegans most commonly encounter from nonvegans, who think they need meat, or at least cow's milk, to be strong. Unfortunately, this question is the result of decades of advertising by the meat and dairy industries, which has led Americans to believe they need much more protein than they actually do — often to the detriment of their health.
In their new book, Clean Protein: The Revolution That Will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy — and Save Our Planet, wellness activist Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of The Good Food Institute, bust all the protein myths and teach readers to build a diet with protein that has no side effects: plant-based protein.
Here are some things to know about protein.
1. Almost Everyone Gets Too Much Protein
Probably the biggest misconception about protein is that you have to worry about getting enough of it. In reality, pretty much anybody who isn't starving gets plenty of protein. According to published studies, 97 percent of Americans get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein. Often, they get much more, which is actually quite bad for them (we'll get into that in a minute).
So why does everyone worry they're not getting enough? As Freston explains, "The animal-food industry is desperate to convince Americans that they need more, more, more protein and that meat is the best source. With revenues exceeding $250 billion and an annual advertising budget in the hundreds of millions, the industry can afford to perpetuate this myth indefinitely."
Marketing campaigns like "Got Milk?" and "Beef. It's What's For Dinner" have duped us into believing animal protein is an essential part of a healthy diet.
2. People Should Worry More About Fiber
"No one ever asks anyone, 'Where do you get your fiber?' even though a fiber-deficient diet has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases," says Friedrich. "Animal products are entirely devoid of fiber." Remember how 97 percent of Americans get more than enough protein? The same percentage does not get the RDA of fiber.
And that's a big problem. "Fiber helps you avoid minor health problems, such as hemorrhoids or constipation, while also helping prevent major diseases like colon cancer and heart disease," Friedrich says.
A study published in Stroke finds that increasing fiber intake by seven grams a day — that's about one bean burrito — can lower the risk of stroke by seven percent. According to Yale researchers, premenopausal women who eat six or more grams of soluble fiber daily have a 62 percent reduced risk of breast cancer compared with women who eat under four grams. Unfortunately, no big fiber lobby launches national campaigns to make us buy beans and kale.
3. Not All Protein Is Healthy
Of course, everyone needs protein. But when we get it from animals, we also consume saturated fat and cholesterol, things our bodies don't want or need. Plant-based products, on the other hand, are cholesterol-free. The high fat content of meat and other animal products is one hypothesis for the link between heavy consumption of animal products and cancer. Also, according to a study by the American Diabetes Association, a diet high in animal protein increases diabetes risk by 22 percent. Meanwhile, a vegan diet improves glycemic control and reduces cardiovascular risk for people with type 2 diabetes, sometimes even reversing the disease.
Originating in filthy factory farms, animal products are also tainted with hormones, pathogens, antibiotics, and other contaminants.
4. The Best Protein Comes From Plants
"There are much better ways to get what we need without all those dirty downsides," Friedrich says. "Beans, legumes, and nuts are all excellent sources. Plant-based meats currently on the market provide us with clean, high-protein foods we're used to, but again, without the harms that come with conventional animal products."
In addition to helping prevent many cancers, heart disease, and diabetes, a plant-based diet decreases risk of high blood pressure, obesity, inflammation, migraines, asthma, and even bad PMS symptoms for some.
5. Cleaner Protein From Meat Is Coming Soon
While it won't be healthy like plant-based protein, "clean meat" — that is, real meat grown from cells with no factory farm or slaughterhouse — will come to market in the next few years. Friedrich explains, "This process will provide us exactly the same product, but safely, efficiently, and humanely. Clean meat will also lack bacterial contamination and won't require antibiotics, the overuse of which is currently driving the development of deadly 'superbugs.'"
So while you're better off getting protein from plants, an alternative for meat-lovers is coming. And not a moment too soon. Factory farming is destroying not only our health but also the environment and billions of innocent animals. It's utterly unsustainable. The most impactful action you can take is to leave animals off your plate.
If you're not sure where to start, I suggest visiting The Green Plate, where you can get free live-chat coaching and help with meal planning. POPSUGAR also has tons of great vegan recipes you can try. Give a plant-based diet a try, and you'll feel stronger than ever, inside and out.