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Yes, Plants Have Protein

By Scott Stoll, MD, January 15, 2013  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Scott Stoll, MD

The classic cartoon hero Popeye was an early champion of plant-based protein demonstrated in his theme song, “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause I eats me spinach….” For years mothers, including my mother, used Popeye as an example to encourage their children to eat spinach because it would make them healthy and strong. Nutritional science has proven once again that Mom was right — approximately 51% of the calories from spinach are protein!

Today, protein is synonymous with animal products and the majority of meals are built around a meat centerpiece. Vegetables have been relegated to a garnish or small side dish that is all too often oiled and overcooked. Where did this dietary concept originate? The word “protein” is derived from the Greek word proteios, meaning “ of prime importance,” perhaps explaining its preeminent position in dietary discussions today. Also, throughout history meat-based meals were a symbol of an affluent lifestyle while those of the lower classes consumed a “substandard” plant-based diet. The unspoken cultural assumption that persists today is that a plant-based diet is inferior and deficient in protein and contributes to a weakened body.

The good news is that the growing body of nutritional research is illuminating the fallacy of this cultural myth. Research has shown that all plants contain protein and at least 14% of the total calories of every plant are protein. Broccoli contains more protein per calorie than steak and, per calorie, spinach is about equal to chicken and fish. Of course, you’ll need to eat a lot more broccoli and spinach to get the same amount of calories that you do from the meat. Multiple studies have shown that if you are meeting your caloric needs through plant-based nutrition, you will satisfy your body’s protein requirements.

Some simple math proves the point. If you consume 2000 calories per day from plant sources containing 14% protein, the total number of calories from protein equals 280. Divide 280 calories by 4 ( there are 4 calories per gram of protein) to find that this diet would supply 70 grams of protein — more than enough for the average man or woman. Classic studies of protein nitrogen balance have shown that women require, on average, 30-50 grams of protein per day and men require 50-70 grams per day based on weight.

Nutritional research has also discovered that plant-based protein from a wide variety of sources adequately supplies all the essential amino acids required for a healthy body. It is not necessary to consume a “complete” protein at every meal. The body’s innate intelligence utilizes the protein from multiple meals to provide the necessary building blocks. In addition, every bite of plant-based protein offers the extra health benefits of fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.

How can you add more plant-based protein to your diet? By simply eating more plants. Beans (27% protein) lentils (36%), chickpeas (33%), peas (30%), and kale (22%) provide the greatest opportunity to acquire micronutrients packaged with protein. Practical solutions to add more of these include adding beans/legumes to salads, stews and soups. Use higher protein vegetables like spinach, kale, lentils, broccoli, beans and peas in each meal or recipe. And for a nutrient-rich breakfast, consider starting your day with a smoothie made with bananas, blueberries, kale, spinach, strawberries and fresh almond milk. So, now you too can claim, “…I’m strong to the finish, ‘cause I eats me spinach” …and kale…and lentils…and chickpeas…and beans!

Dr. Scott Stoll is a board certified specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and currently serves as the medical director for the Center for Advanced Spinal Solutions at Coordinated Health, chairman of the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and team physician for Lehigh University and the United States Bobsled Team.

 

56 Comments

Comments

Lord Matt says ...
I was with you all the way until you reversed the statistics argument. It was such a smooth job that I almost missed it. However you never established your what if and yet the rest of you point is based on it. You started with "what if you consume 2000 calories per day from plant sources containing 14% protein?" However at no point did you actually show this was possible taking us from the realm of "plants are good for you and you can live on them" to a sort of anti-meat eating science free rant. That was the point you totally lost me. If you had established that 14% protean was all that was necessary (and you did that very well) then showing that common veg was greater than 14% by calorie then you would have an air tight case. You can probably guess that I am very sensitive about ideologies being pushed in place of good sound reason. That sort of reasoning has given us the worst that humanity has to offer - religious wars, blind politics, genocide, etc etc... I'm not trying to be mean as you clearly care about this subject to put in a fair amount of reading and the last thing you probably expected was some snotty Brit with a background in statistics to pull you up. So I hope my reaction was not upsetting however I do tend to hold anything calling it self "official" or being part of a business to a much higher standard of blogging.
01/16/2011 3:43:09 AM CST
J says ...
Interesting article. Was not aware spinach had so much protein!
01/16/2011 4:41:07 AM CST
Cooking4carnivores says ...
As a vegetarian I get asked about getting "enough" protein all the time. Great article. This is my super protein packed Sammie that shuts all my doubters up - http://www.cooking4carnivores.com/2010/08/ive-had-enough.html
01/18/2011 12:27:52 PM CST
jazz lynne says ...
Have always read that the body requires a complete protein per meal: Meaning that the 8 essential amino acids all had to be resent at one sitting. Where has oit been established that the body holds a partial complement of proteins for some hours until the missing aminos show up later...to then build and repair the body with the complete proteins? I'm struggling with this, as everything I've read, from Adele Davis forward, has been specific to the need for complete proteins at each meal. Thanks!
01/19/2011 4:16:38 PM CST
Katy Jasper says ...
You say that 14% of the calories of spinach are protein calories. I was wondering why you used protein calories rather than the much more common protein per serving. So I checked the facts. Yes, 14% of the calories contained in spinach are in the form of protein. But spinach has only 15 calories per 100 grams (and 2 grams of is is protein)! So, if you consume 2000 calories a day from plants such as spinach you could probably meet your protein requirements.Although it might be somewhat time consuming since you would have to munch through 13333 grams of spinach which would equal about 29 pounds to get your 2000 calories per day. Now, I realize that beans and other veggies have a lot more calories, but this was the example used in this article.
01/19/2011 6:23:14 PM CST
Kristin says ...
I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. I've lost count of the number of people I've met who think plants don't provide any protein at all or very very little. I think this article could further benefit from giving a sample set of meals that would provide the protein in your math example, but still I'm glad this is being brought up on a large platform like Whole Foods'.
01/19/2011 10:14:21 PM CST
Vegan says ...
I wanted to thank you also for this article. I have been vegan for almost 4 years and I get protein questions all the time, to the point of annoyance! Over these 4 years I have been completely healthy and I have more muscle mass than most omnivores that I know. Definitely not lacking in protein without protein supplements and I have never tried to combine things specially to ensure complete protein. Just eat a varied diet and you will be fine!
01/20/2011 5:33:21 AM CST
Yolanda Mercado says ...
I love your vejetarian receipies. Here the ingredients for my own potatoe soup. 8 potatoes cuting cubes, 3 cups of vejetable broth, small parsnisp cut in pieces, 1 tablespoon of olive oil,1 teaspoon of butter, 1 medium onion, (cubes of ham) optional if you desire. Combine olive oil, butter and onion in a sup pot. Stirr fry the onion and jam toguether until tender. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste. Boiling everything toguether until the soup is thick.Reserve some potatoes to put before is done so it will have big pieces of potatoes.
01/20/2011 9:46:30 AM CST
Yolanda Mercado says ...
I usually add swiss chard to my potatoe soup for a variation. Please try it. Is really delicious soup.
01/20/2011 9:50:20 AM CST
marlon braccia says ...
It's true that protein from beans has long been thought of as a poor man's diet. That's not because it's inferior at al. It's just much less expensive. To cut down on the starch of beans and lentils, I sprout them. Soak in water overnight, then wrap them in a damp cotton or linen dishcloth and tuck them in a dark cabinet. In 1-3 days they'l have sprouts. So in addition to a terrific source of low-calorie, low fat, all-natural protein, you've increased the enzyme level enormously. That makes the beans or lentils easier to digest.
01/20/2011 7:10:33 PM CST
John E. says ...
I am a 54 year old male, have been vegetarian/vegan since age 26. I have, according to medical tests, the same body and health as a 30 year old. I recently passed the intensive medical tests to enter the US Foreign Service. I have studied Tae Kwon Do for 12 years and now, am a MMA/Jiu-jitsu student for 3 years (one of the most demanding activities on the human body). So I can personally testify as to the efficacy of the veg•an diet.
01/22/2011 11:27:33 AM CST
Chris Dukes says ...
While I agree on the whole of this article that vegetables contain protein, multiple studies have also confirmed that 70g of protein per day is NOT enough for the average man or woman. For those on an exercise regiment or those who are looking to sculpt muscle...studies confirm that you need at least 1g per pound of bodyweight, which has been shown to aid in weight loss numerous times...which contrary to popular belief, does NOT have an adverse effect on your kidneys. I think this article is strongly biased against meat and better forms of protein (which, by the way, you failed to mention the importance of eating meat...like omega-3 fatty acids for salmon, or creatine from lean cuts of beef, etc). For more information, look at studies quoted by Dr. Jim Stoppani, exercise physiologist and senior science editor for Muscle and Fitness, who studied at the Yale School of Medicine.
01/22/2011 11:49:11 AM CST
Paul says ...
@Lord Matt: I don't understand your argument. The author states "all plants contain protein and at least 14% of the total calories of every plant are protein." Are you arguing that he has not cited a source for that? Declaring this an "anti-meat eating science free rant" seems a bit harsh. This is a blog, not a peer-reviewed journal.
01/22/2011 11:50:52 AM CST
Chris Dukes says ...
In regards to my above comment, I didn't mean to imply "better", just more protein for less serving. Also...while you can get enough protein from supplementing and eating a veggie-only diet, there are just too many other things that don't make it worth supplementing IMHO, creatine out of beef, omega-3 fatty acids...even a very mild amount of saturated fat has been confirmed to boost testosterone levels. Wouldn't be worth it to me, though I do love my greens.
01/22/2011 11:54:31 AM CST
Veronica says ...
Recipes to go with this photos would be nice :D
01/22/2011 11:58:16 AM CST
Mary Shaw says ...
Great article. I just updated my article "The Protein Problem" with a link to this. Thanks! http://meatlessmediterranean.blogspot.com/2010/12/protein-problem.html
01/22/2011 12:16:49 PM CST
Donna says ...
Remember protein in grains--they're plants too. Oats, quinoa, millet, brown rice. Combinations made with high-protein veggies make a hearty meal.
01/22/2011 1:45:35 PM CST
Cinny says ...
Lord Matt - interesting comment. jazz lynn - good point. I was taught that, too, and have yet to find information contrary to it online (although that doesn't mean it isn't out there). I was taught you can combine beans and rice or corn, for example, to create a complete protein but always have wondered about the ratio and what the body does with the proteins that don't match up correctly (if that makes any sense?). Katy Jasper - funny but good point.
01/22/2011 3:44:18 PM CST
Ren says ...
You say that 14% of the calories of spinach are protein calories. I was wondering why you used protein calories rather than the much more common protein per serving. So I checked the facts. Yes, 14% of the calories contained in spinach are in the form of protein. But spinach has only 15 calories per 100 grams (and 2 grams of is is protein)! So, if you consume 2000 calories a day from plants such as spinach you could probably meet your protein requirements.Although it might be somewhat time consuming since you would have to munch through 13333 grams of spinach which would equal about 29 pounds to get your 2000 calories per day. Now, I realize that beans and other veggies have a lot more calories, but this was the example used in this article. I agree with the previous above statement. The author's conclusion in the Whole Food article failed to acknowledge this point.
01/22/2011 5:50:03 PM CST
Duchess Bloodymary says ...
It's not surprising that the meat-eaters immediately take offense to this and other articles that even remotely promote the idea (and pleeese stop misusing the word ideology) of eating less or no meat. Chill out! no one is attacking your right to eat meat. Where in this article does it say to stop eating meat? It's really bemusing to us healthy & thriving non-meaters to see how a relatively benign article provokes such a defensive response.
01/22/2011 6:43:06 PM CST
Duchess Bloodymary says ...
BTW, you CAN get Omega-3, saturated fat (the healthy kind), creatine from plants.
01/22/2011 6:47:59 PM CST
Vegan Fitness Star says ...
Very True. Also if you don't believe you can build muscles on a vegan diet. Just check me out on the following links and watch me prove you wrong. Vegan Fitness Star - http://www.youtube.com/da1sinister1 http://www.modelmayhem.com/da1sinister http://getfitordietrying1.blogspot.com/
01/22/2011 8:41:39 PM CST
Columbus Vegan says ...
Dr. Stoll/ Whole Foods, this post seems to represent a very forward-thinking company. I only wish this approach was represented at my local Whole Foods store. In your Columbus store, one of the largest in the country, they seem very vegan-unfriendly, compared with your other stores nationwide. Lord Matt, do you really expect one post to hand you all of the answers? If you are as smart as you indicate, I imagine you are capable of doing your own research to verify the nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet. There is plenty of scientific evidence available elsewhere. I find it interesting that people so easily accept the dominant paradigm of meat and potatoes, yet are so quick to resist the common sense (and proven benefits) of nutrient-dense foods. Jazz Lynde, the complete protein requirement is old science, long since disputed by modern nutritionists.
01/22/2011 11:19:28 PM CST
Nancy Laytham says ...
This is an Eye-Opener article that I hope will raise awareness of a plant based diet. While I recommend the Mediterranean Diet to my clients seeking to improve their diet and/or lose weight, even I did not realize how much protein plants offer us. In the largest diet study done in Europe and published in our prestigious New England Journal of Medicine this past November, foods that were high in protein and low in glycemic index did the best job for helping people maintain weight loss. And we know that weight is easier to lose and harder to keep off. This article gives so many more choices to us and keeps us away from saturated animal fats. Thank you Dr. Scott
01/23/2011 12:49:46 PM CST
Lynn T. says ...
I have been learning alot of holistic ways to a healthier me. I am a type 2 diebetic. I do not want to live on pills for the rest of my life. If anyone should wonder if this is true, just look at Mr and Mrs Jack Lelanne (sp?)
01/23/2011 1:51:22 PM CST

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