Setting the record straight
Vegetables have plenty of protein, and they're complete proteins as well
by Michael Bluejay • Last update: June 2013
Common vegetables have much more protein than you need, and contrary to popular myth, they're complete proteins as well.1 The reason you've heard otherwise is that the people spouting protein myths haven't bothered to look up the actual numbers. (Anyone who thinks that vegetables don't supply enough protein or that it's incomplete for human needs should cite bona-fide science that says so.) So let's look at what the science actually says — as well as what doctors and dietitians who are actually familiar with protein say.
We need only 2.5 to 11% of our calories from protein, according to peer-reviewed research and the official recommendations.2,3,4 And that amount is easily supplied by common vegetables.4.1 Vegetables average around 22% protein by calorie, beans 28%, and grains 13%.4.1 Have a look at the chart at right.
The U.S. government's recommendation is 5-11%, based on various factors.3 The World Health Organization recommends a similar amount.4 And these recommendations are padded with generous safety margins, to cover people who need more protein than average. WHO makes it clear that around 97% of people need less than their recommendations.4
In any event, whether you think our needs are closer to 2.5% or 11%, you can see from the chart that it's nearly impossible to fail to get enough protein, provided that you make sure to eat food. Every single whole plant food has more than 2.5% protein, and every group averages at least 11% except for fruit. Protein is one of the easiest nutrients to get.
The figures for food are from the bible of nutrition data, the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. (I averaged the numbers for several foods in each category.4.1 To find the percentage of protein for a sample, multiply the protein grams by 4 and divide by the number of calories.4.2)
So plant foods easily supply our protein needs. The truth is that if you're eating food, you're eating protein—and almost certainly more than enough.
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