Beans and potatoes are plant-based sources of protein.

Annemarie Colbin’s Take on Protein for Vegetarians

The Natural Gourmet Institute founder discussed the controversy of getting enough protein from a plant-based diet in 1990.

Natural Gourmet Institute Founder Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., was celebrated for her teachings on food, science and nutrition, concepts which are now more prominent than ever in the better food movement.

Annemarie was a true visionary: inquisitive, intuitive, relentless, progressive and thoughtful. In the late 1970s, she recovered important facts about food that humanity seems to have misplaced – that what we eat directly impacts our well being, our communities and our planet. Read on to learn about the importance of protein for our health and how we can ensure that we are getting enough of it through a plant-based diet.

The article below was written by Annemarie for Free Spirit Magazine in the July-September 1990 issue.

Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., led the conversation on plant-based protein as early as 1990.
Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., led the conversation on plant-based protein as early as 1990.

Protein and Vegetarians

About 10 years ago I set out to write an article for a (now defunct) New Age publication, on the subject of “protein for vegetarians.” The premise of my article was based on the now familiar arguments that a) yes, it is possible to get enough protein from vegetable foods; b) most of us eat too much meat protein anyway; c) animal food is not only bad for you, but also wasteful, as growing one pound of meat takes about 20 pounds of grain.*

It happens to be my misfortune to be ambidextrous: I can use either hand for a number of tasks. This translates into my thinking as well, and here is where the problems show up: whenever a statement or an idea awakens in me a feeling of "Eureka! This is true!," shortly afterwards, I see the other side of it. As I was walking around one day thinking about writing the article, I suddenly had a vision of how statements contrary to the above are also often true; because of that vision, I lost the power of my conviction and wrote a half-baked, unclear article on the subject. It’s time I tried again, so here we are.

Let’s look closely at the other side of the argument:

  • It is not possible to get enough protein from vegetarian foods, if those foods consist of canned or frozen greens vegetables, potatoes, cake, bagels, salad, corn chips, popcorn and candy bars.
  • Therefore, most people who try to be vegetarian on commercial and processed foods don’t get enough protein.
  • If it takes 20 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, then if you eat the one pound of meat you get the energy of 20 pounds of grain.

This was a visual thought: I literally saw how eating 20 pounds of grain would take about 20 days, and the work output resulting from that; and then I saw how compressing that grain into one pound of meat would increase the work output much like a more tightly wound spring would uncoil with more force and more speed. I was a vegetarian at the time; I didn’t feel like condoning the eating of meat. What I did suddenly understand, however, was why people in our society eat meat – and why we didn’t go to the moon on rice and beans.

It is now well-known that an excess of animal protein helps bring about several of the major diseases of our time, such as cardiovascular illness and cancer. A lack of protein also causes problems, among which are depression, lethargy and slow wound healing. It is true that, theoretically, it’s possible to get enough protein from quality vegetable foods. In order to be healthy as vegetarians, however, we must also observe the following steps: avoid sugar and other refined carbohydrates, as well as processed, frozen (with the exception of flash-frozen organic produce) and canned foods; eat beans or tempeh daily; be extremely cautious with milk products (too many people have problems with them); and eat something every two or three hours. After all, vegetarian animals eat all day long, whereas meat-eating ones eat once and go to sleep.

“Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lapee, introduced the concept of complementary proteins for vegetarians. In the 10th anniversary revised version, Mrs. Lapee retracts that concept, stating that complementing proteins is not necessary for good nutrition. My experience teaching vegetarian cooking for 18 years has shown me that she was right the first time: it is important to combine grains and beans to obtain complete protein, otherwise people are not satisfied and binge on sweets and fats such as nut butters, which are not so healthful in the long run.

It is also important to note that some people are natural or “born” vegetarians: they have good digestion and feel a physical aversion to animal foods. Other people are born meat eaters and can never be happy or healthy as complete vegetarians; there have been several of these in my life, which is why I know how hopeless it is to expect them to change.

How much protein do we need? There are various figures given out by nutritional authorities; 30 grams daily is one such figure, the equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich. I find it much easier to monitor the adequacy of protein intake by observing the following details: being satisfied after meals; no excessive cravings for sweets and fats; enough energy for all activities; and appropriate mental focus and clarity.

*These numbers can vary based on how it is calculated and the diet of the livestock.

Learn more about plant-based proteins at the Natural Gourmet Center in Los Angeles and New York.

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