True to Our Roots: Protein and Vegetarians

The importance of protein to our health and how we can assure we are getting enough through plant-based diets.

In honor of NGI's 40th anniversary, the school dug into its archives to find some standout articles written by Natural Gourmet Institute founder, Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D. This series celebrates her teachings on food, science and nutrition, 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 – namely, that what we eat directly impacts our well-being, our communities and our planet.

The Natural Gourmet Institute is now Health-Supportive Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education.

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

Protein and Vegetarians

About 10 years ago I set out to write an article for a (now defunct) New Age publications, on the subject “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 twenty 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Therefore, most people who try to be vegetarian on commercial and processed foods don’t get enough protein.
  3. If it takes twenty pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, then if you eat the one pound of meat you get the energy of twenty pounds of grain.

This was a visual thought: I literally saw how eating twenty pounds of grain would take about twenty 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 tenth anniversary revised version, Mrs. Lapee retracts that concept, stating that complementing proteins is not necessary for good nutrition. My experience teaching vegetarian cooking for eighteen 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; thirty grams (30g) 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.




  • 2 cups dried kidney beans
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons organic cold-pressed canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder, or to taste


  1. Place the beans in a 2-quart saucepan, then wash and pick them over. Cover beans with water and soak for 6 to 8 hours. (To save time, bring beans to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 2 minutes; turn off heat, cover, and soak in the hot water for 2 hours).
  2. To cook, make sure the beans are covered with water, then simmer for 1 hour or until tender. Add the salt, and simmer for 3 minutes more. Strain, reserving the liquid for use in soup.
  3. In a 2-quart saucepan, heat oil and saute garlic, then onion; add curry, stirring well, then add 2 cups cooked beans. Cook for 10 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally. Add some bean liquid if the mixture is too dry. Serve with brown rice.

This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.

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