How healthy is eating less meat and dairy: protein

“Are you getting enough protein?” Once I’ve started to eat less meat and dairy, people would ask me about nutrients. Protein and two other nutrients in particular: iron and B12. They’re instantly worried that you wouldn’t get enough of them. But is the concern justified? Let’s discover.

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Mareike Brühl | 05-03-2023

This blog has been written in cooperation with nutritionist Zuzanna Zielińska from Harvest Care.

Protein is the no. 1 nutrient we’re obsessed with. Protein mania is what The Guardian called it. Look at all the claims on protein enriched products in the supermarkt. It tells us we should get more. But is it true? Should we be eating more protein?

Did you know the recipes in the Fork Ranger book and seasonal calendar contain cereals, legumes and nuts which provide plenty of protein?

Research shows that on average we’re already eating more than enough protein. In Europe and North America people eat on average 107 g of protein while we only need 63 g. How much we need slightly varies with your age, but in no scenario you need more than 107 g.

So, in general you don’t need to worry about eating enough protein-rich foods.

Sources of protein

To understand how this changes when we eat less meat and dairy, we have to look at the source of all that protein. First of all, almost all foods contain protein. Still the first thing that comes to mind if you ask people about protein will be: meat. Meat gives our bodies protein, but it’s not our main source. Dairy & eggs and cereals still make up the majority.

So if the average European would just leave out meat (without replacing it) they would still get enough. In other words: you don’t have to find a meat replacement for every meal. Let me share what I eat on a typical day, to show you how I reach my needed protein.

– 50 g of oats (6,5 g protein)
– 150 g of soy yoghurt (6,8 g protein)
– 15 g of sunflower seeds (4,2 g protein)
– 4 slices of bread (17,7 g protein)
– 1 slice with peanut butter (6,5 g protein)
– 3 slices with hummus (2,5 g protein)
– 1 tomato (0,7 g protein)
– 100 g of pasta (13 g protein)
– 50 g of peas (3 g protein)
– half a zucchini (1,2 g protein)
– 50 ml of soy cream (1,2 g protein)
– 100 g of spinach (1 g of protein)
– 1 slice of bread with peanut butter (10,9 g protein)
Total: 75,2 g protein

The dinner quantities come from the Green Lemon Spaghetti recipe from the Fork Ranger book (page 118).

How proteins from plants and animals compare

Here it starts to get a bit technical, but I do want to share this as it comes up in some of the conversations.

“But meat contains complete proteins, plants don’t”

To unravel where this worry comes from, we have to dig a bit deeper. Luckily there is plenty of research about this.

So far we just looked at grams of protein and not what it’s made of. Protein consists of 20 types building blocks: amino acids. These 20 are categorized in essential ones and non-essential. Some are labelled non-essential because your body can make them from others. For the essential ones that isn’t the case. That’s why it’s essential that they’re in what you eat. Sounds simple.

For each type of food the amounts of the essential and non-essential ones are slightly different. And also our body requires different amounts of each amino acid. What is meant by ‘meat is complete in proteins’ is that meat (and other animal products) contains a set and quantity of amino acids that is similar to what we need as humans. A single plant-based food has a different set and quantities, that’s less similar to what we need.

However, eating a variety – like legumes and grains – complement each other well and are together also complete. These protein-rich foods don’t need to be eaten during the same meal or hour, but within a day. So no stress, as long as you don’t live on a peanut butter or hummus-only diet, there is really no need to worry about not getting ‘complete proteins’.

Conclusion about protein

Let’s not panic about protein. In general, we already eat more than enough. And proteins from various plants are together as complete as proteins in animal products. The chance that you need to worry about protein is very very low, even if you consume no or little meat and/or dairy.

It’s only justified to worry when these 3 things are true at the same time:
1) you have a very low protein intake that day (almost no grains, no nuts, no legumes) AND 2) you eat no animal proteins (vegan diet) AND 3) you have a very little dietary variety.

Looking for new inspiration? Most of the recipes in the Fork Ranger book and seasonal calendar contain multiple sources of protein.

Note: always consult your GP. This article is in no way giving you any medical recommendations or asking you to override your doctor’s advice. Fork Ranger is not responsible for any health issues you may have or develop in future.