Protein 101


The quick story:  When Americans think protein, meat comes to mind—about 80% of our protein is animal sourced.  The better answer:  Get 2/3 of your protein from plants and 1/3 from animal sources.


Don’t you love the boy in the picture (with a piece of saved string around his neck)?  It’s a little faded because I took it many years ago after a volcano climb in El Salvador. There’s a point to the picture—the extended stomach occurs with children who don’t get all the essential amino acids after weaning.  Which brings us to protein.

Protein deficiency is uncommon in the U.S.  We need at least 8-10% of our calories as protein—we get 15-16%.  So we get plenty of protein; the issue is our protein source.  Around the world, plants—especially rice, corn and wheat—are the main source of protein.  Americans eat meat. 

Primer:   Proteins are the most abundant molecules in our body, after water.  They are the building blocks for cells but they also provide thousands of other functions.  Enzymes, for example, are made from protein.  There are many different proteins, literally hundreds of thousands in our proteome, but they are assembled from just 20 amino acid building blocks.  Eight amino acids are considered essential (though this varies among people) so foods with all eight are termed complete.

Protein from animals is usually complete.  Plants are simpler life forms so the protein is less complete.  To make plant protein complete we combine complementary groups such as grains with legumes or nuts and seeds.   The day I took the picture above, we had climbed a high volcano and were famished on our way back.  Coming across a grass hut far from any road, we asked a native woman for food.  The lady was kind; she wrapped black beans from a clay pot in her thick corn tortillas to make a life-saving lunch we could eat without utensils.  The conditions were primitive but the protein was complete and I can still remember how good it tasted.  (And the lady seemed pleased with our payment.)

Some combinations that make plant proteins complete:

o    Peanut butter on whole-wheat bread.

o    Rice and beans.

o    Trail mix (peanuts and sunflower seeds).

Animal vs. Plant Protein

You can’t eat too much protein if your diet is built on plant foods; many fruits and vegetables contain less than 3%.  Rice has 3-4% protein, legumes and lentils are 4-10%, wheat has 10-13%, and nuts vary from 10 to 20%.  Studies reveal that humans are more tolerant of plant protein than the protein from animals.

Animals and fish have higher levels of protein, ranging from 15-40%.  To repeat, when we think of protein food in the U.S., we think of meat.  Of the 15% of our diet that is protein, about 80% comes from meat.  In China less protein is consumed and just 10% is meat.  A good compromise lies somewhere between the Chinese and American diet.

This leads us to an excellent book by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, descriptively titled The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health.  We’ll take a closer look at Campbell’s work in the next post but the bottom line is we should get more of our protein from plant sources (about 2/3) and less from animals (about 1/3, or 5% of calories).  Campbell’s research establishes a strong link between high levels of animal protein and cancer as well as heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and autoimmune diseases.  Studies confirm Campbell’s work, as does food tradition and scripture.

If you have a Bible in your home, turn to the first page and read the Creation account given in the first chapter of Genesis.  Genesis not only tells of the creation of modern humans, it also tells of the creation of our food supply.  After we are given dominion over animals, we are directed (v. 29) to build our dietary on every herb (meaning vegetables, grains and legumes) and the fruits of trees.  The dietary laws given to Moses restrict how meat is to be eaten.  The LDS scripture called the Word of Wisdom counsels that meat should be eaten “sparingly”.  People vary in their needs and “sparingly” allows for a range of interpretation, but I have taken it to mean something like 10% of all calories.  Returning to The China Study, this provides about 1/3 of protein from meat.

Budget Wisdom:  It’s NOT more expensive to eat healthy once you commit to planning and cooking.  (In fact it’s a bargain if you consider the medical expenses avoided.)  Protein provides a good example.  Meat averages around $8/lb in the store but most plant proteins can be purchased for around a dollar per pound.  If you replace your basic feedlot steak with a smaller amount of pasture-fed beef in a soup or stew, or with shrimp on a salad, you will have a healthier diet at a lower cost. 

An important point:  If you want to reduce your intake of pollutants, there is greater benefit from eating less meat and dairy than paying the higher cost of organic produce.  Excessive meat is bad for your body as well as your budget.  Incidentally, liver (pasture-fed, please) though out of favor, is the best meat bargain.


1.        Here’s the math for an average person (2500 calorie/day diet) who wishes to limit animal protein to 1/3 of total protein.  The weekly shopping list can include:

          a.        1 lb. of meat or fish,

          b.       4 eggs,

          c.        7 cups of milk,

          d.       4 servings (1 oz. each) of cheese. 

2.       A simpler plan: Because meat is the main source of animal protein, limit your average intake to ½ serving per day and eat normal amounts of eggs and dairy. 

3.       Use meat more to flavor foods, and less as an entrée.  (Recipe for Skip’s Scalloped Potatoes to follow.) 

4.       Include a pot of legumes in each week’s menu.

5.       For snacks, include a daily serving of nuts.

Please share your ideas on how to get more of our protein intake from plants.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (21)

We have always been a big fan of Buckwheat . It has a nice ntty taste. I use it in breads, soups, chili, as meat fillers (1/2 meat 1/2 buckwheat) , and I added it recently to your breakfast campote with good success. Oatmeal is another good source, but in my mind not as high in protien, maybe I am wrong.
In the last 2 year we have incoropated Quinoa into things more too... savvy has some really good recipes for quinoa. Our favorite is the chili. I would add a link, but I am at work and the system has it blocked ( yes I am interpreting at 4 am my time ).
This is an interesting always thought as grains as "filler" to lower the costs of using less meat. Up until today, I felt quilty for using what I thought was a starch instead of protien (meat protien).

My Mother in law, who grew up in the Mormon Colonies of Mexico , was a big fan of whole wheat bread and milk in a bowl ( maybe a little honey)... I always found it a little odd for my husband to eat, but now I see the wisdom. Thank you Skip

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Hi Skip - this is really helpful, thank you. Now to get my husband on board - he is the carnivore in the family. Also, do you have a suggestion for replacing egg protein for those of us with allergies?

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Allergies definitely make this area a bigger challenge. My daughter is allergic to dairy and eggs (and I'm not comfortable with a lot of processed soy), and currently seems intolerant of most common grains including rice, wheat, corn, barley, and quinoa. We're still figuring out her allergies. Anyway, we strive for less meat but under those restrictions it's hard. I think the Word of Wisdom is fairly clear about meat and I've done a lot of pondering on it. Meat should be eaten sparingly and with thanksgiving (which to me means animals probay deserve a lot more respect and better treatment than we generally give them), and it's pleasing unto the Lord for them to be used only in winter or times of famine. Given our ability to access food in the US, I'm not sure we ever face those conditions anymore. I know what I think is best, it's just a matter of doing it (well, and figuring out where my daughter can get what she needs!). Glad you tackled this topic, as it's a big one!

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

green smoothies...packed with spinach or organic mixed greens pack a great protein punch for me. ccc

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercristie

Is my thinking correct that 1 gram of protein is about 4 calories? I think I have heard that somewhere before. In that case, the protein in some servings of meat is already too high for me. In one serving of beef alone, I could outdo my protein needs by quite a bit! That is some very interesting information!

So, from reading your other posts, I see that 55% of the diet should be carbs, 10% should be protein... what about the rest of it? I may have missed the numbers from some other posts, those are just the ones I remember.

Also, I am trying to lose weight. I don't have a lot to lose (about 10 pounds of stubborn baby weight) but I've always heard that eating a high protein diet, lots of veggies and limiting carbs would help. I haven't changed my diet too much for fear of hurting my body, but I eat pretty healthy already. I eat whole grains almost 100% of the time I eat grains, but I don't get those weight loss results like most people do from eating whole grains. I am worried to try anything high protein/low carb for weight loss, as I fear I'll just put the weight back on when I go back to carbs. Anyone have any thoughts about this?

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Cristie, I also love green smoothies with spinach and greens! Full of flavor and much needed goodness!

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Cristie or Lisa ,what is a green smoothie? Recipe?

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Lisa, one thought about those last difficult-to-lose 10 pounds. Try keeping a log for a few days of how much sugar you eat. Just check the nutrition panel of anything packaged for the grams of sugar per serving. Total it up at the end of the day. That's the first thing to check, I think. The next step would be to keep a food dairy, as our diet may not be as healthy as we imagine.

Regarding the breakdown of macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein), the US diet runs about 30% fat, 15% protein, which leaves 55% carbs. These numbers can vary widely depending on diet. I think the actual percent is less important than the source of nutrients. Processing is the issue: Carbs should not be refined (like sugar and white flour); protein should be more plant than animal; fats should have a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 (and NO trans fats); etc. The basic rule: Eat a variety of food as close as practical to the natural form. Best.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I'm curious about your comment on organic produce "If you want to reduce your intake of pollutants, there is greater benefit from eating less meat than paying the higher cost of organic produce." I love your blog and would enjoy hearing your thoughts on organic vs. conventional produce, the health value as well as the taste quality. I'm struggling with a desire to buy local and a desire to consume less pollutants.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHolly

The idea that plants can still be a valuable protein source is one that has smacked me over the head recently. I really have been conditioned over the years to believe that meat and dairy were the main sources of protein. I'm always on a quest to incorporate even more vegetables and grains into my diet. Here are two quinoa recipes I recently tried. Both are very tasty.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenae

Hi Skip it's Brittany (McKinley) Fox. It's so neat to read your new blog. I love to tell people you were my seminary teacher because a lot of my friends here in the Sacramento area read the blog. I have devoured all of the wise advice you've given so far. My husband is a chiropractor, so I have heard a lot of this before, but I always need a refresher. And, I've learned a lot of new information to solidify my belief in eating naturally. Your posts are priceless and I hope a lot of people (including myself) learn how to take care of their bodies better. Thank you for all of the hard work putting this together. It's fun to see what you've been up to! I'll be reading...

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

Thanks for all the valuable info. I like that you've included suggestions in lbs. I realized from looking at my grocery list that meat is one of the most expensive things we buy (besides dairy or nuts). Cutting down on these items helps more than anything.

Some of our favorite meals that use less meat are stir fry, casseroles, pizza with lots of veggies, and soups. With whole grains and lots of flavorful veggies, seasonings, and good fats, I don't miss eating the meat as an entree. In fact, I don't feel good after eating a big piece of steak, the few times that I have.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

The China Study has been on my "to read" list for over a year now. I'm excited to get to it. We usually keep a big tub of nuts in our fridge so we can grab a handful for a snack, and I often eat a slice of whole wheat bread with peanut butter for breakfast. My goal now is to add more legumes into our diet! Thank you for another great post!

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Great post Skip. I really need help in keeping healthy proteins in our diet.

One question - does milk not count as having some of the same issues as meat when it comes to ingesting it in large quantities? You mention meat is linked to cancer, heart disease, etc. Obviously I know there are a lot of great health benefits to drinking milk, but do you know why drinking milk from an animal is better for you than eating its meat?

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

First of all,

spinach. alot. like the whole bunch if you're feeling ambitious.
then bananas, strawberries or anything else you want to add.
But we always start with orange juice. then A) it doesn't taste bad and B) you need to start your blender with a liquid or nothing really happens.
TA DA! smoothie.

I was a little confused with the plant vs. meat part of your post with regard to eggs. Aren't eggs and fish "meat"? They're not plant. So don't they fall under the "meat" category instead of "plant"? Or does meat just mean chicken, beef and the like?

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCamaronO

Lisa and Camaron, sorry for the confusion. "Meat" includes fish and animal products, as you supposed, like eggs and diary. I'll make that more clear. Best.

Holly, there is a yin and yang to to the "organic" designation. It started as a grassroots effort to create a healthier standard for food. That's good. But we've created two classes of food, one that is possibly healthier for the well-to-do, while those on a tight budget must eat non-organic food that may be less healthy.

Regarding meat being a bigger problem than eating non-organic foods: Written comments (attributed to the EPA) have claimed that 90-95% of pesticide pollutants we ingest are delivered in meat and milk products. When I find a citation I'll pass it along. Best

May 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

A terrific site for green smoothie reces is

My favorite version is a huge handful of spinach, chia seeds, a bit of milk to make it creamy, some flax, and some frozen apple cider. If your apple cider isn't frozen add some ice in as well. I've also made that combination with kale instead of spinach but it's not quite as sweet. My 1 year old son loves those green smoothies and excitedly slurps most of mine down whenever I make them!

We started eating less meat about a year ago, and in TH beginning the idea of doing so felt overwhelming. I didn't know how to structure meals around something other than chicken or beef, which is quite sad. Now, in the summer, we will go weeks without having any meat at all. I joined a meat CSA over the winter, which cost us $600, and we plan to stretch it out over the whole year making the cost $50/month for grass fed pasture raised beef, pork, lamb, chicken. Recently my husband told me that he would like to eat even less meat! It's a shocker because he used to b the typical male meat eater (he is from Poland and they do eat large amounts of meat there as well) but the more we focus on fresh vegetables the more we value their taste more than that of meat. I won't be joining the meat CSA next year unless i can get someone to split the share with me.

I try to cook with a lot of legumes (last night I made a Martha Stewart recipe for freezer-ready bean burritos with pinto beans and tonight I am making black bean burger patties), and we bought a large bag of quinoa from Costco (something about the size encourages me to use it nore for sone reason, maybe because we plan to move in a year and i don't want to take it with me!). I'd ike to eat ore eggs, we are going to keep working on that.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

This is extremely interesting to me. I am part of a large cattle ranching family. We raise our own beef. My husband's family has a difficult time planning any meal without meat and mostly beef at that. I do not mind going without meat. I am wondering if anyone has any ideas on how to convince my husband that less meat can still be wonderful and filling. Most meatless meals I make are followed by a comment of "this would be better with some meat in it".

As far as the green smoothies go, we love them around here. They are a favorite, especially on a warm night. My basic recipe is: one cup greens, one cup frozen fruit, 1/3 c. milk, 1/3 c. orange juice and 1/4 c. yogurt. We have tried mango, peach, triple berry (from sam's club freezer section) and strawberry. Peach is my kiddos favorite. They berry ones are fantastic if you have someone who doesn't want to drink something that is bright green, though I must admit I strain the triple berry one because I don't enjoy the seeds.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I find it interesting that you include milk in the options. Unless it is raw, it is really something to avoid.
Here’s just a sampling of the nutritional benefits of raw, organic milk

Organic, raw milk is a complete food, loaded with minerals, protein and vitamins. Raw milk contains an amazing selection of minerals ranging from calcium and phosphorus to trace elements. Pasteurization destroys them and they must be re-supplied
Raw milk has 20 of the standard amino acids
Up to 80% of the proteins in raw milk are easy to digest — some are complex antibodies
Raw milk is abundant in calcium — legendary for its benefits for teeth, bones etc.
It is also loaded with enzymes that have an array of health benefiting functions
Raw milk is alive with beneficial bacteria that aid digestion and protect against disease-carrying organisms
Pasteurization destroys almost all of the nutritive value of cow’s milk. The milk everybody drinks today is far from a whole food, and in my research is not fit for human consumption.

Pasteurization also destroys beneficial bacteria found in raw milk. It kills the natural enzymes and destroys the chemical make-up of calcium in raw milk. Calcium is vital to the growth and health of children. Pasteurization has been implicated in everything from allergies to heart disease to cancer. Truly, the resulting product after pasteurization is not raw and living, but rather “killed and dead.”

Sadly, here in California, we used to be raw friendly, but thanks to the great Govenator last year, it is impossible to find raw milk.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTamra

Thanks for the green smoothie recipes! I just made one with spinach, oj, chia seeds, frozen peaches and a banana (with a little water and milk to thin) and it was great! I didn't expect it to taste so good and so sweet. And the best part is that my 20 month old daughter loves it too. Prior to today, I haven't been able to get her to touch anything green, especially spinach!

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

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