Most of What You Know About Protein Is Wrong

Take this quiz to find out more

Dr. David L. Katz and Mark Bittman
Published in
5 min readJun 18, 2019


Photo: Image Source for Getty Images

Let’s begin with some statements: Choose true or false.

  • Only meat and other animal foods contain “complete” protein.
  • The average American gets less protein than he or she needs.
  • Vegan diets are deficient in protein quantity, quality, or both.
  • You should be sure to eat plenty of protein at every meal for optimal health.
  • Your body needs a fixed amount of protein intake every day for you to thrive.
  • Carbohydrate triggers an insulin release, but protein does not.
  • You need to eat animal products to grow big muscles.
  • The definition of protein quality considers the effects of food on health.

How’d you do? Maybe the headline gave this away, but each of these statements is false: every one.

Common “wisdom” has it that the more protein you eat, the better — and that the best protein comes from animal products. Those misconceptions undergird all of the above falsehoods and more.

View from the inside of a protein molecule. Photo: CDAscher for Getty Images

Let’s start with this high school biology review: There are 21 amino acids, the building blocks of protein; nine of them are “essential,” which means our bodies cannot produce them. They must come from food.

While it’s true that essential amino acids are generally found in lower percentages in plants than in animal foods, nearly all plant foods contain complete protein, and many (beans, lentils, certain whole grains, and seeds) have high concentrations. The complete suite of these compounds is widely distributed in our food choices. And, as you already know, generally speaking, not only you (your personal health) but we (our collective health) are better off eating more plants. More on that further down.

So, to the myth that you need animal products to get “complete” protein and therefore build muscle: Phooey.

On to the near-hysteria about getting enough protein, to which almost every person reading this — plus…



Dr. David L. Katz and Mark Bittman

Dr. Katz is the director of The Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and Mark Bittman has written about food and cooking for nearly 40 years.