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Plant Protein Pushes Ahead in New Meatless Monday Campaign
By Hadley Turner

"But where do you get your protein?"

There isn't a vegetarian or vegan alive who hasn't heard this question at least once, especially in the United States, where animal proteins are lauded as the be-all and end-all of the macronutrient.

But plant-based eaters aren't the only ones who get questioned regularly about protein; these concerns ring in the ears of the Meatless Monday campaign's staff as well. Cherry Dumaual, public relations and partnerships director for The Monday Campaigns, calls it "one of the most common concerns we've heard about practicing Meatless Monday."

Data bear this out: According to an online survey conducted on the campaign's behalf by the Data Decisions Group, 52% of respondents cited consuming adequate protein as one of their biggest qualms about cutting back on meat.

Founded in 2003 by Sid Lerner and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Meatless Monday advocates cutting out meat on Mondays to lower the risk of chronic diseases to which meat consumption has been linked, such as CVD, and reduce meat's environmental impact. When faced with skepticism about plant protein, the folks behind Meatless Monday did what they do best—started a campaign. The Plant Protein Power educational campaign highlights the benefits of plant proteins as well as plant foods and meals high in protein.

Protein Perplexity
RDs don't need to be convinced of the virtues of plant proteins such as beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, but many consumers do, as the campaign's data illustrate. That consumers are unsure about plant protein's quality is understandable; protein is hot right now, and popular fad diets such as Paleo, keto, and Whole30 promote most animal proteins, especially meats, and eschew major plant sources of protein such as legumes, soyfoods, and whole grains.

Popular emphasis on high-animal protein diets "causes a lot of confusion," says Becky Ramsing, MPH, RD, a scientific advisor for the Meatless Monday campaign. "There's confusion over how much protein we need. People are feeling they need more protein in their diet; in reality, we actually get plenty of protein for our body's needs."

In these diets, "whole food groups like fruits and whole grains are being cut out and villainized … [but] we know whole grains and fruits actually add a lot to our diet—nutrients and fiber, [for example,] which is really good for our gut health," says Ramsing, who also serves as senior program officer of the food communities and public health program at Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future, part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This is compromising to people's health."

While confusion abounds, Ramsing contends that interest in plant-based foods still is growing. She argues that consumers largely are interested because "the health evidence is there" for the advantages of plant protein over animal protein. "More and more studies are coming out that support that diets lower in animal products and higher in plants with more fruits and vegetables, pulses like beans, and whole grains are associated with lower overall mortality, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and a healthier weight," she adds.

Campaign Materials
The Plant Protein Power campaign materials are written in accessible language for almost all young and older adult audiences and can be used in just about any organizations, such as "hospitals, schools, and companies as part of their wellness programs," Dumaual says. She adds that "RDs can use the kit's contents in their practice" as well.

The Plant Protein Power campaign kit includes four printable posters, 11 social media graphics, and six GIFs highlighting plant protein sources such as cashews, tofu, chickpeas, and spinach. They encourage the use of the hashtags #MeatlessMonday and #PlantProteinPower. Ramsing was responsible for reviewing and approving all campaign materials.

Ramsing says the campaign wanted to show that plant protein is high-quality protein as well, as "there's this thought that maybe we're not getting the same quality protein in plant proteins vs animal proteins." This is addressed in the poster "Can You Get Full Protein Easily Each Day Without Meat? Yes, You Can," which points out that 1 g plant protein provides the same nutritional value as 1 g animal protein and that professional athletes are increasingly going meatless.

The latter statement is particularly important, Ramsing points out: "In some of the interviews we did on college campuses, athletes are particularly concerned about getting enough protein. [Meatless Monday] wanted to address this misunderstanding about protein, especially the quality of plant protein." The message for athletes is: "You can have a healthful diet, you can grow, you can lift weights, and you can be an athlete on a plant-based diet," she says.

The posters and social media graphics contain the bulk of the factual information, highlighting protein-rich plant foods such as lentils, tofu, wild rice, spinach, and black beans; the health risks of eating too much animal protein, such as higher risk of breast and colon cancer; proper portion sizes for meat; and combinations of plant-based foods that form complete proteins with all essential amino acids. (Ramsing says that while research has shown, contrary to past thinking, that different amino acids don't need to be eaten in the same sitting to be effective for muscle synthesis, the poster is meant as a reminder to vary sources of plant protein throughout the day to ensure one is getting all essential amino acids.)

The animated GIF images, while providing less information, are undeniably cute and illustrate the power of plant protein. One features a peanut in a top hat stepping on a seesaw to lift an elephant accompanied by the text, "Peanuts: 9.5 g of protein in 1/4 cup." Another shows a determined asparagus stalk pulling a school bus while another cheery stalk sits in the driver's seat, tip blowing in the wind.

RDs can click here to download the Plant Protein Power campaign kit, which also includes a page of example tweets that include the graphics with which to get started.

— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian.