Thursday, April 28, 2011
Where do you get your protein?
Protein is a hot topic when mentioning veganism, even more so since ex-vegans often cite protein deficiency as the reason they returned to eating animal products. While it often seems--based on their post-vegan diets--there was really a deficiency in bacon or vitamin cheese, protein is definitely worth thinking about. I've received a number of questions about this issue in the past month alone, so I thought I'd address it here.
The following is excerpted from Vegan for Lent: A Guide to 40 Days of Plant Based Eating:
A Protein Primer
“Where do you get your protein?” is usually the first thing you will hear on adopting a vegan diet.
This question comes from the idea that only certain foods have protein, and that we need large amounts of protein, presumably from animal products.
But the answer is really simple: “From food!”
First, all foods contain protein. Aside from sources like legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds, protein is also found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The World Health Organization recommends that healthy diets should contain between 5-8% of calories from protein. This is the amount found in human breast milk (required by the body at a time of rapid muscle and organ growth), and the amount contained in most fruits and vegetables. So, other protein sources aside, if you are a moderately active adult, the protein provided solely by fruits and vegetables would be sufficient to fulfill your body’s needs.
Second, muscle and organ tissue is not constructed from protein, but from the amino acids that result from protein being broken down by the body. These amino acids are the most effective source for building tissues, and consuming them directly enables the body to do so directly from the amino acids. Leafy greens are an excellent source of amino acids, as are fresh fruits and vegetables.
Further, protein deficiency in the United States is extremely rare. There is no medical term for protein deficiency, apart from those resulting from insufficient caloric intake. Most Americans actually consume too much protein, which has to be excreted through the kidneys, taxing the body. Eat enough calories, and you will get enough protein.
If you have an increased need for protein (pregnancy, competitive bodybuilding, etc.) or simply want more in your diet, add beans to your soups, seitan to your salads, and snack on nuts and seeds.
A note on “complete proteins”: The idea that most vegetarian proteins are “incomplete” and therefore must be combined with other proteins was popularized in Francis Moore Lappé’s 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet. It was
believed that since certain proteins did not contain all 19 amino acids, a complementary protein should be consumed at the same meal to create a “complete” protein (beans and rice, for example).
We now know that this is not necessary. The body will “hold on to” incomplete amino acid chains for several days until the chains are completed. This means that if you eat a number of foods over a period of several days, your amino acid profile will complete itself. New research also shows that this process may actually be better for the body than consuming already complete (animal) proteins. Unfortunately, the myth of protein combining is still perpetuated by some medical professionals and outdated textbooks. Don’t worry; a varied, plant-based diet will provide plenty of complete, high quality protein.
This article is for information purposes only. The author is not held responsible for the use or misuse of the information contained therein. This is not intended as medical advice. It is recommended that you consult the advice of your physician before embarking on diet changes or a fitness routine.
For more on protein and all things nutrition, check out the super informative site Choosing Raw, from vegan nutritionist Gena Hamshaw. Want to fine-tune your diet in personalized way? Schedule a consultation with vegan dietician Vesanto Melina, author of Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw, and Raising Vegetarian Children.