It seems that as a vegan, when encountering a non-vegan or non-vegetarian the first question they always want to ask has to do with protein. They tend to look at you with big eyes like you’re an exhibit in the zoo and ask very confusedly and somewhat concerned "But... where do you get your protein if you don’t eat animal flesh?" or another one I see increasing in popularity is "Yeah, but how do you get enough protein on this kind of diet?" Now I have to admit after having heard it so many times already the urge to roll my eyes is great, but I don’t want to be that vegan. I don’t want to discourage people from asking questions. My goal is to educate vegans and non-vegans alike in the ways of living and eating more healthfully. Besides, what’s the old adage? There are no stupid questions, just uninformed people? At least that’s how I see it, and honestly with all the misinformation floating around out there is it any wonder that people are so confused?
I wish more people would open their eyes to the truth and realize that there’s a very good reason for why we’ve been taught to believe that meat, dairy and eggs are either the only, or the most superior sources of protein. The meat, dairy, and egg industries have huge lobbies worldwide and to the best my knowledge their’s no apple or kale lobby on the other side fighting on behalf of vegetables everywhere. It’s these very industries that have been the ones convincing us from birth that we need to consume a lot of protein, and that, that protein is better and more efficient when derived from the flesh and secretions of animals.
There are two things the meat, dairy and egg industries have right and it’s in saying that Protein is an important nutrient. It is, for sure. Protein is the quintessential building block of the human body. As you go about your daily business your body is working hard at discarding old cells and creating new ones, and it’s protein that’s responsible for this production. The other thing they’re right about is in saying that animal flesh is a complete protein. The mislead there however is their implication that proteins derived from plant foods are either incomplete or inferior. This is the myth, and unfortunately it’s so widespread in our culture, and has gained so much strength, that this wrong belief has been firmly rooted in the minds of the majority. Which is why as a vegan you get asked on a daily basis, "Where do you get your protein?"
So what is protein? It’s a nutrient of course, but one that’s made up of a chain of amino acids. Amino acids are little acids which when combined make up all the protein in your body. There are 20 different amino acids that have thus far been detected by Science, and these 20 amino acids come together in trillions upon trillions of ways to create all life on earth. Which means that all food items whether it’s vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds or animal flesh contain amino acids to varying degrees. The human body produces 12 of these amino acids on it’s own, because we produce them without the aid of any outside factors (diet) they are considered non-essential. The remaining 8 amino acids are considered essential because our bodies can’t produce them alone, we need to receive these amino acids through our diet. The reason you hear that meat is a complete protein is because the flesh of animals contains all of those 8 amino acids that our bodies do not manufacture. What people often neglect to mention is that there are several plant based foods that are also complete proteins. Quinoa, Spirulina, and soy foods (soy milk, tempeh, tofu, miso, edamame) being the most notable. The other thing that’s often misunderstood or not mentioned at all is the very significant fact that you don’t need to get all 8 essential amino acids from one food, nor do you even need to get all 8 acids in the same meal! This is hugely important to understand. Our bodies are truly unique and impressive machines, and they are designed absolutely perfectly. As long as you eat a diet rich in a variety of plant foods our bodies have the incredible ability and wisdom to be able to combine the different amino acids into protein. Think about it, if our bodies didn’t have this ability we would have to be so careful in planning each of our meals. Think about it, there have been vegetarians and vegans living on this earth before modern science discovered there was such a thing as an amino acid. If it were true that we could only get proper nutritional protein from animal flesh, men like Leo Tolstoy (aged 82), Leonardo da Vinci (aged 67), Gandhi (aged 78) and many others would have died decades before they actually did. Think about it, the largest and strongest animals on the planet are herbivores. Elephants, Giraffes, Buffalo, Gorillas, Hippopotamus, Rhinoceros, Giant Panda, the Manatee they are all plant eaters, and not a single one of them worries about amino acids or complimentary proteins! The kangaroo is a magnificent and speedy creature. At full speed the kangaroo can run 70 mph, a Cheetah in comparison - the world fastest creature - has been clocked at 75 mph, only five miles faster then the kangaroo who is an herbivore. The largest creature known to have inhabited the earth in the entire history of the earth is the Dinosaur Brachiosaurus which was 85 feet long and estimated to weight somewhere between 35-45 metric tons. The brachiosaurus of course was an herbivore.
So you see, we have been conditioned to hone in on and focus our worry on certain nutrients that in the western world are a complete non issue. In fact in our culture it’s actually very difficult to develop a true protein deficiency. Of course there are ways in which someone can consume too little protein but lets face it, here in the west, and particularly in America we’re not exactly a people who could be considered guilty of consuming too little of anything. In the west we don’t have diseases caused by deficiency, we have diseases caused by excess. Ways in which people would not meet their bodies protein needs are if they’re not meeting their energy needs. Meaning they’re not eating or taking in enough calories. We’re talking about people with severe anorexia, depression, have a lack of appetite due to illness, are extreme dieters, and even people who consume extremely restrictive diets. - no, nuts no beans etc.. - Sometimes people eating a high-raw diet have difficulty meeting their protein needs. So these would be cases in which people are not getting enough total calories and thus not meeting their bodies protein requirements. Junk-Food Vegans, or people consuming an unhealthy vegan diet may also not get enough protein, or enough nutrients period.
However even in these cases true protein deficiency in the Western World is rare. True protein deficiency is what you see on those aid to Africa commercials, the images of children with distended bellies, big heads, and discolored skin. That’s real protein deficiency, and it actually has a scientific name. Kwashiorkor. Have you heard this term before? Probably not and I’m not surprised. It’s something we see in countries with extreme poverty where people don’t have enough food, where people are starving to death, we may have poverty here in the west but not to that extreme. If you’ve never heard the term Kwashiorkor before, if you don’t know the commercials I’m talking about, if you’ve never seen the images of children with distended bellies then I urge you to take a moment and Google it. Look over the pictures, and think, have you ever known or even heard of a single person vegetarian or otherwise in the United States who’s suffered from Kwashiorkor? The answer is probably no.
In fact people on average are getting far more protein then their bodies actually require, and that’s what’s causing us to develop so many problems, and diseases. Our bodies don’t store protein. The body takes what is needed and has to eliminate the rest through our urine. When our bodies contain too much protein the liver and kidneys become overworked and stressed during the elimination process, and this is a very bad thing considering that our liver and kidneys are our bodies major detoxifying organs. Consumption of animal proteins, particularly in excess have been linked to cancer, kidney problems such as kidney stones, gout, and osteoporosis (because all that excess protein is leaching the calcium out of our bones)
Our bodies only require about 5-6% of our total calorie intake to come from dietary protein. That’s enough to replace the protein we excrete throughout the day. The recommended daily allowance allotted to us by the government is about 9-10% and they say this to ensure that most people will at least consume that 5-6% So 5-6% is pretty low and certainly pretty easy to achieve day to day on any kind of diet, but how much protein are Americans actually consuming? The studies show that Americans are consuming between 11-21% protein, with an average of 15% which is higher then the government allowance, and much, much more then is required by our bodies. As stated above it’s this extreme excess of animal proteins (not to mention the high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat found in animal flesh, yet non-existent in plant foods) that are responsible for the skyrocketing numbers in cases of heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes that we’ve seen in this country.
As I bring this entry to an end I hope you’ve learned from this that for most people protein is a non-issue. If you are interested in going vegetarian or vegan and someone tries to discourage you with this age old myth continually perpetuated by the meat, dairy and egg industries then I hope you find yourself well defended with information. To veteran vegans and vegetarians I know it’s tiresome to have to explain this over and over to uninformed omnivores but please remember to keep the eye rolls to a minium. Instead treat them with compassion, and answer their questions honestly and with kindness. It’s not after all entirely their fault that they’re so misinformed. Lastly to omnivores, I hope you’ve learned something here, I hope you realize just how silly the ‘protein’ debate is and I hope it’s inspired you to at least marginally rethink where you get your protein from, and whether or not it’s truly the best source.
Lastly Every human on this planet needs to make sure that they’re getting proper, and adequate nutrition not only to live but to thrive. We really need to put an end to this idea that vegetarians are somehow malnourished while omnivores are thriving, because it’s simply not true, and the soaring rates of disease in this country are irrefutable proof of that.
As always, happy and healthy eating to you!
PS: The idea of complimentary proteins was first introduced in a book called "Diet for a Small Planet" written by Frances Moore Lappe and published in 1971. She popularized the idea that because some plant foods were higher in certain amino acids then others that we had to combine foods such as rice and beans in one meal to make a complete protein. Though she later revised her position in the 1991 edition of "Diet for a Small Planet" saying that it wasn’t necessary to combine proteins as long as we’re eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day, her revision was not widely publicized, and by then the damage was already done.
And finally if you are still concerned about protein for whatever reason here are some sources to consider.
From the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
As long as the diet contains a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables, protein needs are easily met.
Diets that are rich in protein, especially animal protein, are known to cause people to excrete more calcium than normal through their urine and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
From the American Institute for Cancer Research
Basing our diets on plant foods (like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as beans), which contain fiber and other nutrients, can reduce our risk of cancer.
For cancer survivors
Choose predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits is recommended
By Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.
Summary: It is very easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein, as long as calorie intake is adequate. Strict protein combining is not necessary; it is more important to eat a varied diet throughout the day.