Nine times out of ten, when we mention to someone that we are vegan the first question always is, “But where do you get your protein?” The irony is that this question is often asked by people who don’t know how much protein they are currently eating, or even how much protein they actually need to be healthy. The idea of not eating animal products terrifies people, who really do believe that if all they eat is plants they will surely become weaker and weaker until they just shrivel up and die. This is completely understandable since we are constantly bombarded by the media and by big businesses with the idea that as humans we must rely on eating other animals in order to be healthy.
Before we get into the details of what protein is, what function it has in the body, what are some good sources of plant based protein, as well as the risks associated with a diet that is too high in protein, here is a quote from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, on their position of a vegan diet.
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.Copyright © 2016 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Even though we have all been lead to believe that if we go vegan we’ll surely become deficient in protein, it is important to note that most people in developed countries are regularly eating twice the amount of protein they actually require. The recommended amount of protein for adults is 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams for men. According to the NY Times, “…Most American adults eat about 100 grams of protein per day, or roughly twice the recommended amount. Even on a vegan diet people can easily get 60 to 80 grams of protein throughout the day from foods like beans, legumes, nuts, broccoli and whole grains.”
What is protein?
Our bodies use protein to build and repair muscles, bones, nails and hair. Protein is also necessary for building and maintaining organs and tissues, and for making enzymes and hormones that transmit information between cells.
Protein is made up of 20 different kinds of amino acids. Eleven of these are made by the body and are called non-essential amino acids. The remaining nine are called essential amino acids because you must get those from the food you eat.
Animal products are complete proteins, meaning that they contain all nine of the essential amino acids, and people are sometimes concerned they they will not be able to get enough “complete proteins” from eating only plant foods.
However, you don’t need to get all nine essential amino acids from a single source or even at every single meal. As long as you are eating enough calories for your body, as well as a good variety of plant foods, you are guaranteed to get every essential amino acid you need. Keep in mind that if you switch to eating primarily whole plant foods, you might need to eat more food than you are eating now simply because plants are not as calorie dense as meat and dairy.
As a bonus, when you are getting your protein from plants, not only are you getting all the essential amino acids you need, but at the same time you will be trading the antibiotics, hormones and saturated fats found in animal products, for tons of extra vitamins, minerals and fiber abundant in plants.
Effects of too much protein
There is no doubt that protein is a necessary macronutrient (just like carbohydrates and fats), but eating too much protein can actually be harmful because it can tax your liver, kidneys and bones. Research also shows that high levels of animal protein intake, which are loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol, may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular diseases, obesity, cancer and type 2 diabetes. (National Library of Medicine) In addition, 80% of breast, bowel, prostate cancers and colorectal cancers are directly associated with a high meat diet.
Some great sources of plant based protein
- Soy – tofu, tempeh and edamame
- Vegetables – broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, artichokes, kale, brussels sprouts…
- Nutritional yeast
- Whole rolled oats
- Sprouted whole grain bread
- Seeds – hemp, chia, flax…
- Seitan – also called vital wheat gluten, is made from the main protein found in wheat
- Legumes – beans, peas, lentils, and technically peanuts
- Grains – quinoa, amaranth, teff, spelt…
Plant based complete protein sources
Below is a list of plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids:
- soy products such as tofu, tempeh and edamame
- hemp seeds
- chia seeds
- nutritional yeast
Did you know?
- The five Blue Zones are regions around the world where people statistically have fewer chronic diseases and live the longest. These five areas are: Sardinia Italy, the islands of Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Ikaria Greece and Loma Linda California. What do these areas have in common? You guess it…the people in all of these places eat a 95% plant based diet.
- There is research based on Scandinavian people during and after World War II showing that when dietary restrictions virtually wiped meat off the menu, there was a drop in the mortality rate. Once their diets returned to normal after the war and meat consumption went up once again, so did the mortality rates.
- Marie-Louise Meilleur, was named as the world’s oldest person at 122. The French-Canadian woman who took up fencing at 85, smoked till she was 95, still rode a bicycle at 100 and made a rap CD at 121, the reason for living so long was put down to a vegetarian diet, supplemented by modest amounts of olive oil, port wine and chocolate.
- Vegan runner Mike Fremont, who turned 100 years old in February, holds the world record for marathon distance runners for ages 88 and 90. Mike went vegan after being diagnosed with cancer at 69 years old rather than follow his doctor’s recommendations. Two and a half years later Mike was cancer free!
Here’s a video you may like if you want to learn more about vegan protein.
The Gamechangers Documentary: “a revolutionary new film about meat, protein and strength”. A UFC fighter’s world is turned upside down when he discovers a group of world-renowned athletes and scientists who prove that everything he’d been taught about protein was a lie. Executive produced by James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan.
The cast is a mix of elite athletes like Olympic competitors, NFL players, bodybuilders, powerlifters, triathletes, and scientists that prove that everything we’ve been taught about protein is a lie.
And we leave you with this…
Just in case you still think that plant proteins can not sustain our tremendous human frames:
- The largest herbivore ever was the titonasaur, which was 120 feet long and weighed 100 tons.
- The African Bush Elephant is the largest land mammal, weighing in at over 13,000 pounds, and are 20 feet long.
And all they eat are plants.
Disclaimer: This post provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We always encourage you to do your own research, and talk to your health care providers about any questions, or use of dietary supplements that may be best for your health.
Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27886704/
Protein, what you need to know – British Heart Foundation https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/protein
The myth of protein deficiency – National Library of Medicine https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29786804/
Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults – National Library of Medicine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045293/#:~:text=Extra%20protein%20is%20not%20used,or%20even%20cancer%20%5B31%5D.