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If vegans were to make a list of questions they get asked the most, the number one question is most likely going to be: Where do you get your protein? This is no surprise – the very idea of a balanced meal in our society is built upon the scheme that includes ‘a lean protein, a healthy carbohydrate, and a vegetable’ on every plate. No one’s going to argue that balance is good, but it happens that when someone chooses to eliminate the most often cited source of ‘lean protein’ (read: meat) from their diet, they are automatically considered to be headed for the abyss of protein deficiency. Yet so often those people go on to thrive, get healthier, and show no signs of a nutritional disaster in progress.
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So who’s right and who’s wrong, and how is it possible that vegans might be getting enough protein without consuming animal products?
What is Protein?
It’s important to bring a proper explanation of what protein is, and why it is important for our bodies. In short, proteins are nutrients made up of amino acid chains, which are important for the structure, function, and regulation of every cell in our bodies. Amino acids work as the ‘building blocks’ for every cell. Science distinguishes 20 amino acids, eight of which (“essential amino acids”) we can’t generate in our bodies and thus need to obtain with food.
Each amino acid is composed from various combinations of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen (two of the known amino acids also contain sulfur). Originally, amino acids are produced by plants during a complicated process of photosynthesis: the plant receives carbon and oxygen from air, hydrogen from the water in soil, and combines them with nitrogen also obtained from soil. Amino acids then arrange themselves into innumerable chains of various proteins, kind of like letters of the alphabet make up countless numbers of words in any language.
When animals consume plants, those chains of plant proteins are broken down in their bodies into separate amino acids that get arranged into new protein chains, depending on what type of protein that animal needs at the moment. You heard that right – the building blocks of all animal bodies originally came from plants, and if we chose to eat animals, we essentially just get the recycled plant proteins from their meat! To supply ourselves with protein, we can easily resort to the original source of its origin – the plants.
How about ‘Complete Protein’?
Here’s when the opponents of plant-based diets bring up the idea of ‘complete protein’: only proteins that come from animal-derived foods contain all of the eight essential amino acids that we need for proper functioning. Plant proteins often miss one or more of those, but we can still find all of the essential amino acids between different plants. For example, rice and beans is a great nutritional combo when it comes to protein: beans are low in methionine and high in lysine, while rice is low in lysine and high in methionine. When put together, they supply 7 grams of high-quality, complete protein per cup.
In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé in her famous book Diet for a Small Planet brought up the idea of the necessity of ‘protein combining’ for vegetarians: she suggested that the plant-based folk should eat different sources of plant protein at the same meal to match the amino acid pattern of animal foods.
However, in later editions of her book Lappé admitted that she was wrong in her idea of protein combining. Scientific evidence suggests that our bodies can ‘do the math’ on their own, and as long as we provide ourselves with a variety of plant foods every day that meet our caloric needs, we are most likely to get all of the amino acids our bodies need. Lappé admitted:
“In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.” (Source)
Unfortunately, the myth of plant protein being inferior to animal protein still lives today, even though it’s been disproved long ago. The rise of the popularity of high-protein diets in the recent years brings up another question:
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Our protein needs are determined by the amount of protein our bodies require for proper functioning and growth. Interestingly, the perfect food during the time of our lives when we grow the most – the first two years after we are born – is human breast milk that contains only 5% protein (source). Never again in our lives are we going to grow more rapidly than the time we were meant to consume 5% protein with our food!
World Health Organization recommends that grown men and women receive between 5 and 10% of their calories from protein. If you believe that these numbers are too small, consider this: hundreds of millions of healthy, hard-working people in Asia, Africa, and South America live on diets with less than half the amount of protein consumed by Americans and Europeans. In fact, a lot of great nations around the world historically thrived on plant-based staple foods:
- - Latin America: beans + corn tortillas/rice;
- - Middle East: pita + hummus/falafel; or bulgur wheat + chickpeas;
- - Asia: soy + rice/barley/millet.
Isn’t it amazing that long before proteins or amino acids were discovered, people were already getting plenty of them through plant-based foods?
But what about all of the starving children of Africa – aren’t they protein-deficient?
We’ve all seen pictures of stick-thin children with swollen bellies from famine-battling areas of Africa and Asia. However, these children are suffering from overall calorie (not protein) deficiency due to the tough situations in agriculture or food distribution (source). It is known from the experience that once these children come into medical supervision, they regain full health from the nourishment of the traditional diet of their region that often includes corn, wheat, rice, and/or beans. Malnourished children require extra protein in their diet, yet these plant foods supply more than enough of it for their full recovery!
In fact, the true condition of protein deficiency (called ‘kwashiorkor’, from coastal Ghana language: ‘the sickness the baby gets when the new baby comes’) is rare. National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends consuming a diet with at least 12% protein to prevent this disease (source). This amount is easily obtained through a plant-based diet, considering the protein content of these common plant foods:
- Cooked soybeans (1 cup) – 29 grams
- Cooked lentils (1 cup) – 18 grams
- Cooked chickpeas (1 cup) – 15 grams
- Cooked quinoa (1 cup) – 8 grams
- Peanut butter (2 tbsp) – 8 grams
- Cooked spinach (1 cup) – 5 grams.
To see an extended list from the Vegetarian Resource group, click here.
To see even more protein-rich plant foods and recipes that use them, click here.
Whole food, plant-based vegan diets easily meet established recommendations for protein, as long as they contain various sources of vegetables, fruits, grains, starches, beans and legumes, and provide plenty of calories. There is no need for ‘protein combining’ with every meal because out body pulls necessary amino acids whenever it needs them from the food we consume every day. Don’t be afraid of getting protein deficient on a plant-based diet as long as you consume plenty of calories with your plant foods!
References and sources used in this post:
John McDougall, ‘When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein?’
Jeff Novick, “Complementary Protein Myth Won’t Go Away!’
Frances Moore Lappé, Diet For a Small Planet (aff)
Rip Esselstyn, My Beef with Meat (aff)
Nick English, ’12 Complete Proteins Vegetarians Need to Know About’