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.
So who’s right and who’s wrong, and how is it possible that vegans might be getting enough protein without consuming animal products?
It’s important to bring a proper explanation of what protein is, and why it is important for our bodies.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
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 choose 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.
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.
WHAT ABOUT ‘COMPLETE PROTEIN’?
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.
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 based foods every day that meet our caloric needs, we are most likely to get all of the amino acids our bodies need.
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:
Our protein needs are determined by the amount of protein our bodies require for proper functioning and growth.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WE NEED?
The 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.
Another point. No one would argue that human breast milk is the best food for human infants, especially in the first year of their lives. Interestingly, human milk contains only 5% protein by volume.
Never again in our lifetime will we grow as rapidly as in the first year of our lives. Think about it: an average human infant triples their weight in their first year while (ideally) consuming only breast milk!
By comparison, regular store-bought egg-free pasta contains 5% protein by volume. So technically we could eat nothing but plain pasta and still get all the protein we need – even if we don’t aim to triple our weight in a year.
Add some beans, tofu to your pasta, and you’ll be getting even more protein than you need.
From plant based foods, of course!
SO WHERE DO VEGANS GET THEIR PROTEIN?
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 our 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 every day!