Where do You Get Your Protein?

My fellow vegans and vegetarians know where I’m going with this. Raise your hand if anyone’s ever asked you where you get your protein! 🙋🏽🙋🏽🙋🏽 I’m guessing there are quite a few raised hands out there. This question often stems from concern or curiosity, but also from a deep misunderstanding of what protein actually is, and how much of it is required to maintain health.

We have been conditioned to think that quality protein can only been found in animal sources but this is simply not the case. Plants are an excellent source of protein and one who does not eat meat is not deprived of essential nutrients.

I’m going to break down some facts about protein so we can all gain a better understanding of what protein actually is, how much of it we need to stay healthy, the role it plays in the body, why we’ve been made to care so much about it, and the foods in which there is an abundance of quality protein. By the end of this post I think it will become clear that protein is last on the list of things a vegan has to worry about.

Let’s Start by Getting a Few Things Straight

In preparation for this post I’ve read a lot about nutrition and I found a lot of bad information out there, some of it purposely misleading. The most pervasive claim by my fellow vegans is that spinach or broccoli have more grams of protein than meat when comparing calories. This is entirely true, which may be surprising to some, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means. So let’s examine this a little further.

300 calories rib-eye steak = 26 grams protein

300 calories spinach = 40 grams protein

Seems like spinach is the clear protein winner here, right? Not so fast.

300 calories of rib-eye steak is the equivalent of a small 97 gram piece, which is probably less than the average person would eat in one sitting.

 To get 40 grams of protein from 300 calories of spinach, you would have to eat 1300 grams of spinach, which is almost 7 full cups of soggy boiled spinach.

And that’s cooked. If you were to eat fresh spinach, you would need about 7 pounds of the stuff. And that won’t even provide all the protein you need for the day. It is simply not feasible to obtain all your protein from vegetables like spinach. [1]

spinach

Meat is, by far, a much more efficient delivery system for dietary protein than are vegetables. That is an irrefutable fact, but many vegans do not like to highlight this fact because it does not aid their defence for veganism. Luckily I don’t need to present misleading facts to make my case for protein.

When Most Efficient Doesn’t Mean Best

If meat is the most efficient way to get protein, then how can I advocate for vegetables as the best source of protein? Simply put, it’s because vegetables are better for you. They provide dietary fibre, provide myriad vitamins and minerals, and most do not contain saturated fat. I’m going to skip the ethical and environmental arguments against eating meat and instead focus on health.

The most compelling evidence against meat is provided by the World Health Organization, who recently classified processed meats as a Group 1 Carcinogen, alongside tobacco and asbestos. This means that there is substantial evidence proving processed meats actually cause cancer. Red meat is classified as a Group 2A Carcinogen, meaning there is substantial evidence suggesting it is a probable cause of cancer. [2]

There are also studies demonstrating that intake of animal protein has adverse effects on renal, metabolic, and hormonal functions when to compared to intake of plant-based protein. [3]

Plant-based diets, especially when enriched with healthier foods, are associated with a substantially lower risk of developing coronary heart disease. [4]

Then there’s the fact that the American Medical Association recently recommended that hospital menus offer more plant-based meal options and eliminate serving processed meats as the current menus do not promote good health. [5]

There is much more research floating around out there that extols the benefits of plant-based sources of protein. Even though animal protein can provide dietary elements necessary to maintain health, its detriments far outweigh any benefits it provides.

Why All the Fuss About Protein to Begin With?

As a society we are, quite frankly, protein obsessed. In an interview with Maclean’s, Dr. Garth Davis, author of Proteinaholic, describes the phenomenon perfectly:

“We’ve begun this artificial calculus whereby we judge foods by their protein content, when really there’s protein everywhere.” [6]

There’s no denying that protein is a nutrient that is absolutely necessary to sustain life; in fact, it is so important that there is no shortage of it in nature, and thus no need to actively seek it out.

Then why do we think all our foods need to be protein-packed?

Our preconceptions about protein are the result of a perfectly planned and carefully curated advertising effort orchestrated by the food industry [7]. If you think this is a crazy conspiracy theory, just please hear me out.

The most prominent authority on food and nutrition in North America is the United States Department of Agriculture. It is the responsibility of the USDA to ensure the thriving success of the US agriculture industry by supporting farmers through subsidies and government-funded advertising. The USDA is also responsible for educating the public on food and nutrition and providing dietary guidelines to achieve optimal health [8]. This is an inherent conflict of interest. If it is their job to ensure the success of farmers, then why would they tell the public not to eat the foods the farmers produce? This is meant to be a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it for you anyway: they wouldn’t.

ribeye

But wait, there’s more!

The board of advisors who create the dietary guidelines for the USDA is comprised of doctors and other authorities who are current or former employees of some of the biggest names in food, or who have received funding from these companies for research or other purposes [9]. We’re talking Kraft, Nestle, McDonald’s, and the like. It goes without saying that these companies have a vested interest in the success of their products, many of which include meat, dairy, and eggs [10]. The result: advertisements, products, and packaging all purposely designed to convince you – to really drive that message home –that you need more protein [11].

Carbohydrates and fats have all been demonized at one point or another, but not protein. Never protein.

What is Protein, Anyway?

Protein is one of three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fats, and it is the major functional and structural component of all cells. We use protein as a source of energy, to build muscle, to repair tissue, and to perform whole host of other biological functions. Proteins themselves are comprised of chains of amino acids, 20 in total, 11 of which are naturally occurring in the body, and the remaining 9 that need to be derived from food sources. All 9 of these essential amino acids are present in animal proteins, which are thus considered complete proteins. Individual plant-based proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids, but complete protein can easily be obtained through a varied vegetable diet.

The classic protein pairing example is a meal of rice and beans which will provide all 9 essential amino acids. But the idea that proteins must be properly combined at each meal or even throughout the day has been antiquated by more recent research which suggests that complete protein necessary for bodily functions can be achieved as long as all 20 amino acids are obtained regularly through a varied diet. So you can eat oatmeal for breakfast and a broccoli and spinach salad for lunch and tofu and beans for dinner and you will meet your protein requirements.

Plants are literally built from protein and carbohydrates plus a bit of fat, but animal muscle has a much higher proportion of fat in its makeup. Herbivores in nature obtain their protein from plants, and this is sufficient for them to build muscle and sustain energy. It is also sufficient for humans.

How Much Protein do we Actually Need?

Daily protein requirements vary by age, sex, weight, and level of physical activity, but on average, The World Health Organization recommends about .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 130 pound, 30-year-old female requires 47 grams of protein and men, on average, require about 56 grams of protein per day [12]. The standard North American unnecessarily eats about double that amount. Those who are athletes or exercise heavily require more protein, and these requirements are easily met on a plant-based diet. Just look at all the vegan athletes out there who have no problem maintaining their giant muscles.

Where do You Get Your Protein?

Finally, we’ve arrived at the big question. I will tell you exactly where vegans get their protein.

Because protein is so essential to life, it is readily bioavailable. Virtually every single plant contains some level of protein. Yes, even a potato. Vegans absolutely do not have to try to get enough protein.

As long as you are eating enough calories to sustain your energy (i.e. your Basal Metabolic Rate), you are getting enough protein.

avocado

For your convenience, here are some vegetables and their protein contents [1]:

*Food quantities all 100g

Avocado                        2g protein

Spinach                         3g protein

Asparagus                    3g protein

Potato w/ skin             2g protein

Portobello                    5g protein

Brown rice                  3g protein

Whole-wheat pasta  5g protein

   Cashews                        14g protein

    Peanut butter              22g protein

 Lentils                           8g protein

Tofu                               5g protein

Chickpeas                    5g protein

 Edemame                    11g protein

And here is an example of a 1-day vegan meal plan that exceeds all protein requirements:

Breakfast

1 cup cooked oatmeal with 1 banana and 1/4 cup blueberries

Snack

Coconut cream Lara bar

Lunch

1 cup cooked brown basmati rice with 1/2 cup lentil dal and 4oz pan-fried tofu

Snack

2 tbsp roasted almonds

Dinner

1 cup cooked whole-wheat fussili pasta with chickpea bolognese and 3/4 cup sautéed mushrooms with broccoli

Total Protein           70g

Breakfast                   5g

Snacks                        7g

Lunch                         24g

Dinner                        34g

These meals exceed the recommended daily protein intake for a female by 24g grams of protein. I could have skipped lunch altogether and still reached my protein requirement for the day. Add this to the fact that many vegans eat protein-fortified processed foods or add protein powders to their smoothies, and it becomes clear that vegans don’t have to worry about protein. In fact, meat eaters may have to worry about their excessive protein intake as research has shown that consuming excess amounts of animal protein is linked to poor bone health.

Plant Protein for the Win!

I hope this post has been helpful to those who truly had no idea where vegans get their protein, and to those vegans and vegetarians who struggle to answer when asked. I don’t want anyone to worry about the health of their vegan loved ones, nor do I want them to think that eating vegan is somehow unhealthy, or a dangerous fad diet. Veganism is not going anywhere; it is a way of life, a system by which people make conscious choices to lessen the strain on the environment, liberate tortured animals, and enrich their bodies.

So the next time someone asks you where you get your protein, you can look them dead in the eye and simply say, “Plants.”

veggies

Resources

[1] Nutrient Values of Some Common Foods. Government of Canada. 2008.

[2] Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. IARC. 2017.

[3] Renal, metabolic, and hormonal responses to ingestion of animal and vegetable proteins. Kidney International. 1990.

[4] Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in US Adults. FASEB Journal. 2017.

[5] AMA Passes Resolution. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 2017.

[6] The Dangers of our Protein Diet Obsession. Maclean’s. 2015.

[7] This is why you crave beef. Salon. 2016.

[8] Department of Agriculture (USDA). Performance.gov. 2017

[9] Dietary Guidelines: Acknowledgements. Health.gov. 2015.

[10] Experts Say Lobbying Skewed the US Dietary Guidelines. Time. 2016.

[11] Beef. Beefboard.org. 2017

[12] Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes. National Institutes of Health. 2017.

 

 

7 thoughts on “Where do You Get Your Protein?

  1. The Album

    Awesome post! I’m not a vegan nor am I a vegetarian though I respect the lifestyle choices of everybody. It’s really cool seeing and learning about different people’s nutrition plans and their perspectives on them. Keep up the good work providing insight about these myths or facts. I enjoy learning new recipes too 🤙🏼

    Liked by 1 person

    • Who Needs Salad

      Thank you so much for the feedback. I especially appreciate the fact that someone with different views can still respectfully enjoy and comment on content that may not align with their personal choices. If only more people could do the same!

      Liked by 1 person

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