Myth: Vegans/Vegetarians don’t get enough protein
Fact: Vegan and Vegetarians can get plenty of protein, and it is not difficult for them to get because there are so many different plant protein sources.
Let’s break it down shall we????
What is protein and why protein is important?
Proteins are large biological molecules, or macromolecules made up of one or more chains of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of these protein molecules and are the essential aspects to making protein.
Proteins are important to us because several different kind of proteins perform a vast array of biological functions within our bodies, including, building muscle (which is why animal flesh is all protein), proteins work in facilitating metabolic reactions, making our DNA, responding to stimuli in our environment, creating things like buffers to stress responses or produce inflammation when we need it they signal WBSs, they make up larger transporting molecules that carry different essential nutrients from one location in the body to another. So it is for this reason that adequate protein intake is important to our health.
I mentioned that proteins are made from amino acids right? Well there are actually 22 amino acids that are scientifically known about in nature and 9 of those AAs are essential amino acids, and Essential amino acids are “essential” not because they are more important to life than the others, but because the body does not synthesize them or it does not make them by itself. Essential amino acids must be present in the diet or else they will not be present in the body.
In addition, some amino acids are what is called conditionally essential, meaning they are not necessarily required in the diet for an organism to carry out life, but must be supplied by the diet in the case of an extraordinary condition in which that person does not synthesize an essential AA in adequate amounts or at all. An example of this would be with the disease phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU must keep their intake of phenylalanine very low to prevent mental retardation and other metabolic disturbances. So you the body needs phenylalanine (the essential AAs) to produce tyrosine (which is necessary for proper brain function and production of neurotransmitters and hormones) and PKU folks cannot synthesize tyrosine from phenylalanine in the diet, so now tyrosine (which is considered conditionally essential) becomes essential in the diet of PKU patients because they need it to make that biologically necessary tyrosine.
Here is a List of Essential and Non-Essential (conditional) Amino Acids:
So, back to the question of whether or not vegans/vegetarians can get enough protein…Well I like many other vegetarians or vegans have been asked this or been told this plenty of times and usually I get a sermon about how I should really try to eat meat because it’s the best source of protein or it’s the most complete protein blah blah blah. And then I say “ok, you ‘re absolutely right, animal flesh contains a lot of protein and in essence it is pure protein! But, I would also pose the question…where do you think the cow or the chicken or the fish or whatever animal you are eating got it’s protein from? Because most of those animals are herbivores! Unless you eat lion, tiger, or cheetah meat in which they are eating other animals…but the animals that THEY eat like gazelle and antelope are herbivores and all they eat are plants! Even fish, i.e. larger fish like shark, Chilean sea bass, mahi mahi etc they do eat smaller fish but those smaller fish eat sea vegetation, which means that they are herbivores! So, what am I getting at? Well despite what many people and practitioners say about the necessity of eating meat for protein, the truth is that the building blocks for animal flesh protein like our muscles, are not being synthesized in those animals alone, they have to consume things that contain essential AAs just like we do…and where is that original source of essential AAs???? Plants! Plants contain every essential AA there is, and so yes if you consume an animal that eats plants or consume an animal that consumes animals that eat plants you will passively receive the essential AAs that the herbivore initially ate, but now you are receiving it second or third-hand (from the plant àherbivore animal à carnivorous animal) in the form of animal flesh that you are now consuming…and I don’t know about you but if I can help it I am always trying to get first dibs on things in their most optimal form for my body to consume (no sloppy seconds here).
Complete vs Incomplete Protein
Now this is another topic that comes about when health-heads talk about proteins and its really not that hard to figure out even though many people will make it like a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro! Basically put, a protein being complete or incomplete is essentially determined by the amount of each essential amino acid it contains. With that said when a food contains all nine of the essential amino acids, especially in sufficient quantities, the protein from that food is referred to as a “complete” protein.
Once again animal products are often a go to source because they tend to contain larger amounts of all of the amino acids and thus, are said to be complete proteins. However, animal products tend to also be high in other things that we don’t want in abundance in our diet (or at all) i.e. arachadonic acids from low ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids which produce inflammation, meat can also contain parasites, hormones, and antibiotics just to name a few, and all of this can contribute to underlying causes of many health problems.This is especially something to be conscious of if you are buying conventional meat products from wal-mart, safeway, fry’s or other supermarkets that don’t sell organic grass-fed or wild caught meats. And those better quality meats are usually much more expensive.
On the other hand most plants in this arena of protein have been drug through the mud because they are considered to contain incomplete proteins, and this is because they are said to always be missing one or more of the essential amino acids… this is true, one vegetable or fruit may be missing one or two essential AAs if that one vegetable ot fruit is all you eat… Well, this is why it is important to combine more than one plant protein source in their diet. This is also why it is important to eat a variety of vegetables that are different colors because from each one you get a different variety of proteins but also you get a wide variety of nutrients and antioxidants and essential oils etc. and these nutrients you do not get from animal flesh. Also when you combine different plant-based proteins you actually end up with a complete protein source on your plate. For example, combining foods like red lentils and collard greens (gomen), or chickpeas in a callaloo greens soup, or okra and peas, or brown rice peas and cabbage, or plantain with a red stew or egusi (which is a melon seed stew)…all of these are forms of wonderful Afrikan foods that are traditionally served together right? And I believe that there was much Ancestral wisdom behind these food combinations because together they provide us with optimal vitamins and mineral amounts as well as complete proteins.
Plant-foods with abundant protein
All plants contain AAs but some plants are a little more dense with potential energy, meaning that they are packed with proteins and other nutrients in their natural form.
These include foods like nuts, legumes, seeds, and starchy vegetables. And when you look at these plants they are basically in the storage phase or their life cycle (i.e. seeds, nuts, or they are a means of energy/food storage for the whole plant i.e. roots, tubers, bulbs). It is for this reason that these foods are so rich in or are essentially all protein and they may also be rich in good fats and healthy sugars as well.
So foods like almonds, brazil nuts, macadamia, pecans, pine nuts, lentils, peanuts, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds these are the baby plants and so will be packed with protein because like our babies (human babies) they are full of fatty tissue because they need energy to develop. Same goes for the nuts and seeds and legumes
Starchy vegetables include: beets, carrots, yam, sweet potatoes, corn, potatoes, grains (rice, rye, oats, millet) and squash they are storage parts of the plant for energy and foods so as we know they are usually what? Sweet and full of starch because these are the roots of the plant that hold all of the food for it’s growth.
A little note here, remember that starchy vegetable are great but they should be eaten in moderation, especially for those of us who have diabetes or heart disease because those starches turn to sugar in our bodies and can lead to spikes in blood sugar for those people who are sensitive, so know your body in this. Also none of us should eat an over abundance of starch because it can weigh us down and make our digestive systems sluggish…which is another reason to load you plate up with green leafy vegetables when you eat starches. Pay attention to the seasons also, are more starchy foods in season? i.e. the all and winter when it is cooler and you need a little more heavy and warming vegetables? Then perhaps you body can handle a little more of these starches in comparison to in the spring and summer seasons when you should eat lighter.
Where they is fat there is protein!
So some vegetables and fruits are extraordinary in their own right and are in a class of their own when it come to their protein content. Examples of these are:
avocado, ackee, coconut, pineapple, and papaya,
Avocado and coconut- are said by many Afrikan holistic healers to contain protein because of the presence of fat in them. Well after I heard that I researched it as well and found that there is in fact some wonderful proteins in these foods. Fore example: Avocado has anywhere from 3g to 5g of protein in a fruit, 1c of ackee can have anywhere from 8-10g of protein, and 1 coconut can contain up to 13g of protein! So don’t sleep on these plants ya’ll! These higher amounts of protein are actually seen in many other tropical fruits also i.e. breadfruit, jackfruit, durian, and mamey so definitely get these in your diet when you can too!
Also, there are 2 more plants that I love that are also very unique in their own right and that is pineapple and papaya! Both of these plants are unique in that they both contain enzymes that breakdown protein: Bromelain and papain, and these enzymes are put in things like natural digestive aid products, like anti indigestion and overindulgence products and they are also used in most meat tenderizing products too.
When I learned this I asked? Why would fruit contain such powerful protein digesting enzymes? Well the reason for this is because both pineapple and papaya contain superior proteins! A pineapple can contain as much as 8-13g protein, and a papaya can have as much as 5-10 g. What’s more is that these proteins improve digestion, they soothe and heal the gut by eliminating inflammation and when eaten on an empty stomach these digestive enzymes work to dispel inflammation throughout the body. But again be careful diabetics because these foods contain ample amounts of sugars that may aggravate your condition.
Fake Meats for Transitionors
So there are products available out there for those of us who are transitioning to a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle but who miss and are looking for another protein-rich something to replace the meat that the used in their dishes. Some common “fake meat” or vegan/vegetarian meat substitutes include (but are not limited to): Tofu, Seitan, Tempeh, and TVP (texturized vegetable protein).
Tofu is basically soybean curd, or coagulated soybeans. So it is made by coagulating soymilk and then pressing it into these larger blocks which are called tofu. Tofu is used in many East Asian and Southeast Asian dishes and is very high in protein. Now-a-days you can find tofu in your local health-food store (even some super markets now) in either a soft, medium or extra firm consistency. You can also get smoked tofu, herbed tofu, and many other flavored tofu products to use in your dishes.
Tofu or I should say soy has been the center of much controversy and scandal amongst people concerned with their health, and this I because people are saying that it is linked to cancer development because of the phytoestrogens in the soybeans. Well to that I will say that it is not true because if that where the case then most other legumes and their sprouts would be off limits to cancer patients too, because all plants and especially nuts, seeds, legumes and sprouts contain phytoestrogens. But phytoestrogens are not real estrogen so they are not going to enable to complicate an estrogen dependent cancer i.e. breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer or anything for that matter! Phytoestrogens actually work to regulate hormones because in people who have imbalances because they help the body balance what hormone production it needs or doesn’t need (but that’s a whole ‘nother story). My concern with soy is more so the GMO situation and the fact that 90% or more of the soybeans in this country are GMO (a genetically modified organism), and this my friends is what is leading to more health problems because of the over consumption of soy products. So if you are going to avoid soy do it for this reason and not because of the phytoestrogens, which is the better reason.
Tempeh, is another soy product that originally came from the traditional diets of southeast asians. It is made by a natural culturing which involves a controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form. So this is basically another soybean curd-cake but I like tempeh more than tofu for the fact that it has the added benefit of being fermented so it can provide you with gut-friendly probiotics that are “all the rage” now for those folks who want to aid their digestion and banish out unfriendly bacteria like candida. Tempeh can be used in the same way as tofu in dishes, it will just have a flavor that is more on the “culture” side and little more earthy tasting which adds a nice flavor to dishes.
Is another common fake-meat product and it is composed of pure Wheat gluten, which is the the main protein of wheat. I personally have never liked the idea of consuming wheat let alone the gluten of wheat which is the reason the people who are sensitive to gluten are in fact sensitive to it. Also this glu-ten like the name implies will “glue-up” you digestive tract, slow it down, and can also create inflammation and food allergies reactions in the body as a great deal of the population are sensitive to gluten now. In my opinion there are much better choices than this little diddy to replace meats.
Textured or texturized vegetable protein, is actually textured soy protein (which it it called in many products that contain it as an ingredient). What is it? Well this mystery non-meat is a defatted soy flour product and is actually a by-product of extracting soybean oil from the soybeans during production. And ya’ll know that these processed food manufacturers do not waste a damn thing! So what do they do with their soy oil byproduct??? They sell it back to the vegetarian or transitioning folks as an alternative meat source. Once again this is not one of the meat substitutes I would recommend b/c of the information you just read, but you will often see it like seitan in many mock-meat products. I have personally tried TVP and it did taste darn good, but it also made me feel like crap after I ate it (I had heartburn and upset stomach like a mug) so since then I have not consumed it again.
So with all of this said about the fake-meats, in he end just be careful with these items because as you can see a lot of times they are just as highly processed as any other processed packaged foods. Whats more is that they can often contain things like msg, sugars, dyes, and other undesirable ingredients just to make it taste like meat to the consumer. The farther away it gets from being the original plant the more likely it is not as great for you to consume. And believe it or not there is such a thing as vegan/vegetarian junk food and some of these foods mentioned can make the cut.
Also in regards to eating healthy vegetable proteins and good nutrition in general, it is wise to do your best to consume only whole foods that you know for sure what the ingredients are. If you are picking up vegan/vegetarian products and they have an ingredient list that is a mile long then that is a red flag that this is probably not something you should consume. Red flag number 2 would be if you can’t pronounce the names of the ingredients in the food and it sounds more like a chemistry project…you should be putting down the food and walking away by now. The next thing you can look at critically is, how far away from the original plant food has the product gone? Does it even resemble the plant anymore? So if it looks like a chemistry project then its also a good idea not consume it. Whole foods then are those which most of the time you are preparing yourself or you know who is preparing it for you and what ingredients they are using, which should be fresh fruits, vegetable, nuts, seeds and legumes. And check this out, you can still make something like a burger with these whole foods! For example my roommate and I in college used to make lentil burgers, and it was just the cooked lentils, with some chopped onion, garlic, bell pepper, chili powder, salt, pepper and basically the same spices you would use in your hamburger. Then you can bake it or gill it or whatever cooking method you prefer and put it on your favorite whole grain or gluten-free bun…or no bun (I have eaten them on a bed of green and they were fabulous)! And when I tell you these burgers were all the way on-point! Mm Mm Mmm, make you wanna slap somebody (no don’t do that ya’ll lol)! Oh, and remember you are now getting in a dish like this a fabulously complete protein because you have combined legumes with other veggies but you also have the added benefit of it being highly nutrient dense as well! To me that sounds way better than a hamburger!
So now that you have been equipped wit the real deal on vegan/vegetarian protein, go forth and take your diet to another level be incorporating these wonderful health promoting, energy enhancing and protein packed foods into your life and the life of your families!
Stay Healthy my friends,