Today, we’ll talk about and clear up the confusion of getting protein in vegan diet.
You probably already know that proteins are building blocks of our bodies and that they are important. But what is a protein anyways and how is it important? – we’ll talk about that.
We’ll also learn what’s the difference between animal and plant-based protein and why everyone is obsessing over the protein “issue” in vegan diet.
Next, we’ll discuss if a plant protein is as good as animal protein? What’s considered a high quality and low quality protein? And is it necessary to combine certain plant foods in a meal to get complete proteins?
Finally, we’ll see where do vegans get protein from?
Why Worry About Protein in Vegan Diet?
The word protein comes from the Greek word proteios, which means “of prime importance.”
In the 19th century, the word protein became tightly connected with the word meat. Unfortunately, this connection has stayed with us for over a hundred years.
When someone talk about protein, people think of meat. And protein is “of prime importance”, so the logic goes meat is “of prime importance” for a human body…and the more the better.
This is not the case; vegan needs of protein are slightly higher than omnivores.
Omnivores need roughly 50 g of protein a day..unlike the common belief of 125 g/day.
Protein recommendation for a male vegan is 63 g/day, and 52 g/day for a female vegan.
Protein is the core element of animal-based foods. For a food to be recognised as an animal-based food, it must have protein. A non-protein steak would be a puddle of fat, water and a tiny amount of minerals.
But plants have proteins too, the slow but steady proteins that we sort of forgot about.
What is Protein and How Is It Important?
Proteins are often said to act as building blocks for the lean tissues in our bodies.
But they play in many other important functions in body. For example: regulation, supportive immune function and a variety of other roles in our physiology, all of which make life possible. It is a vital component of our body.
Proteins themselves are built as long chains of hundreds or thousands of amino acids. There are 15 to 20 different kinds, depending on how they are counted.
Proteins wear out on a regular basis as we go through our daily errands and must be replaced. This replacement is done by eating foods that contain protein.
When digested, these proteins give us a whole new supply of amino acid building blocks to use in making new protein replacements for those that wore out.
It goes somewhat like this: “Imagine someone gives you a multicolored string of beads to replace an old string of beads that we lost. However, the colored beads on the string given to us are not in the same order as the string we lost.
So, we break the string and collect its beads. Then, we reconstruct our new string so that the colored beads are in the same order as our lost string.
But if we are short of blue beads, for example, making our new string is going to be slowed down or stopped until we get more blue beads.
This is the same concept as in making new tissue proteins to match our old worn out proteins.” (Source: The China Study, Colin Campbell, PhD.)
This brings us to another term we hear a lot about: protein quality.
What’s the Difference Between Animal and Plant-Based Protein?
About 8 amino acids (“colored beads”) that are needed for making our tissue proteins must be provided by the food we eat. They are called “essential” because our bodies cannot make them.
If, like our string of beads, our food protein lacks enough of even one of these 8 “essential” amino acids, then the building of the new proteins will be slowed down or stopped.
This is where the idea of protein quality comes in.
The highest quality proteins are the ones that provide the right kinds and amounts of amino acids needed to efficiently synthesize our new tissue proteins.
This is what that term “high quality” and “low quality” really means: The ability of food proteins to provide the right kinds and amounts of amino acids to make our new proteins.
Or in other worlds, how fast will our colored beads form a multicolored string.
Do you know what food would be the highest quality protein for a human?
The answer is human flesh.
It’s a perfect fit and has just the right amount of the needed amino acids.
But people don’t eat other people. So the next “best” protein is by eating other animals.
The proteins of other animals are very similar to our proteins because they mostly have the right amounts of each of the needed amino acids.
These proteins can be used very efficiently and therefore are called “high quality.”
Are Plants as Good Sources of Protein as Animal Sources?
While the “lower quality” plant proteins may be lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids, as a group they do contain all of them.
Plant foods like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables do contain all 8 of the essential amino acids. But are slightly lower in quality because they are not as well digested – their amino-acid patterns are a slightly poorer match to our bodies’ needs.
You can also say that human body is more similar to an animal than a plant. This is why plant-based proteins cannot be digested that well.
This might look like plant-based proteins are nutritionally inferior compared with animal-based proteins.
But in fact the health benefits of substituting plant-based proteins for animal-based proteins, far outweighs the risk of falling short on essential amino acids.
The concept of quality really means the efficiency with which
food proteins are used to promote growth.
This would be well and good if the greatest efficiency equaled the greatest health,
but it doesn’t,
and that’s why the terms efficiency and quality are misleading.
There is a mountain of compelling research showing that “low-quality” plant protein, which allows for slow but steady synthesis of new proteins, is the healthiest type of protein.
Slow but steady wins the race. The quality of protein found in a specific food is determined by seeing how fast animals would grow while consuming it. (Source: The China Study, Colin Campbell, PhD.)
Protein in Vegan Diet
There is no reason to be concerned about protein, since even on vegan diets there is little risk of deficiency.
Plants have protein too.
Because they are called “low-quality”, people tend to believe that they must carefully combine proteins from different plant sources during each meal so that they can mutually compensate for each other’s amino acid deficits.
Studies show this is not the case.
During the uber complex metabolic process, the human body can get all the essential amino acids from the natural variety of plant proteins that we eat every day.
Do you need to plan every meal in order to get enough protein in vegan diet? Nope.
Do you need to eat wholefoods and a wide range of them? Absolutely.
Plant foods such as grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all high in protein.
Lentils, chickpeas, peas, peanut butter, soy milk, almonds, spinach, rice, whole wheat bread, potatoes, broccoli, kale… all these foods have protein. Tofu is specially rich in high-quality protein. Vegetables provide smaller amounts of protein.
As long as you eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day and you eat enough whole plant foods to meet your calorie needs, you will achieve adequate protein intake. (Source: The Vegan Sourcebook)
Almost all foods except for alcohol, sugar, and fats provide some protein.
I hope you found the information that is useful to you. If you have any questions, want to share your experience or just chat on this topic, write a comment below. I’d love to hear your point of view!
Till next time,