I’ve received a couple of emails over the last week asking me about protein, people seeking advice as to how to increase their intake, ensuring they get enough as vegetarians or vegans and so I figured it was about time I broached the subject!
The common questions put towards vegans and vegetarians is “Where do you get your protein?”…surely if you don’t eat meat you must be lacking in this vital nutrient?
Did you ever consider that perhaps society in general eats way beyond ideal amounts of protein? An excessive amount that in actual fact has been strongly associated with increased risk of heart disease, many cancers and digestive disorders?
I’m hear to argue the latter! The World Health Organisation estimates that we require 10-15% of our total calorie intake to come from protein. A percentage is used as protein requirements are considered to directly correlate to the number of calories ingested as opposed to an overall weighted amount.
Aside from the high protein diets which are widely promoted, diets high in refined sugars, alcohol and other empty calories, people tend to be drawn to highly concentrated forms of protein to re-establish the protein:calorie ratio as energy consumption dramatically increases.
Aside from the strong correlations between heart disease, cancer and digestive disorders associated with increased intake of meat, excessive protein consumption has been directly correlated to decrease bone density and the onset of osteoporosis. Urea, a product of excess plant or animal protein consumption leaches calcium from the bones through its diuretic action. Meat and animal protein also create an acidic environment also calling upon calcium stores to neutralise their effect. When protein intake goes beyond 75 grams a person is likely to lose more calcium in their urine than they absorb from their food; commonly referred to as negative calcium balance.
So where do vegans and vegetarians actually get their protein?
Virtually every lentil, bean, nut, seed and grain and most vegetables and fruit are made up of at least 10% protein. Soya beans boast a whopping 54%, pumpkin seeds 21% and Quinoa 16% which is pretty good going for a grain (it’s technically a seed but that’s a topic for another day)!
Not only do these foods contain plenty of protein, the protein is actually of far better quality than that found in meat. The really desirable thing about selecting plant based foods over animal foods is that they also contain a whole variety of other nutrients, vitamins, minerals, plenty of fibre, and allow you to substantially reduce your intake of saturated fat.
When your ingesting large amounts of animal protein you also have to consider the substantial amount of antibiotics, pesticides and growth hormones that come along for the ride.
People who train hard have a tendency to believe that as a result their protein requirements increase. The body can only make use of a certain amount of protein regardless of how much you consume. Muscle is made up of only 22% protein; difficulty in building muscle is rarely due to lack of protein. In fact it’s more commonly a result of not taking in enough minerals such as zinc and Vitamin B6 which help digest and use dietary protein. Both of which can be achieved by consuming the likes of tahini (sesame seed paste), pistachios, chickpeas, brown rice, buckwheat and bananas.
Other ways to improve the utilisation of the protein you are ingesting include:
- Chewing your food properly; necessary to assimilate/absorb plant protein.
- Eat small amounts regularly
- Combine one plant proteins; or get a variety each day e.g. two parts grain to one part legume, nut or seed as part of one meal or overall daily dietary outlook to obtain a protein that resembles the structure of meat
- Introduce bee pollen to your diet! About half its protein is in the form of free amino acids that are ready to be used directly by the body, requiring no further breakdown.
- Fermented foods supply protein in a more readily digestible form. They include tempeh, miso, and pickled vegetables.
I suppose as common as the question is the answer…
No one ever asks an elephant or a guerrilla or any other of the strong animal herbivores where they get their protein?
But what about people? Namely athlete’s whom many would consider to have greater protein requirements. Who people aspire to be like, to achieve what they have achieved physically; those who are at their physical peak and so can perform optimally. They don’t all eat meat, there are many that don’t eat any animal products….
And yes some of them have been asked! Most recently I came across an interview with Brendan Brazier, “What do vegans eat?” featured in Best Health Magazine which made for an interesting read!
“Brendan Brazier is a former Ironman, an Ultra Marathon Champion, an author and the creator of an award-winning nutritional product line. He can lift heavy things, run long distances, and has a killer abs. Oh yeah—and he’s vegan.” Great intro…you can read the article and full interview here.
Other vegan athletes and sports people include:
- Venus Williams
- Carl Lewis
- Mike Tyson
- Scott Jurek
- Murray Rose
- Kenneth G Williams
- Pat Reeves – a true inspiration! How she feels she’s benefited from being vegan the past 45 years? “Control of 14 bone tumours, recovery from required power-lifting training and fantastic energy!”
In reality if you are eating a varied whole food plant based diet you shouldn’t have to consciously consider whether or not you are consuming enough protein; not consuming enough as part of a healthy diet rich in variety of beans, lentils, vegetables and grains is actually virtually impossible! Besides, reducing your meat intake might do your body some good, regardless of the protein controversy!