As someone who eats a 100% vegan diet I am constantly, and I mean CONSTANTLY, asked this question: “But where do you get your protein?”
In the beginning of our vegan journey [4 years ago!], I took the time to explain it. Eventually I got smarter and instead of answering the question, I would first ask a question in return: “Can you tell me what Protein is?” Over 90% of the people did not know. They also failed to know what protein is for. With education on the topic of protein lacking it is really pointless to tell people where to get protein. We first must understand what protein is.
What is Protein?
Protein became the new American mantra about 100 years ago. A nutrition researcher Max Rubner (1854-1932) stated that meat protein intake was a symbol of civilization itself: “A right protein allowance is the right of a civilized man.” People almost get a religious glow on their faces when they talk about it, and they get indignant when you suggest they quit meats and dairy, since they were led to believe that is the only true source of protein. Interestingly enough, when, instead of answering their question, I ask them a question: “What is protein?” they have a blank look on their face.
So, before I tell you where and how you get your protein, let me tell you what protein is.
Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acid and our bodies need all of them to function properly.
Amino acids are chemical compounds containing carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which combine together into different structures to form the various types of protein that the body requires.
There are many forms of protein, which all play an important role in the function of the body. For example, collagen is a protein and is vital for the strength, elasticity and composition of our hair and skin.
Proteins, through digestion, are broken down into individual amino acids. The amino acids are then absorbed and reform in order to create new proteins that are then used by the body.
The 20 types of amino acid are divided into two groups: essential and non-essential amino acids.
Out of the 20 there are 14 non-essential amino acids. They are termed non-essential because they can be manufactured by the body, the rest have to be derived from food, thus they are dubbed essential.
Now, it does not mean that non-essential amino acids are not important! Not at all! Without them the new proteins that are formed by the body cannot be properly formed.
I am sure that now you are curious to know what amino acids are essential. Well, ok, since you asked. But make sure to memorize them and recite in your dream. So here we go: phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, leucine, and lysine. Shoosh… you must feel so much smarter now—you can memorize these to impress your friends at the next dinner party.
Cysteine (or sulphur-containing amino acids), tyrosine (or aromatic amino acids), histidine and arginine are additionally required by infants and growing children.
The amino acids arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, histidine, proline, serine and tyrosine are considered conditionally essential, meaning they are not normally required in the diet, but must be supplied exogenously to specific populations that do not synthesize it in adequate amounts. [Source: Wikipedia]
I hope that you are feeling much more enlightened now. So, next time you think about protein you might actually know what it means.
Complete and incomplete Proteins
Some foods contain all of the 8 essential amino acids. These foods are called “complete” and are considered to be of superior quality. Interestingly enough, modern science has discovered that the proteins that are closest to ours can be found in animal products only and thus labeled it “complete”.
The incomplete proteins are usually lacking one or more of the essential amino acids. They were generally thought to be found in plants, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes. Since these protein sources were labeled “incomplete” they have been written off and the society decided that the only way to meet our protein requirements is through consuming animal foods.
What you are not told and don’t know, though, is that, even if this false theory was true, by combining two or more of the “incomplete” proteins, a complete supply of essential amino acids could be made available. For example rice and beans will form a “complete” protein and give your body all the essential amino acids it needs. And… you would not even have to eat these two at the same meal to get that—your body will do that for you!
However, this belief, as much as our meat eating society wanted to have it embedded in our brains, is not correct.
“The American Dietetic Association abandoned that idea decades ago. Susan Havala Hobbs, Ph.D, R.D. describes how the ADA discarded the protein combining idea:
There was no basis for [protein combining] that I could see…. I began calling around and talking to people and asking them what the justification was for saying that you had to complement proteins, and there was none. And what I got instead was some interesting insight from people who were knowledgeable and actually felt that there was probably no need to complement proteins. So we went ahead and made that change in the paper. [The paper was approved by peer review and by a delegation vote before becoming official.] And it was a couple of years after that that Vernon Young and Peter Pellet published their paper that became the definitive contemporary guide to protein metabolism in humans. And it also confirmed that complementing proteins at meals was totally unnecessary.
(8.5 Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?, p. 38.)” Source
I found it totally compelling and amazing to find out just how many different foods do measure up to the complete protein standard (click on the image to enlarge):
The following quotations were taken from this source.
“Besides the American Dietetic Association, other medical and nutrition professionals who have actually looked at the science have come to the same conclusion that there is no need to carefully combine proteins. For example:
Dennis Gordon, M.Ed, R.D.:
[C]omplementing proteins is not necessary with vegetable proteins. The myth that vegetable source proteins need to be complemented is similar to the myths that persist about sugar making one’s blood glucose go up faster than starch does. These myths have great staying power despite their being no evidence to support them and plenty to refute them.
Jeff Novick, M.S., R.D.:
Recently, I was teaching a nutrition class and describing the adequacy of plant-based diets to meet human nutritional needs. A woman raised her hand and stated, “I’ve read that because plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids that humans need, to be healthy we must either eat animal protein or combine certain plant foods with others in order to ensure that we get complete proteins.”
I was a little surprised to hear this, since this is one of the oldest myths related to vegetarianism and was disproved long ago. When I pointed this out, the woman identified herself as a medical resident and stated that her current textbook in human physiology states this and that in her classes, her professors have emphasized this point.
I was shocked. If myths like this not only abound in the general population, but also in the medical community, how can anyone ever learn how to eat healthfully? It is important to correct this misinformation because many people are afraid to follow healthful, plant-based, and/or total vegetarian (vegan) diets because they worry about “incomplete proteins” from plant sources. …if you calculate the amount of each essential amino acid provided by unprocessed plant foods … you will find that any single one, or combination, of these whole natural plant foods provides all of the essential amino acids. …
Modern researchers know that it is virtually impossible to design a calorie-sufficient diet based on unprocessed whole natural plant foods that is deficient in any of the amino acids. (The only possible exception could be a diet based solely on fruit.)
John A. McDougall, M.D.:
Many people believe than animal foods contain protein that is superior in quality to the protein found in plants. This is a misconception dating back to 1914, when Osborn and Mendel studied the protein requirements of laboratory rats.… Based on these early rat experiments the amino acid pattern found in animal products was declared to be the standard by which to compare the amino acid pattern of vegetable foods. According to this concept, wheat and rice were declared deficient in lysine, and corn was deficient in tryptophan. It has since been shown that the initial premise that animal products supplied the most ideal protein pattern for humans, as it did for rats, was incorrect…. From the chart, it is clear that even single vegetable foods contain more than enough of all amino acids essential for humans…. Furthermore, many investigators have found no improvement by mixing plant foods or supplementing them with amino acid mixtures to make the combined amino acid pattern look more like that of flesh, milk, or eggs.[35-44] … People have actually lived for long periods of time in excellent health by satisfying their entire nutritional needs with potatoes and water alone. … Nature has designed vegetable foods to be complete. If people living before the age of modern dietetics had had to worry about achieving the correct protein combinations in their diets, our species would not have survived for these millions of years.
Andrew Weil, M.D.:
You may have heard that vegetable sources of protein are “incomplete” and become “complete” only when correctly combined. Research has discredited that notion so you don’t have to worry that you won’t get enough usable protein if you don’t put together some magical combination of foods at each meal.
Charles Attwood, M.D.:
Beans, however, are rich sources of all essential amino acids. The old ideas about the necessity of carefully combining vegetables at every meal to ensure the supply of essential amino acids has been totally refuted.“
The Role of Protein
So, now that you know what protein (complete and incomplete) is, you curiosity might be finally be peaking enough to know WHY you need proteins at all. I am glad you are thinking about that.
Protein is required by the body for growth, maintenance and repair of all cells. Protein is a major component of muscles, tissues and organs and is essential for nearly all processes that occur in our bodies, such as metabolism, digestion and even transporting nutrients and oxygen in the blood.
|this is what vegan source of protein can do for muscle growth|
Protein is also responsible for the production of antibodies, which fight against invaders: illness, infection, etc. It is also responsible for the main nutrient that keeps our hair healthy and shiny, our skin fresh and glowing, our nails and our bones strong and healthy.
Next time we will complete reviewing the role of Protein and will further look into:
- Which foods are good sources of Protein
- How much Protein you need
- Is too much Protein bad for you, and
- Protein Conversion
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