As a vegan, protein is a word you get to hear about a lot from non-vegans. Which can be a little surprising as prior to their discovery of your veganism, they likely never seemed to talk about protein at all. Very strange.
Despite the ability of non-vegans to suddenly become on-the-spot nutritionists, protein is of course important to everyone, vegans included. That said, it’s likely that a fair number of vegans don’t know all that much about protein either, other than it being important in some way.
Broadly speaking, for an “average” adult male, protein intake should be 56 grams per day, while for an “average” adult female, it should be 46 grams per day. Of course, not everybody (anybody?) is average, so the formula per day of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight can be used to get a figure more akin to yourself.
Before you start rummaging through the desk to find a calculator, let’s look a little more carefully about protein from a vegan perspective though, as it’s not just all fancy-pants number-crunching you know…
Protein is vital to the cell structure of every living thing. If you didn’t have any, you’d be quickly headed for a bad day and would have to give some serious thought to cancelling your newspaper subscription.
Protein is at the heart of every cell in your body and is responsible for the manufacture of skin, bone, blood, muscle, tissue and so on. Crucially, protein helps our body not only grow, such as muscle growth, but it also helps the body repair itself when it needs to.
Vegan pro-tip. While protein is intrinsically a good thing, like pretty much everything else in life, you can actually have too much of it. The effects of long-term over-consumption of protein can but just as bad as under-consumption, and in extreme cases, can cause halitosis, constipation, kidney-problems and cancer.
So, you’d be right to think that protein is running the biological show, right? Well, yes and no. Turns out that amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are key to the proteins being able to do their protein-y thing. After water, amino acids are the second most abundant thing in your body, so we’re not talking minor-league stuff here.
There are twenty types of amino acids, split into two groups: non-essential and essential. You need all twenty and while the eleven non-essential ones can be manufactured by the body, the nine essential ones need to be obtained from external sources, i.e. food. The nine are:
Therefore, while the need to obtain protein in sufficient quantities is important as a vegan, even more so is to ensure that the protein you take on board is delivering your nine essential amino acids.
There is a misconception held by non-vegans (the instant nutritionists mentioned earlier) that vegans are at risk of protein deprivation because they don’t consume meat, dairy, eggs, etc. Their skewed logic basically being that only animal products or animal by-products come with protein.
Putting aside the fact that non-vegans overlook where the animals they consume got their protein from, plants, this is a myth.
And then further putting aside the other fact that while a plant-based diet is absolutely possible, with a range of health and longevity benefits, a strictly meat only diet pretty much offers the diametric opposite.
The reality is, a vegan diet is just as good for protein intake as a non-vegan diet. In fact, it’s better. Not just because a vegan diet dispenses with the misery of killing and exploiting animals for food, but it also comes without the fat, cholesterol and other unpleasant things contained in animal products that contribute to major illnesses or worse.
That said, most, but critically not all, plants are short on four of the nine essential amino acids: lysine, tryptophan, methionine and phenylalanine. Now before the non-vegan is in your life gets all “I told you so”, keep in mind the critical words “most not all.” There are easy ways for vegans to get proteins containing all of your amino acid requirements.
I’m not sure if John, Paul, George and Ringo of the Beatles had been called lysine, tryptophan, methionine and phenylalanine that they would have had the musical success that they did. However, in the world of vegan protein, those are the Fab Four essential amino acids you need to have playing in your vegan kitchen so as to stay fighting fit.
Lysine: Beans. Yep, beans right from the get-go. Black, kidney and lima. And chickpeas (garbanzo beans to our American friends) – so that means hummus also provides lysine. Other sources include lentils, pistachios and wheat germ.
Tryptophan: Most nuts in general will supply some of this essential amino acid, but almonds particularly so. If you’re not nuts about nuts, spinach, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and asparagus will help you with your Tryptophan.
Methionine: Avocados and guacamole. Yep, you read that right. As if they couldn’t get any better, they just did. Other sources of methionine are brazil nuts, oats and sunflower seeds.
Phenylalanine: Try pecans, chick-peas, lentils, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
There are though three stand-out food sources that make a clean sweep of all nine essential amino acids, including the Fab Four, and earn themselves the title of “complete protein” in doing so.
First up, nutritional yeast (or “nooch” to close friends and family). If you don’t know it, then you should. Used to a give a cheesy / nutty taste to dishes, not only does nooch ace all nine essential amino acids, the fortified version of it comes with vitamin B12.
Second, soybeans and soybean products like tofu, tempeh and edamame. Again, the nine essential amino acids are found present and correct. Also comes with some other neat benefits like lowering blood pressure too.
Third quinoa. Not only is quinoa a complete protein food stuff, it packs a ton of B vitamins and dietary fiber as well.
Another myth often perpetuated by non-vegans, and about as realistic as Elvis riding across Loch Ness on the Monster, is that vegans are extreme. On the very contrary, veganism is about balance – striking a non-violent harmony between all forms of life and the planet.
That balance needs to be in a vegan diet too. While veganism is clearly the best and most healthy diet to have, it is still possible to eat badly as a vegan. Sure, you’d have to go some, but it is possible. Protein poor, sugar and salt high vegan junk food is available, if that’s what you really want to do. Likewise, a faddish addiction to just a few sorts of vegan foods may run the risk of falling short in essential amino acids if not careful. Do a little research, know your vegan food, and apply balance.
Other good general sources of vegan protein are commonly found, tasty and, of course, nutritious, like:
All of these can be blended into you vegan diet to help balance and variety,
Vegans are naturally inclined to be creative. Many will have been raised as non-vegans, so on becoming vegan, they find that they have to re-invent their kitchen and their meals.
That creativity also needs to be taken into mind when vegans are considering their protein / amino acid intake. A little research will go a long way and helps you to become even more inventive in your vegan kitchen, create great food and get all the protein / amino acids that you need.
There’s a lot of non-vegan propaganda out there, especially about protein.
Don’t buy a word of it.
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