Finally, another installment in my Vegan Q&A series. It may be slow going, but I’m back, and today I’m going to tackle the question of: But where do you get your protein?
If I’m being honest, a lot of these common concerns are laughable for those of us already living a plant-based life. Not because they’re stupid questions, but because living on the other side of the meat industry we’ve seen the falsehood behind so many of the “facts” we hold so true and dear. Thinking back to the days before going vegan, I remember I had many of the same concerns. How could I not? Most all of us are fed the same stories since the day we were born, and sifting through them all to discern the truth takes more time and effort than many of us want to spend. Or even have to spend.
And protein is a big one, especially for those of us that hold the incorrect notion that meat is the source for protein. I mean, I knew there were vegetarians living in the world, but honestly, I wasn’t sure how. It seems simplistic, but so were my views about food back when I took everything at face value. So before I dig into my journey with protein (there were some struggles, I’ll get into that further on), a quick lesson in what proteins really are, where we get them, and why we need them. I promise to keep it short and sweet.
Most of us probably remember from 8th grade science class that proteins are necessary to build, maintain, and repair tissues, but they perform a host of other jobs as well. Things like keeping the body supplied with energy, transporting and storing nutrients, maintaining blood pH, and boosting the immune system. They actually participate in the health of the human body in quite a few ways and in quite a few systems. In short, they’re extremely helpful, and extremely necessary, little buggers.
Structurally, (hang with me, I know you didn’t come here for a science class today) proteins are complex molecules made of long and twisty chains of amino acids. The human body requires 20 different amino acids to grow and function properly, of which we are able to make 11 of them (nonessential amino acids). The other 9 (essential amino acids) we need to obtain through the foods that we consume.
Both Are Untrue
But only very specific foods contain all of these 9 essential amino acids, making up a select group of foods known as complete proteins. The “problem” is that meat is one of them. And while this isn’t technically a problem, it becomes one if we’re told (and subsequently believe) one of two stories. The first, and most obvious, being that in order to obtain these missing aminos we need an animal-based source. The second is that all nine of these need to be consumed in one food source in order to be effectively used by the body. Fortunately, both are false.
Because not to be outdone, the plant kingdom has supplied us with several complete proteins all of its own: buckwheat, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and soy offer all 9 of the essential amino acids. Hemp and chia seeds can also be added to this list, but are a little low in lysine, one of the essential nine. To join the party, the fungi kingdom even threw in one of their own–nutritional yeast. And I’m not going to lie, it’s nice to have some plants that can carry the same (coveted) title of complete protein, especially when confronted with someone who wants to argue the subject. But really, even if there weren’t these options, the beautiful thing is that it doesn’t even matter.
Because yes, while humans need all nine of these essential amino acids to thrive, we do not need them contained all in one source, or even all in one meal. As long as our bodies get a sufficient amount of each amino acid per day, then it cheerfully takes care of the rest. And this is where complementary proteins enter the picture.
Complementary proteins are complete proteins, created by the simple combination of certain incomplete protein foods (grains + legumes are probably the most popular). Together they offer all nine of the essential amino acids. Basically, what this intentional food pairing means is that everyday things like a peanut butter sandwich, or a serving of beans and rice, or a delicious slice of sourdough bread slathered in a thick layer of hummus (yes, a personal favorite) can supply all of those needed amino acids. So even if you hated every single one of the plant-based complete proteins I listed above, it’s not a problem. As long as you’re armed with some savvy plant smarts.
So now that we’ve established what proteins are and why we need them, let’s talk about where I actually get them from. Because obviously, vegans don’t consume meat (my personal reasons are here), and neither do we eat dairy or eggs (my personal reasons are here). So that ruthlessly cuts out the most obvious sources of protein. But what I didn’t realize (back in my pre-herbivore days), was that most everything I eat has at least small amounts of protein, and over the course of the day, those small amounts all add up–and consequently, supply me with all that my little body demands.
But there are definitely the hard-hitters, those high-in-protein foods that satisfy a huge portion of my daily needs. Things like beans, lentils, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, oats, hempseeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and all kinds of nuts are my trusty proteins of choice. And while the protein found in most veggies and fruits is relatively small, there are still some that pack a pretty good punch. My personal favorites are peas, broccoli, sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, and Brussels sprouts–all offering up a substantial serving of protein.
My Food Revolution
Okay, science class is over. Hopefully you made it this far without your eyes glazing over; now we can move on to storytime. Because as usual, I’ve got a tale to tell. Luckily, I’ve had some issues with protein in the past, which probably doesn’t sound like something I’d want to so readily admit. But I’m still glad I can say this even if it does perpetuate a stereotype because it fostered a much better understanding of the food I eat. And the more I understand, the happier (and healthier) I generally am.
My food journey was kind of like…an explosion. An enormous explosion. I have panic to thank for my food revolution because in my desperation to locate the source of my inexplicable terror, I was inevitably led to what I was ingesting. First to go were the obvious things like hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, refined sugars, preservatives, and artificial anything, but I didn’t stop there. The more I learned, the less I could ignore.
Steadily, over the years, my diet was whittled down to…food. Pure, simple food. Seriously, if I don’t know the ingredient, 99.9% of the time it isn’t actually something meant for human consumption. Ironically, these food choices make my diet look extreme by today’s standard, but in actuality, all it did was make things really simple, really basic, really clean. And, you know, truly nourishing for my body.
What Didn’t Work
Which was all great except that the knowledge influx was massively huge, and initially without end. I would read a book or watch a documentary and if it seemed valid then I enthusiastically gave it a go. Juicing, Ayurveda, raw, Candida–just one thing after another. I was learning a lot (mostly about what didn’t work for me), but not really giving much thought to the details. Important details, like protein amounts. It was a highly experimental phase and the only constant was the knowing that as long as I wasn’t eating animals, everything else was pretty much up for discussion.
Thankfully, I have a body that speaks to me. Loudly. It often takes time for me to understand its coded language, but it likes to persistently yell back when it’s feeling mistreated. And it won’t stop yelling until I listen. One of the things that I realized, over time, was that too little protein intake would result in a terrifically sore neck (for me). Luckily, it’s easily alleviated by one or two high protein meals, and avoided altogether by consistent protein consumption. But it’s important to understand that my protein woes weren’t because getting enough protein was hard, but because I didn’t have a fully working relationship with food. Yet.
Keep Up The Good Work
So now that I’d figured out that I had protein issues, what did I do about it? I educated myself (Google was invented for people like me). I found myself a protein calculator (like this one) and figured out what my daily goal should be. And then for several months I kept a tally of the protein I was consuming during the course of a day. Was it tedious? A little bit. But did it work? You bet. This daily tally was just one more puzzle piece in understanding food and how it worked for (or sometimes against) me.
And despite some grumbling, I made the girls do the same and, most especially, Scott. As an avid cyclist (who burns more calories in a three hour ride than I eat in a day), I knew he needed far more than either I or the girls did. I made sure our main meal of the day was heavy on proteins. We experimented with protein shakes (most are garbage, but Scott likes this one, and I like this one). I tweaked (and increased) my protein goal until I found my sweet spot, and over time we figured out what works. And you know what? It’s easy. At Scott’s last check-in with his naturopath she told him something akin to this: “Your protein numbers look great. Keep up the good work.”
So at this point some of you may be thinking, That’s too much work, I’m not doing some ridiculous protein tally. Or maybe even, Just as I suspected; nothing “natural” should take that much thought and effort. To which I counter with this: Recently I was sitting on a shuttle, and with nothing better to do while I waited, I watched the other passengers board the bus. (And willed them to make eye contact so I could smile at them. ’cause I’m like that.) After a couple of minutes spent watching one after another struggle up the stairs, I realized that virtually every single person squeezing down that aisle was overweight, many very much so.
And sure, maybe I spent more time monitoring my protein than most (vegans included), but it seems to me that many humans could do with a food revolution. Many humans would greatly benefit from a better understanding of their relationship with food. Stepping into something still outside the scope of norm (but becoming more mainstream every day), veganism forced me to pay closer attention to something that I probably should have been paying closer attention to all along. Because while it’s fairly common knowledge that protein deficiency can lead to a host of problems like these…
Dangers of eating too little protein
- skin, hair and nail problems
- fatty liver
- loss of muscle mass
- stunted growth in children
- increased severity of infections
- low blood pressure
- muscle and joint pain (hello neck pain)
- brain fog
…did you also know that the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum? Over-consuming protein (which many Americans do) is also highly damaging to the body, but sadly, isn’t discussed nearly as much.
Dangers of eating too much protein
- cardiovascular disease
- obesity (the body stores excess protein as fat)
- blood vessel disorders
- liver and kidney injuries
- increased cancer risk (especially in diets high in red meat)
So maybe “natural” shouldn’t take that much effort, but the standard American diet has strayed so far from natural that I’m not sure we even know what that means anymore. So returning to a whole foods lifestyle meant thoroughly educating myself, and understanding protein was just one of the many steps I had to take to get there.
Worth The Effort
So in summation, plant-based folks have a plethora of high protein foods available to them. Even athletes, with their high protein demands, can and do thrive on a completely vegan diet. And for those who aren’t health food vegans like me, the market has exploded recently in many prepared/frozen vegan options as the demand steadily increases. (Which, after a quick search, look to be packed in protein.) But even without those ready-made options, a diet that’s simple, yet varied, fulfills all that my body needs.
I in no way pretend to have everything figured out; this vegan life has been a steady journey of live and learn. I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist, but I have made an art of listening to my body; eventually, it tells me what I need to know. And if you were to ask me if protein is a problem for me today (10+ years in)? The answer is no. And if it took me a little while to figure out the logistics, I’ll tell you that the animals are worth every effort. Down to the last gram tallied.
Wishing you all a beautiful week. Many blessings ~ Melinda
For more posts in my Vegan Q&A series, please click here