Hands down the most common question and usually the first thing someone asks me when I tell then I am vegan is, “Where do you get your protein?” I really have a hard time answering this, so I usually just say something along the lines of, “Oh you know, beans, tofu, nuts, and whole grains all have a lot of protein…” As I trail off, what I’m really thinking but don’t say because I don’t want to come off as an annoying vegan is, “We do NOT need that much protein at ALL! We are using animals as middle-men to get the nutrients we need. Where do you think cows and pigs get protein? They aren’t eating each other!” Ahem. But I have promised myself never to be a preachy angry vegan, so I just give them the simplest answer. Unfortunately though, that answer isn’t really informing them much. So here is my post on debunking the myth that we need tons of protein, and where a vegan really gets it from.
What is Protein?
Caution: Science Ahead!
Proteins are the building blocks of life, containing chains of amino acids that help repair our bodies and maintain itself. There are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own, and must be found in the foods we eat. The “protein myth” is that only animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids, thus making it a complete protein. This would mean that when we eat a plant-based diet, we aren’t getting complete proteins and there is a deficiency. While a cup of beans may be considered an “incomplete protein” because it lacks all 9 essential amino acids, when we vary our diets by eating vegetables, grains, legumes and nuts, we certainly get all the protein our bodies need. It is not true that we need to get them from just one food, or even just from one sitting. This means you can get everything you need by eating a plant-based diet, which contains healthier proteins that are easier for your body to break down and use. In fact, most meats that are high in protein are often high in cholesterol and can lead to heart disease and stroke. Don’t you find it interesting that most protein shake powders come from vegetables like soy, rice and peas? Call me up when you hear of a chicken protein powder. Actually, don’t. That’s gross.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
This is another area that has been argued over for decades. Most Americans actually consume far more protein than what the body needs. Unless you are a professional athlete, you often do not need to supplement your diet with protein. The average American male only needs around 56 grams of protein, and women needing around 46 grams. Yet most Americans get so much more protein than what is necessary because they think it is more important than it actually is. It is much more crucial for your body to get the nutrients and vitamins that vegetables provide. Excess protein is unnecessary and can even cause liver problems. Whenever I think of people asking me how I get protein if I don’t eat meat, I often think of the animals we eat. Most animals that humans consume eat grass (although they’re often fed corn) and they do just fine. Even chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, do not consume meat except on rare occasions when greens are hard to come by, and then they eat bugs. Have you ever heard of a chimp with a protein deficiency? Me neither. In fact, I have never even heard of another human being with one unless it was someone who was starving.
But what about feeling full and satisfied after a meal? I can’t possibly feel satisfied unless I have a nice slab of meat on my plate. Do you know how often I hear that? For some reason protein has become so over-rated in our society and I really don’t understand it. If you’re worried about filling up at a meal, I can assure you that vegetables can be extremely filling and low in calories. Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus are my three favorite vegetables and contain high amounts of fiber. I can shamelessly eat an entire bag of broccoli from Trader Joe’s on my own. And let me tell you, when I’m done, I’m full (and gassy). Whole grains are also filling, again because of their high fiber content. Meat, milk and eggs might fill you up, but they contain no fiber. Any nutrients you are getting from them can be found at the source of what the animal was eating; leafy greens. If you are relying on meat for your main source of food, you best be taking fiber pills, or you’re gonna have some trouble on the toilet.
Plant Based Proteins
So where can you get all these essential amino acids without eating animal products? They’re everywhere! Legumes are an obvious choice. Beans are extremely high in protein. Quinoa is another great choice, being one of the few complete proteins that come from plants. Nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetables all contain proteins that will fill you up and keep you healthy. Here are a few examples:
1 cup of quinoa- 8 grams
1 baked potato (skin on) – 5 grams
1/4 cup almonds-8 grams
1 Tablespoon chia seeds-2 grams
2 cups spinach- 2 grams
1 cup cooked black beans- 15 grams
1/2 cup tofu-10 grams
That’s already 50 grams of protein! More than enough for the average female, and all coming from healthy, fiber and nutrient rich foods. Some of my favorite recipes that are protein packed are my peanut butter banana protein shake, roasted chickpeas and sesame tofu.
Protein is extremely important to our diets, but so is getting enough fiber, nutrients and vitamins that plants can provide. So much emphasis is placed on protein in our society, but it is really not as important as maintaining an overall healthy diet. By eating a variety of plant-based foods you can get everything you need for your body to perform at it’s best. If you still aren’t convinced that you don’t need grilled chicken and salmon to become a super athlete, think again. Check out these vegan athletes!