When most people think of protein, they think of meat and yes you do get protein from meat. However, why do we only tend to think protein as coming from one source? With carbohydrates we know there are healthy carbs in fruit and unhealthy carbs in refined flours and sugar. The same for fat, we tend to know there are good fats in nuts and avocadoes and bad fats in processed sugary cakes and biscuits! So it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that good sources of protein are seeds, nuts and dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli.
Maybe to understand this more we should start at the beginning, asking what is protein, why do we need it and how much do we need?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients needed by our bodies. The other two being the previously mentioned carbohydrates and fats. To form protein we need amino acids – 20 types to be precise. Our bodies can only manufacture half of these amino acids and the other half are known as “essential amino acids.” These we need to get from food.
We need protein for several reasons including:
- To keep our cells, organs, muscles, connective tissue and our bones together
- To help our metabolism as all enzymes that help trigger chemical reactions are proteins
- To help our immune system as many of the key molecules in our immune system are proteins
- To carry nutrients around our bodies
- To reserve lean muscle mass
- To help us grow
The RDA recommends that we take in 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram that we weigh (or about 0.36 grams of protein per pound that we weigh). Here is a protein calculator if you want to work out how much you need: http://www.healthcalculators.org/calculators/protein.asp. For me it says I need 85 grams of protein per day, higher than the average due to the amount of training I do. Often people don’t realise they are eating more protein than they actually need, as ideally we should not exceed any more than 8-10% of our daily calorie intake from protein. If we do we risk creating acidosis in our bodies. This is when we have excess amounts of protein that we cannot make us of and thus store as waste. When we then metabolise the protein, we create uric acid and ammonia along with several other bowel toxins. There is a reason why people that went on the Atkins diet didn’t always look that healthy!
Meat does provide large amounts of complex proteins which contain all the amino acids we need. However it also contains a lot of saturated fat which is bad for your cholesterol and depending on the source (in particular factory farms) high amounts of toxins including insecticides (from the food fed to the animals) and antibiotics (given to the animals). A few plant based forms of complex protein include quinoa, seeds, nuts, tofu, kale, spinach and broccoli. As well as having all the amino acids we need they also contain fibre and complex carbs, along with more vitamins and minerals than meat protein.
You also need to consider how easily you can digest and absorb the protein from the various sources. Raw plant protein provides you the amino acids in their raw, unassembled form so your body can get stuck into digesting them. However, animal meat gives you amino acids in their assembled form, so you have to break them down into the individual amino acids before you can start digesting and absorbing them to make protein. There is a reason why after a big Sunday roast you tend to want to go and have a snooze, as your body is putting all its energy toward digestion. Then unless you like raw meat, the cooking process will destroy up to 50% of the protein content as the heat damages the amino acids.
So overall, a diet with a good variety of seeds, nuts, grains, veg and fruit will give you all the essential amino acids you need to easily digest and turn into protein.
For those that are athletes or just have a really active lifestyle and need a bit more than the average amount of protein, there are several superfoods that are rich sources. Including goji berries, hemp seeds, spirulina and chlorella. I often add goji berries to my food and spirulina and chlorella powder go in my green smoothies. Which is why in my previous posts I’ve said how much muscle I have gained since going vegan and why I’ve now got bigger biceps than I’ve ever had before!
These red things are goji berries:
One highly marketed downside of being a vegan or vegetarian is lacking in the macronutrient B12, which is essential for growth, production and regeneration of red blood cells. B12 is created from healthy bacteria in the intestinal flora, which is why animal meat is thought to be a good source as animals have more bacteria growing in them. However, once the animal has been slaughtered, cooked and the dead flesh is ingested into the body, the bacterial and B12 content is very limited. So just as meat eaters, vegans and vegetarians can be deficient in B12, it is often because they have too much protein leading to acidosis (which isn’t an environment that will create healthy bacteria). Or they replace meat with manufactured soya products, which are notably high in phytic acid, which inhibits the body’s ability to absorb and use many important nutrients. To create healthy intestinal flora and good bacteria to produce B12 you need natural food that your bodies systems can easily digest and to get enough protein you need to eat a diet of undamaged amino acids.
Another way to think of it is, when buying services or goods we often want to cut out the middle man. They up our costs to give themselves profit. I’ve recently had this happen when trying to re-mortgage my house. As while the mortgage advice bureau were very nice and friendly, their added fees and higher proposed interest rates were not helping my situation. So I was much better off contacting mortgage lenders directly and getting the best deal. In the case of protein, while we might at first think of the animal as being the middle man, it’s actually the meat and dairy industries. As the environmental travesties in which billions of animals live horrible lives and die terrible deaths – with many being cut into a dismembered while they are still alive is certainty not a benefit.
However meat and dairy industries are making huge profits off selling us ‘protein’! Just think, have you ever seen a gorilla, elephant or rhino and thought they look a bit protein deficient?! As they live off plants and so can we!
If you still need a bit of convincing, check out Patrik Baboumian, a German junior bodybuilding title winner and world record log lifter for under 105kg, with a 165kg lift: http://www.greatveganathletes.com/vegan_athlete_patrik-baboumian-vegan-strongman