It’s always the first question asked when the subject of veganism comes up in conversations. Are animal products the only way we can consume good quality proteins? To really understand this question, we need to go back and answer what a protein is, and its function in the body.
What is Protein?
“Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.
Proteins are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units called amino acids, which are attached to one another in long chains. There are 20 different types of amino acids that can be combined to make a protein. The sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s unique 3-dimensional structure and its specific function.” [Genetics Home Reference: Your Guide to Understanding Conditions]
“Proteins” is a broad category of molecules made of different combinations of amino acids to serve functions such as transporting atoms, enzymes in chemical reactions, messaging for biological processes, structural components for cells, and storage of atoms and small molecules. Their primary function is to build, maintain, and replace bodily tissues.
What Are Sources of Protein?
The best sources of protein are beef, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes like black beans and lentils. Vegans should use a wide assortment of plant-based protein sources such as lentils, tofu, blacks beans, seitan, quinoa, amaranth, soy milk, green peas, artichokes, hemp seeds, oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, tempeh, hemp milk, edamame, spinach, black eyed peas, broccoli, asparagus, chickpeas, almonds, and a plethora of other sources.
The average American diet recieves the majority of it’s proteins from animal products, but there is a myriad of other plant-based sources that can easily replace a meat on a plate. A piece of chicken can be replaced by two cups of black beans. One cup of quinoa in a salad can replace a boiled egg. The amount of protein is the same.
But Aren’t Animal Proteins Better For You?
Protein from animal sources, such as meat and milk, is called complete, because it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. Most vegetable protein is considered incomplete because it lacks one or more of the essential amino acids. This can be a concern for someone who doesn’t eat meat or milk products. But people who eat a vegan diet can still get all their essential amino acids by eating a wide variety of protein-rich plant-based foods.
For example, you can’t consume all the amino acids you need in a healthy diet from peanuts alone, but if you have peanut butter on whole-grain bread, you would be consuming all nine essential amino acids. Likewise, red beans alone won’t give you everything you need, but red beans and rice is a complete protein. The important thing to learn is how to properly replace animal derived proteins in order to maintain a healthy and nutritious diet.
The good news is that you don’t have to eat all the essential amino acids in every meal. As long as you have a variety of protein sources throughout the day, your body will be able to use all the necessary protein in order to build, maintain, and replace bodily tissues.
But Are You REALLY Getting Enough Protein?
“The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick — not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day.
To determine your RDA for protein, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, or use this online protein calculator. For a 50-year-old woman who weighs 140 pounds woman and who is sedentary (doesn’t exercise), that translates into 53 grams of protein a day.” Harvard Health Blog RSS
However, this is an ever-changing number. Fifty years ago, protein was seen as a luxury and unnecessary for development. Today, many would argue that high-protein diets are the panacea for obesity and weight-related illnesses. Some nutritionist still argue that excessive protein intake has negative effects on cardiovascular health.
As a rule of thumb, use the RDA as a recommendation rather than a minimum requirement for each day. If your recommended intake is 60 grams/day, don’t become distressed if you can’t manage to consume much more than 50 grams in a day.
So What Does It All Mean?
There are a few general tips to help everyone who is concerned about protein intake:
- Don’t read “get more protein” as “eat more meat.” Beef, poultry, and pork (as well as milk, cheese, and eggs) can certainly provide high-quality protein, but so can many plant foods including whole grains, beans and other legumes, nuts, and vegetables.
- If you want to actively begin replacing meats with plant-based foods, do your research to assure that you are getting all the essential macronutrients you need. I recommend the app and site MyFitnessPal.com to track calorie intake and nutrient levels. This site even compensates for daily activity levels as well.
- If you aren’t ready to give up meat just yet, there is overwhelming evidence of the negative impact of red meat in a daily diet. Aim for protein sources low in saturated fat and processed carbohydrates and rich in many nutrients. Try switching to chicken, fish, and seafood.
- If weight loss is your main concern, trying a higher-protein diet is reasonable, but don’t expect it to be a panacea. “Patients come to me all the time asking if more protein will help them in weight loss,” McManus says. “I tell them the verdict is still out. Some studies support it, some studies don’t.” Harvard Health Blog RSS
- One more thing: if you increase protein, dietary arithmetic demands that you eat less of other things to keep your daily calorie intake steady. In other words, don’t eat more tofu and black beans only to continue eating loads of white bread.
- For those becoming vegan, be sure to check the ingredient of “protein fortified” foods. Many of these foods are packed with whey proteins, eggs, or meat based products.
But Where Do I Start?
A super easy recipe to try is a Vegan Burrito. This is a quick and simple recipe that can be done in 15 minutes and packs a whopping 35 grams of protein. That’s nearly half of your RDA!
Vegan Burrito (Cooking time: ~15 minutes)
- 1 cup canned black beans
- 1 cup canned refried beans
- Tortillas or corn chips
- Pico de Gallo
- Green Peppers
- Lime Juice
- Heat up beans in microwave or on stove top
- Chop up peppers, lettuce, and onion to desired size
- Assemble all ingredients as desired on tortillas or in a bowl over corn chips