If you are vegetarian, vegan or raw, guaranteed you have been faced with inquisitive minds demonstrating disbelief over the fact that you do not eat meat. Where in the world do you get protein they ask? Let’s uncover this by learning about everything you need to know about protein, and how to be a vegan and plant-based.
Once you take animal meat out of the equation, there lies a world of protein sources that have been perfectly created by nature to sustain omnivores. Historically, humans only ate small portions of meat and that only occurred once or twice a week. So where do you think humans got their protein back then? Simple, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds. Fortunately, due to the growing number of non-meat eaters today, there are also more efficient vegan protein options to choose from such as protein powders.
The problem is that the majority of vegetarians and vegans do not properly understand nutrition, and the importance of consuming adequate protein to meet their needs. Therefore, the right foods to sustain the absence of animal products in their diet is forgotten, and symptoms like fatigue, anemia, hair loss, poor physical performance and low hormone levels occur. So lets get into the nitty gritty details so we can fill our bellies with the right types of food, and in this case, the wonderful amino acids called protein.
Calculating Protein Needs:
The industry standard for vegans is 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is higher than the RDA standard because non-animal protein sources are not as available or complete in amino acids as vegetarian ones. The easiest way to calculate you needs is to multiple .45 grams by your body weight in pounds. This will give you an average. Or you can use the formula at the bottom.
If you are an active athlete, you most likely will want to increase your protein to between 1.3 and 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight so that you can maintain and grow lean body muscle mass.
* To convert lbs to kg (pounds/ 2.2 = kg). Protein Intake (grams) = (weight in kg multiplied by .9)
What is a Protein Anyways?:
Protein is a macronutrient that is composed of amino acids, also known as building blocks. There are a total of 20 amino acids, which are classified as either essential or nonessential. More than half of the amino acids are nonessential, meaning that the body (the liver) can synthesize them for itself. The other nine amino acids are classified as essential in that the human body either cannot make them at all or they cannot be made in sufficient quantities. In some cases nonessential amino acids may become conditionally essential, if there is a deficiency in an essential amino acid.
A “high-quality” protein contains all of the essential amino acids and generally these are found in animal proteins. But while plant proteins might not contain all of the essential amino acids (other than quinoa & soybeans), they do contain diverse amino acid patterns that when combined, can provide all of the amino acids need by the body. This is why it is important to eat a variety of different sources of foods when you are a vegan/vegetarian, so that the amino acids will complement each other.
Why is Protein Important?
Whenever the body is growing, repairing, or replacing tissue, proteins are involved. Sometimes their job is to facilitate or to regulate, and other times it is to become a part of a structure.
– Proteins are the building blocks of muscles, blood, intestines, bone, teeth, skin, hair and nails. Did you know collagen was a protein?
– Some proteins act as enzymes. Enzymes break down substances (such as food) as well as build substances (such as bones).
– Some hormones are proteins. Some examples include; growth hormone (promotes growth), insulin and glucagon (regulates blood sugar), Thyroxin (regulates the body’s metabolic rate), Calcitonin and parathormone (regulates blood calcium) and antidiuretic hormone (regulates fluid and electrolyte balance).
– Proteins are regulators of fluid balance. This is really important in preventing swelling and water retention.
– Proteins also help to maintain the balance between acids and bases within the body fluids.
– Proteins act as transporters in the body carrying important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals and other molecules. Some proteins act as pumps maintaining the perfect balance of nutrients inside and outside of the cell walls.
– Proteins defend the body against disease in the form of antibodies. Antibodies are giant protein molecules designed specifically to combat “antigens” or otherwise known as viruses and bacteria.
– Sometimes proteins will be used as a source of energy by the body when other sources such as carbohydrates are not available.
– Proteins also participate in blood clotting and vision.
Why is Excess Animal Protein Bad for Your Health?
The type of protein that you are consuming is going to make a dramatic difference. While you have just read how important protein is to your body, it can also be harmful if consumed in the wrong way. The average person in America consumes between 70-100 grams of protein a day. That is almost double the recommended allowance.
Animal protein is typically high in saturated fat, phosphorus, sulfurous amino acids, uric acid and nitrogen. This means that it must be consumed in moderation and balanced with high amounts of nutrient-rich foods like leafy greens, superfoods, and fresh fruits, if it is a part of your diet. So what does this mean to you exactly?
Research has linked high intake of animal protein to high blood cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease.
Kidney Function-( Gout & Kidney Stones):
The kidneys are the last filter for the body and have the role of excreting the end products of protein breakdown. When excess protein is consumed the amino acids travel to the liver for a process called deamination. Deamination is the process by which amino acids are broken down and part of the amino acid is converted to ammonia. Ammonia, a toxic compound to the body, is then converted to urea and uric acid. High levels of uric acid are very damaging to the kidney, due to their high acidic nature, and can lead to kidney stones and a type of arthritis called gout.
Mineral Losses (Osteoporosis):
Animal proteins are rich in the sulfur-containing amino acids cysteine and methionine. These amino acids are highly acidic which causes stress on maintaining acid-alkaline homeostasis in the body. In order to balance the acidity, the body draws calcium (alkaline) out of the soft tissue and the bones. As a result, this process can lead to osteoporosis (bone deterioration). A loss of calcium also affects muscle contraction/relaxation (cramps), blood clotting, and nerve transmission. Calcium is an integral part of the body’s functions so think about increasing your consumption with some great vegan options here.
Some researchers have suggested that a high intake of animal protein alters hormones and the body’s response to hormones, including leptin, which regulates energy intake and expenditure as well as appetite. By altering leptin, you may cause the body to become resistant, which means that your body will not receive the message of “fullness.” As a result, a person may not feel full and will keep eating. Furthermore, animal protein is high in saturated fat, which is calorie dense macronutrient, therefore contributing to weight gain.
Based on extensive research done by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, diets that contain animal protein turn on cancer genes. They discovered that you could alter gene expression by changing the diet from an animal -based one to a plant-based one in a 20-year China study done by the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, Cornell University and the University of Oxford. Some studies also show that a diet high in animal protein foods increase your risk for colon, breast, pancreas and prostate cancer.
If you find that incorporating animal meat into your diet best suites you, consider how much you are consuming and from what sources. Only choose meat that has been raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics. Ensure that is has been allowed free-range grazing, is fed foods that are non-GMO (genetically modified), and is only fed foods that are native to the animal’s diet (no animal byproducts, no grains to ruminants like cows). The best way to ensure these standards is to buy organic. Even better, purchase directly from the farmer at farmers markets where you can discuss the treatment of the animal directly. Eating conventionally raised meat/poultry exposes the body to a wide range of toxins that can lead to hormone imbalance (PCOS, endometriosis, acne, low libido, impotency, infertility etc.), antibiotic resistance and organ stress. It also has a greater environmental impact.
Next, it is very important to control the amount consumed. Aim to vary your protein intake with plant-based sources. Go meatless a couple times a week, and do not rely solely on animal meat for a protein source on a daily basis. And when you do eat meat, practice portion control. A proper portion of meat is about the size of the palm of your hand (not a lot I know).
Finally, balance your animal protein with plants. This will help to offset the potentially harmful effects of consuming animal protein. Plants are naturally high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, these aid in the clearance of toxic substances in meat, lower the inflammatory reactions in the body, promote normal bowel movements and cholesterol levels, and remineralize the body.
Where do you get plant-based protein from?
A common mistake I see in those who go vegan or vegetarian is the lack of focus on protein intake. When I chose to go vegan, I was not mindful of replacing my protein intake. While I certainly ate a lot of vegetables and grains I was not eating concentrated sources, and I was not eating enough. As a result I was often fatigued, I couldn’t gain enough lean muscle and my hair thinned.
I started to count the grams of protein I was consuming daily and realized that I was not getting enough from the basic foods I was eating. While there is protein in a wide range of plant-based foods, I wasn’t eating them in a high enough concentration for my body’s needs, so it was time to add in protein powder.
The good news is that there are many vegan protein powders available made from plant-based sources such as hemp, brown rice, cranberry and pea. My personal favorite is brown rice protein by Sunwarrior (17 gram per scoop). Since I have been focusing on building lean muscle by weight lifting at the gym, I have been doing 3 scoops of protein powder in order to meet my protein needs. This provides 51 grams of protein as a base, plus the protein that I get from other sources such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, quinoa, collard greens, coconut flour and other raw nuts/seeds.
This regime has made a huge difference in the way I feel. I have currently been building lean muscle with much more ease, my hair and nails have been growing, and I have maintained sustained energy throughout the day. You might wonder why I rely on the Sunwarrior protein so heavily, but the truth is that I do not eat enough calories from other plant sources to get enough protein in my diet. While I am not a fan of most protein powders out there (because of synthetic vitamins, additives, fake sugars and preservatives), this protein is fermented (easy to digest and highly absorbable), vegan, made from raw sprouted brown rice (high nutrient profile), and has a 98% correlation to mother’s milk. It also is a perfect fit to my morning super food smoothie and my pre work out drink. It comes in plain, chocolate and vanilla (flavored with stevia) so you don’t need to add any extra sweetener… delicious on its own! Try some for yourself! You can purchase it here.
In order to help you put together the right protein plan for you I have created a chart that lists the protein content in grams of all the major plant-based foods. You can find it here. I hope that this has helped you to see how important it is to look at not only what we are eating but how it is affecting our bodies. Each bite we take builds and strengthens our bodies if we so choose, so I hope you are more empowered to make the right choice for you.
Warning about soy:
The first food most non-meat eaters look to as a protein source is soy. Soy products are not only genetically modified (if not 100% organic), but they are also highly estrogenic. What that means is that they are a natural source of estrogen, and when you consume them they interfere with your natural hormone production. Combine that with high amounts of dairy (tons of hormones) and you set yourself up for hormone imbalance. Typically you will see weight gain around the hips “muffin top,” irregular and painful periods, breast tissue growth in men, acne, fatigue, moodiness and thinning hair. Not a lot of fun. So soy is out.
“Vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, large bowel disorders, cancers and gall stones. Cholesterol levels tend to be lower in vegetarians.” British Medical Association
“Vegetarian groups have been shown to have lower risks of cardiovascular disease, lower rates of obesity and longer life expectancy than meat-eaters.” The World Cancer Research Fund
“Vegetarian food leaves a deep impression on our nature. If the whole world adopts vegetarianism, it can change the destiny of humankind.” Albert Einstein
“A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.” George Bernard Shaw
“My refusing to eat flesh occasioned an inconveniency, and I was frequently chided for my singularity, but, with this lighter repast, I made the greater progress, for greater clearness of head and quicker comprehension.” Benjamin Franklin
“Every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food.” Henry David Thoreau
Hegsted DM. 1986 Calcium and osteoporosis. J Nutr. 116: 2316-9.