Meeting Protein Needs For Vegans: All You Need To Know
Imagine you’re at a party about to meet some new people. As you’re intro- duced around, it might come up in conversation that you’re a vegan — perhaps you politely declined the passed shrimp hors d’oeuvres (or as I like to call them, “fingers of flesh”). You can be certain that one of the first ques- tions will be “Where do you get your protein?”
Don’t be alarmed — take a deep breath and get ready to charm the pants off of those well-meaning yet ill-informed meat eaters. The basics of protein are simple, and vegans can and do get plenty. The average American has too much protein in her diet, mainly because she eats so many animal foods, including meat, eggs, and dairy. Yes, those foods are sources of protein. But they aren’t the only sources; nor are they necessarily the healthiest or cheapest!
In this article, you will find out how protein works in the body and how much different people need on a daily basis. New vegans can get confused about the types and quality of plant sources of protein, so I’ve provided detailed charts and lists to help you plan your healthy diet successfully.
What You Need to Know about Protein
Proteins are large, complex molecules that perform important functions in your body. They do most of the work in cells and are used by your body to regulate water in tissues and organs, perform functions like repairing cells and building new ones, and create the structure of the bones, blood, hor- mones, muscles, and everything else in the body. Every cell in the body con- tains protein, and protein is a large part of the muscles, organs, and skin.
Proteins are composed of many thousands of smaller units called amino acids. To form a complete protein, all 22 of the different amino acids must be present. Your body does create some of these amino acids by itself, but it must receive nine of the amino acids it needs from food, called essential amino acids — meaning it’s essential that you eat foods containing them! These essential amino acids can all be found in plant foods, so as long as your diet is varied and provides you with enough calories, you don’t need to worry about getting enough of these building blocks.
Your body creates the specific forms of protein it needs from the dietary protein you eat. When you eat a bunch of nuts, beans, or soy, your body macerates, or breaks down that food with saliva and chewing. Then the food gets digested by the stomach. The original food source of protein begins to break down into the different amino acids, which your body can absorb and form into new proteins that it can use to perform whatever function it needs. Isn’t the human body amazing?
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The National Institute of Health recommends that the average man eat between 30 to 60 grams of protein a day; it says women need between 25 to 50 grams a day. Most Americans are getting closer to 100 to 120 grams a day, which is leading to a host of health problems. While protein is necessary and good for the body, too much can be dangerous over time. And remember that the source of your protein can matter just as much as the quantity you’re consuming.
Protein needs for all ages and stages
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein intake is based on a simple calculation used by the National Institute of Health. The basic formula is this:
- Weight in pounds ÷ 2 = weight in kilograms.
- Weight in kilograms × 8 = grams of protein a day.
So, for a 125-pound woman who gets moderate to light exercise, the RDA would be about 46 grams of protein a day. If you exercise more vigorously, are pregnant, lactating, or are a growing kid or teenager, you may need to increase your protein. The table below shows the average recommended dietary allowances for protein. If you notice you are getting most of your protein from unrefined grains, beans, and produce, and very little from tofu, tempeh or soy-based meats.
Recommended Daily Allowances for Protein
Group Recommended Allowance
Boys and girls ages 0 to 6 months 9.1 grams
Boys and girls ages 7 months to 1 year 11 grams
Boys and girls ages 1 to 3 years 13 grams
Boys and girls ages 4 to 8 years 19 grams
Boys and girls ages 9 to 13 years 34 grams
Males ages 14 to 18 years 52 grams
Males ages 19+ years 56 grams
Females ages 14+ years 46 grams
Pregnant and lactating women 71 grams
Source: 2002 National Academy of Sciences
As you can see, protein needs and requirements can change over the course of one’s lifetime; they’re especially important for growth in childhood, the teen years, the elderly, and for pregnant and lactating women. Athletes and body builders (yes, vegans can be body builders too!) also have different pro- tein needs than the average, healthy, and moderately active person.
Plant proteins aren’t as easy for the human body to access during diges- tion as animal proteins, and all but a few plant foods are lacking some of the essential amino acids to create a complete protein. Because of these factors, the healthy vegan should consider consuming a slightly higher amount of protein to ensure adequate intake. However, remember that ensuring a proper intake shouldn’t be a problem! The average American eats considerably more protein than is needed, and adequate protein is available in the healthy plant foods discussed in this article. As long as you eat a variety of whole foods, unrefined foods with all the edible parts intact like brown rice and potatoes and apples with the skin on, throughout the day — and eat enough of them to meet your caloric needs — you’ll easily hit your protein target.
Protein problems: Why too much of a good thing is a bad thing
As a hot-button topic among vegans and the people who love them, protein comes up often and causes heated discussions. Many omnivores and well- meaning parents are under the impression that animal-derived foods are the only quality sources of protein. True, meat and eggs are complete proteins. However, the quality of plant-based protein is excellent and even superior when you consider the dangers associated with meat consumption.
The high fat content, acidity, and toxins found in animal products cause numerous health problems if consumed excessively (and most Americans do fall into this category of excessive consumers). The major health problems associated with meat consumption are heart disease, certain cancers, strokes, obesity, and osteoporosis. A staggering majority of meat produced in this country is very high in fat and cholesterol, which is an unsavory side dish to the protein that people really need.
The acidic nature of animal foods causes your alkaline-loving body to try to balance itself. The quickest way for the human body to get more alkaline is to draw calcium out of the bones (calcium is an alkaline substance). So diets rich in animal foods lead to constant losses of calcium through the kidneys, leaching the bones of that essential mineral. It now makes sense that the countries with high meat and dairy consumption also have high osteoporosis rates.
Excessive intake of protein leads to other concerns besides brittle bones, however. Other damaging effects are high cholesterol, kidney stones and renal failure, overstressed liver and kidneys, and a risk of gout, which is also known as “the disease of kings.” Gout is described as painful, recurring attacks of joint inflammation that are brought on by high levels of uric acid in the body. Gout is often a hereditary disease, but this acidic condition also
can be brought on by a diet that includes excessive amounts of animal foods. About 200 years ago, gout was associated with the upper classes because they could afford to eat more meat and assume a more leisurely life.
Not enough protein? Symptoms to look out for
The scourge of too much protein is a concern in developed, Western cultures, but health concerns also (though rarely) arise from diets lacking ade- quate protein. Some of these health concerns should be of special interest to vegans, because when left unchecked, these problems can lead to serious damage over time.
Here are some indications that you may need to focus your diet on more high-quality proteins:
- Feeling constantly lightheaded, unmotivated, and overtired
- Constant sugar and carbohydrate cravings (when your body is lacking sufficient protein and nutrients to power itself, it craves sugar to get the quick energy it so desperately needs)
- Hair loss
- Growth retardation in babies and toddlers
- Increased susceptibility to infection
- Weight loss
- Muscle wasting
- Weakness and fatigue
While these deficiencies are seen more often in underdeveloped nations, espe- cially during times of famine, vegans who eat a variety of whole, unprocessed foods will easily meet their protein requirements. Just be sure to consume a healthy variety of vegan protein ingredients throughout your day.
Why Vegan Protein Is Better Than Animal Protein
The standard American diet, or SAD (it is pretty sad, isn’t it?), relies heav- ily on animal foods as the main source of protein. At the same time, health experts and doctors have been warning that the current avalanche of dis- eases and the growing obesity problem are direct results of our diet. These same experts plead with us to eat more fiber and fresh fruits and vegetables as a way to avoid and heal these illnesses. And it’s true; one of the easiest ways to recover from a lifetime of the SAD state of affairs is to rely on plant- based proteins.
Plant sources of protein are a wise choice, especially because so many Americans aren’t getting enough fiber in their diets. Beans, nuts, whole grains, and seeds are rich in fiber and plant-based phytochemicals, which are plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties that help lower the risk of cancers and heart disease. The positive effect of plant sources of protein is twofold:
- While ensuring your body has enough plant-based protein, you’re also taking the burden of digesting a diet full of cholesterol-filled meat and difficult-to-assimilate fats off your liver and digestive
- You also get the powerful protection of the natural health benefits found in these whole
A diet high in plant proteins can extend more benefits than just protecting your heart and bones. The Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study involv- ing 18,000 women, showed that infertility in women can be greatly affected by the type of protein they consume. Women who ate more plant sources of protein were much less likely to have infertility issues than women with few plant protein sources in their diet. Amazingly, infertility was 39 percent more likely in women who ate the most animal protein.
In T. Collin Campbell’s incredible book The China Study, the link between cancer growth and protein is drawn out. Several studies show that a diet including animal proteins can lead to cancer cell proliferation. The vegetable sources of protein have not shown the same link with cancer growth, so a vegan diet can be considered much safer for overall cancer avoidance.
Animal-based foods provide certain other important nutrients besides pro- tein, but perfectly wonderful plant sources can provide these minerals and vitamins as well. Zinc, iron, vitamin B12, and calcium can be found in the plant kingdom.
One sign that the human body is designed to absorb protein and other nutri- ents from plant foods is the length of our digestive tracts. A carnivore’s diges- tive tract is several times shorter than a purely vegetarian animal’s. So when the meat eater eats its dinner, probably a freshly caught wildebeest, it’s fin- ished digesting the meat within a few hours. A plant-eating animal has a much longer set of intestines, so the body can spend more time absorbing the nutri- ents available in plant foods. The human body has intestines that are ten times the length of the body. How’s that for a pretty clear indication that we were meant to be plant eaters?
Finding Protein in Vegan Foods
After you’ve done the math and understand how many grams of protein you need per day (see the earlier section “Protein needs for all ages and stages”), you need to plan to eat foods that will give you that amount every day. In this section, you find a helpful list of healthy vegan protein-rich foods to help you plan a delicious diet full of variety.
The best way to ensure that your body can use the vegetable-based protein that’s abundant in a vegan diet is to chew your food properly. Human saliva is the first step of the digestive process. Saliva, which contains salivary amy– lase, and chewing help your body begin to break down carbohydrates and starches. Because a majority of vegan protein sources are rich in carbohy-
drates (think grains and beans), you need to break down your food well before swallowing it. After the food gets through your stomach and into your intes- tines, your body can’t do much more to break down the fibers. And if your food is still in larger chunks, your body won’t be able to access all that nutri- tion you have worked so hard to get on your plate.
Protein-rich vegan favorites
Once you look at the following list of vegan foods and their protein contents, you’ll feel much more comfortable creating healthy menus for yourself and your family. Get out your slide rule, or an old fashioned pen and paper, and figure out how much protein you need according to the formula listed earlier. Put together a few days worth of menus that include the foods included on this list that also reach your daily needs for protein.
Protein Values of Popular Vegan Foods
|Food||Quantity||Grams of Protein|
|Almonds, raw||1⁄4 cup||8|
|Beans, black||1 cup||15|
|Beans, chickpeas||1 cup||11|
|Bread, whole-grain||2 slices||5–8|
|Broccoli, cooked||1 cup||4|
|Cashews, raw||1⁄4 cup||5|
|Hemp seeds||1 oz.||9|
|Nutritional yeast||11⁄2 Tbsp.||8|
|Pasta, whole-grain, cooked||1 cup||8–10|
|Peanut butter||2 Tbsp.||7|
|Rice, brown||1 cup||5|
|Sesame seeds||1 oz.||5|
|Soymilk (enriched)||1 cup||8–11|
|Spinach, cooked||1 cup||5|
|Sunflower seeds||1⁄4 cup||6|
|Veggie burger||1 patty||8–22|
Sources: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 18, 2005, and manufacturers’ information.
Including fermented foods for easy protein digestion
Some folks have problems digesting vegan sources of protein when they first make changes to their diet. If you haven’t eaten a lot of beans or soy foods in the past, you may experience some “musical” meals. Your intestines can do a better job digesting certain plant proteins if fermented proteins are used more often.
Pickled foods will also help your body adjust its digestion of certain proteins. In addition, Asian cultures believe that adding pickled vegetables to meals with fried foods will help you digest those fats better.
Fine fermented proteins
A realm of vegan proteins that brings up a fascinating topic is fermented foods. Fermentation is the process in which a food is exposed to a bacteria or culture. These living organisms, such as lactobacillus, which is found in yogurt, start living on and consuming the original food. These little critters actually break down the difficult-to-digest parts of foods, such as sugars and proteins, thereby making the nutrition easier for our bodies to absorb.
Fermented proteins, such as the soy foods tempeh, miso, and shoyu or tamari (the naturally brewed soy sauces), generally are easier for your body to digest. Fermented protein is digested more easily because it’s predigested by the healthy bacteria; your body is then better able to assimilate the nutrients, leading to better nutrition.
Tempeh is a great choice for people who have difficulty digesting plant-based proteins like beans or lightly processed soy foods such as tofu. Found in the refrigerator section of the grocery store, this bean product originated in Indonesia. Tempeh, which is made from whole soybeans that have been diced and exposed to a nontoxic mold called Rhizopus, is more of a whole food than tofu because it’s barely processed. Because tempeh is a fermented soy prod- uct, its enzymes are partially broken down, making it easier to metabolize. It’s a complete protein and doesn’t produce the uncomfortable gas, stomach pain, and bloating that some other plant-based proteins do. Besides being a terrific cholesterol-free, easy-to-digest meat alternative, it’s also ideal for people on low-sodium diets. A great substitute for recipes that call for fish, poultry, or meat, this meaty bean product also can be crumbled to make pasta sauces just like Mom used to make.
Pickles for better protein digestion
Pickled foods can help you digest other proteins. The bacteria found in the unpasteurized versions also increase vitamin levels of the pickled foods and help to promote a healthy digestive tract. Rather than using the pasteurized pickles found on grocery store shelves, which no longer contain the beneficial bacteria, try the fresh pickles from the refrigerated section or Asian markets.
Traditionally, these pickled or fermented foods are eaten with or after a heavy, fatty, or protein-rich meal to help aid digestion. It’s remarkable that this incredible knowledge has been used the world over by many cultures without anyone ever using the Internet or sharing a recipe. It has been simul- taneously used around the world in various cultures because people knew the natural fermentation helped them digest their food better. Vegetable foods like sauerkraut from Eastern and Northern Europe, cucumber pickles, kimchee from Korea, yogurt and lemon pickles from India, and umeboshi plums from Japan are all examples of pickled foods that are traditionally eaten with protein-rich meals to help the digestion process.
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