Thursday, November 20, 2014

Where Do Vegetarians and Vegans Get Their Protein?

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

So while I haven't called myself vegetarian or vegan yet, the first meat I've had in over two weeks was in my chili on Tuesday night. My aunt and uncle had taken me out for dinner, and I'd decided to stay in town - which means not many options. I saw chili and salad on the menu which sounded so good, especially considering the freezing cold outside, so that's what I ordered.

In that moment, I completely forgot why I hadn't been ordering meat out: I want to know where it comes from! I want it to be grass-fed and treated right if I'm going to eat any meat! Which, in my budget, will probably translate to cooking it at home. I feel like all of the restaurants around here that are conscious of where their meat comes from are way out of my budget.

But anyway, so I'd spaced out, which wasn't a big deal - since I haven't established any particular diet that I'm following yet. My aunt works as a dietician in a nursing home, and knew that I have been changing my diet. During conversation, she asked about me eating meat, and then proceeded with, "So how are you getting your protein?"

As soon as she said it, I knew that I had read about this very question in at least one of the books I've read this year, but could I remember the details of what it had said? Of course not. All I could muster is, "Plants and fruits." Later, "Oh - and beans! Legumes! Everything has protein." She said, "But it's not the same type of protein." And I think that conversation ended with a weak "I get enough protein" or something from me. It's fuzzy now.

Later that night I remembered that elephants, the strongest land mammals, are herbivorous. Should have spouted that fact! I also remembered something from one of the books about the fact that protein was the first nutrient discovered, and extra importance was placed on it because the lab rats died without any. This is how my memory usually works in cases like these - I can't remember the specifics of what I've read/seen unless I write it down and study it.

So today I wanted to look into the topic more, be sure that I was getting "enough" protein, and learn how to answer the question better next time.

How much protein do you need each day?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the following daily intake of protein in adults:
  • Women: 46 grams protein
  • Men: 56 grams protein
Government health recommendations are too often littered with political agendas, but I think this is all right to go by.

And so what does that mean in terms of food? From what I've read, basically if you eat a varied diet it's hard not to reach this amount. Most Americans actually get way more than the recommended daily value, and apparently it's not clear (or not agreed upon yet) if consuming excess amounts is harmful or not. So I wouldn't go out of your way to surpass this daily intake amount.

Why is protein important?

As I touched on above, protein has this extra importance placed on it, at least in the American society. That's because it was one of the first nutrients discovered. Researchers found out that lab rats died when they didn't have any protein, so it was seen as this special nutrient that sustains life. Yes, without any you will die, but the benefits of protein were very much exaggerated.

What's in this protein that sustains life? Amino acids, the building blocks of life. Our body can make many amino acids, but there are nine that we must consume from outside sources in order to have them in our bodies. These are called essential amino acids. There's such an emphasis on meats, dairy, and fish when it comes to protein because they carry all nine of these essential amino acids, and are thus labeled "complete proteins."

There is still plenty of protein in plant-based sources, but each of these individual sources will not contain all nine essential amino acids. That's why a healthy varied diet should be getting you what you need. So which vegetarian and vegan foods provide the most protein?

Where can vegetarians and vegans get protein?

Here are some foods where both vegetarians and vegans can get some of their protein. It is not at all exhaustive, and when there are categories, I've only listed a few suggestions.
  • Green peas
  • Edamame
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts and nut butter (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, cashews, pine nuts)
  • Beans (red, black, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Tofu
  • Leafy greens
  • Seeds (chia, sunflower, sesame, poppy)
  • Avocado
For those of you looking for longer lists, and breakdowns of exactly how much protein is found in each item (and even which amino acids), check out these awesome sources:
For Vegetarians: Vegetarian Protein Foods via No Meat Athlete
For Vegans: Protein in the Vegan Diet via The Vegetarian Resource Group  

So that's what I've compiled so far on this protein topic. Yes, we need it, and yes you can get enough on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Hopefully now we're all a little more prepared for the next time a well-intentioned family member or friend inquires about our protein intake.
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