For a Danish version: Proteiner
I am really new to veganism, but I already get a lot of questions about what I eat. And one very common question is: where do you get your proteins? I guess many of you vegans out there have had the same experience.
Actually this question also concerned me the most when I stopped eating meat. So in the beginning I would make sure that I had one protein shake every day and that I always had chickpea hummus in my fridge. But the question and fear of not getting enough protein made me do a lot of research, and what I discovered was a big eye-opener for me.
We live in a very protein focused world. On a daily basis we are told that we need our proteins and that meat is the best source. We find advertisements everywhere with protein powder, protein bars and protein shakes. “Eat proteins and gain muscles”. A lot of people actually think that THIS is why we need proteins, to build up muscle and strength. But what is it exactly about protein that is so important? Is it really only to get muscles? What is protein altogether? And from where do we get our proteins?
First I want to make one thing clear. We eat food. Not isolated nutrients like proteins, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates etc. Food is a package deal. Along with the proteins from meat you ALSO get saturated fat and cholesterol, both bad for you. Along with proteins from plants you DON’T get any cholesterol or saturated fat (few exeptions), instead you get fibers, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, all good for you. I think we should start to look more at the whole picture, and not just one single item, because the interactions between what we eat and what happens in the body are so complex, so I repeat: food is a package deal. Some packages are really good, some you simply would want to avoid.
Anyways, back to the proteins. Proteins are build of chains of amino acids. There are hundreds of different types of amino acids, but the proteins that the human beings build are made out of 21 different amino acids, combined in chains in different lengths and combinations. Of these 21 amino acids, 9 are said to be essential, which means that our body cannot make them, so we have to get them through what we eat, the remaining 12 amino acids we can build ourselves. Proteins have so many more roles in our body than just to build up muscle. They are vital for us, without proteins our body simply could not work. Every protein has its own job. They do everything from transportation of molecules, communication with other cells and the make-up of tissues (e.g. muscle). Some of our hormones, like insulin and growth factor, are also build of proteins. Antibodies (which are part of our immune system) are proteins too. Just to mention a few examples.
So without a doubt we need amino acids to build proteins to maintain all these important functions in our body. The problem with the proteins we eat, e.g. from meat, is that we cannot just reuse the proteins. It goes like this: when you eat a piece of beef your digestive system immediately starts to break this beef down into proteins, water and fat (the main components of meat). Then the proteins are broken down into amino acids. Now the body absorb the amino acids so it can start rebuilding its own proteins from them. It is actually pretty hard work for your body to break down this heavy meat to get the important amino acids, even if it does it without complaining. And the amino acids are not the same quality after they have been used to make meat one time. So here you are, after eating the meat, using a lot of energy to get building blocks in a lower quality than you could actually wish for.
The good news are that all – and I repeat ALL – plant based whole foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains) contain proteins. And they don’t come in hard-digestible proteins. They come like pure, unspoiled amino acids. New and high quality building blocks, really easy for your body to use. The content of proteins vary, you will find a list of good sources of plant proteins further down.
A general misunderstanding refers to the term “complete” protein. That a protein is complete means that you get all 9 essential amino acids in a balanced amount from one protein source. Animal products, like beef, poultry, milk and eggs are “complete” proteins, and yes plant proteins are “incomplete” (except maybe quinoa, but there seems to be some confusion on this one). Well, since “complete” sounds better than “incomplete”, you might think that proteins from animals are better than proteins from plants. But so much research now show that you don’t need every single essential amino acid in every single bite in every single meal during the day. Your body is super intelligent and it takes what it needs and what it lacks every time you eat, and if you just get all the essential amino acids during a day it can easily build up the proteins it needs. And as written above, in the package deal from the world of plants you don’t get saturated fat and cholesterol, but instead you get a lot of fibers, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates and the good fat. The key to the problem with the essential amino acids is that you need to eat a varied plant based diet. You will get a problem if you only eat chickpeas. But then again, who would want to only eat chickpeas, they are good – yes – but maybe a bit boring after a while. Eat fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains in different colors, different textures and both raw and cooked. Every single day. Then you are good to go.
A quote from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration:
“It is a common misunderstanding, that it is difficult to get enough proteins when you eat vegetarian. The quality of proteins from plants are approximately just as good as the quality of proteins from animals, as long as you eat different types of plants during the day”.
All right, so far so good. But if you are just a little like me, maybe more questions are coming now. Like how much protein do I actually need? And can I get too m
uch protein? And can I gain muscle on plant protein?
The very quick answers to these questions are: you need far less protein than you might think, and YES you can very easily get too much protein (IF the protein source is an animal product), and try to google vegan athletes and you will see that lack of muscle, strength and endurance is not an issue at all.
A quote from dr. Mikael Bitsch, chief surgeon at Copenhagen University Hospital: “Do I get enough protein? Yes, without a doubt. It is completely unproblematic. If you eat until you are satiated from a varied plant based diet, it is unavoidable that you get enough protein. And it is a big misunderstanding, when those who do a lot of fitness, think that they need at lot of extra protein. Not to speak about diets high in proteins, which can give you severe side effects and cause disease. This is confirmed by the newest science summed up by WHO that shows, that too much protein, especially protein from processed meat, increase the risk of cancer”
Soon I will post vol. 2 on the protein- problem. Here I will discuss how much proteins you actually need, and why it is potentially harmful for you to get too much proteins from animals. I will also give examples of easy ways to get enough protein on a plantbased diet.
Somehow some people get very provoked when the subject “proteins” is discussed. You can see in their eyes that they want to yell at me: “Don’t you dare to touch my Friday steak!” and “Oh my god, these annoying vegans are so judgmental”. And here I haven’t even started talking about animal rights or the environmental problems with the industry of the animal products ;). I really don’t try to make anybody feel bad about what they do, and I don’t have the truth. We are all different individual beings on our individual journeys. I simply want to deliver science based facts and my considerations. Then it is up to you to act upon it. Let us not judge each other. We are all free to choose what makes sense to us. You are free to eat what you want and I am free to write what I want. I just honestly hope, that what I write will make you consider choosing something else.
If you want to know more, I can recommend “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell. He looks at the diet as a cause of the western diseases like diabetes, cancer, heartdiseas, osteoporosis and more. Really good reading.
Also, on nutritionfacts.org on youtube, you will find many short videos that sum up the huge amount of science in this field. Regarding proteins I can recommend this: Do vegetarians get enough proteins?
Good plant sources of protein:
Beans, lentils, quinoa, chickpeas hemp seeds, tahini, oats, seeds and nuts like sun flower, pumpkin and almonds. Remember, you find proteins in all plants also broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms etc, just in smaller amounts.
Now there is only one thing left to say. Enjoy, and eat the greens.