Protein

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It seems to be the case that the words “veganism” and “protein” are as closely linked as salt and pepper in the minds of nonvegans.

Indeed, perhaps the most common question asked once it’s revealed that someone is vegan is “where do you get your protein?”

The answer, of course, is food. People get their protein from food, no matter what their diet consists of. I’ve mentioned in previous posts the problems with essentialist thinking — particularly with respect to veganism and advocacy — and this is no exception.

The category of “vegan” food is identical to the category of “food without protein” in the brains of those who have not given veganism much thought. There are foods with protein (vegan), and there are foods without protein (non-vegan), they seem to believe.

In reality, every food contains protein, not just meat products. A watermelon contains 28 grams of protein. A cucumber contains one gram of protein. There is no such thing as a food that is void of protein.

Furthermore, people overestimate how much protein is actually needed in a given day. Current nutritional recommendations center on just 50 grams of daily intake of protein for a 2,000 calorie diet. Two watermelons would cover this, though for other reasons (560 grams of sugar!) it’s not a great idea to try that. Yes, the dietary recommendations are flawed and outdated, but as far as protein intake goes there’s no reason to think they’re wrong. Most people get two to three times the recommended daily value, subscribing to the questionable notion that more protein is always better. Even the ketogenic folks are wary of the protein-craze. It’s not such a surprising trend, however, given that fat and carbs have been demonized (unreasonably and reasonably, respectively) in the recent past. What else am I supposed to eat?, people certainly wonder, mouth full of beef jerky.

This is all to say that protein is not an issue for vegans. For one, as long as you consume enough calories in a day, you’re getting enough protein. This can actually be a pretty big problem for new vegans. Meat and other animal products are often very calorie-dense foods; the volume of food one must consume to get enough calories on a vegan diet outsizes that of an omnivorous one.

In addition, we natural gravitate toward protein-rich foods, like tofu and fake meats, lentils, nuts, tempeh, seitan, kale, broccoli, etc. because they taste good. A meal simply feels incomplete without something relatively dense in protein (what diet-essentialists simply call “a protein”).

Speaking of “completeness,” another common canard is the whole “complete protein” myth. A complete protein is a food that contains all nine essential amino acids. Most or all meat and animal products fall into this category. However, some plants are often thought to be missing one or two essential amino acids; this is what causes people to advocate combining plant foods that complement each other’s amino acid profile. But it turns out that plant foods always have all nine essential amino acids, though one or two of them may be in short supply.

Now, if you were to only consume, say, broccoli for months on end, you’d probably be in trouble, since it is deficient in one essential amino acid. But nobody does that. Indeed, most of us consume more than one food at a time, nearly guaranteeing that the amino acid profile of the foods on our plate are complementing one another. It is rare — one would have to try quite hard — to consume a plate of food in which everything on it is deficient in the same amino acid. Further, because amino acids consumed throughout the day can complement each other, one would have to ensure that their breakfast, lunch, and dinner all consist of plants that are deficient in the same amino acid in order for it to be a problem.

As it happens, many vegan foods are already complete proteins. Ironically, tofu, which many assume is all that vegans eat, is a complete protein.

There are legitimate concerns with adopting a vegan diet. For example, supplementing B12 and omega-3s are a must. And you ought to ensure that you are consuming enough calories, otherwise you will feel miserable. As long as you take care of those two factors, you will do just fine. Protein is not worthy of concern.

Just ask Patrik Baboumian.

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