"You're a vegan?"
"Oh. So where do you get your protein?"
Every vegan who's been at plant-eating for any length of time has been faced with this question. Ironically, it often comes from the mouths of the unhealthiest and least conscious eaters in the world, and is directed at lean, immensely healthy and energetic beings.
I don't blame them for asking. In America, we've been brainwashed since childhood by the inane government food pyramid, meat and dairy industry campaigns, and often our moms and dads to think the pursuit of protein is one of the most crucial elements to our survival.
But it is maddening that almost none of the askers seem satisfied with the short and simple form of the answer: "We just do."
Miami nutrition counselor Nick Valencia, who's clearly been ravaged by the effects of a "protein-deficient" plant-based diet
A fully fleshed-out answer (no pun intended) would include specifics about the actual protein requirements for human beings (probably a fraction of the amount you are eating), the fact that many Americans are getting waaaay more protein than they need, which can have incredibly detrimental effects, including draining calcium from bones through the urine (Ever wonder why Americans consume more dairy than almost anyone else in the world and yet have one of the highest rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures? It's because they "got milk."), and the fact that all plant foods contain varying amounts of easily absorbable protein. (Calorie-for-calorie, spinach contains more protein than beef, and it replaces beef's cholesterol, carcinogens, and saturated fat with fiber, antioxidants, and an incredible array of phytonutrients.)
A satisfactory answer would also require a lengthy explanation to debunk the falsehood that plant proteins are "incomplete" and require meticulous food pairing and planning in order to get the full range of essential amino acids.
In short, many people who ask this question require so much demythologizing, it's hard to know where to start.
All this explaining can wear on a person. So I went to Nick Valencia, the founder of Plant Based Body and a health coach certified by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition whose plant-based journey I introduced yesterday, to let him talk about it for a while.
Beet Reporter: So Nick, you've eaten almost zero animal products for two years now, and yet you don't appear to be dead from protein deficiency. How did you do it?
Nick Valencia: For whatever reason, whether it's from media or just from politics, people are associating "protein" just with animal products. Eggs, fish, dairy, that's what people think protein is, when in fact, most foods contain some amount of protein.
Plant-based sources of protein are found in, you know, nuts, beans, legumes, peas, whole grains... but there's a few differences between animal protein and plant-based protein [sources]. They both contain iron, zinc, calcium. Animal protein sources, however do not contain the fiber [that plants do], and they're high in cholesterol and saturated fats. And we know that several studies show that saturated fats have been linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease and many other diseases.
Plant protein [sources] on the other hand contain fiber which has been shown to lower cholesterol and control blood sugar. Plant protein sources also contain phytochemicals and antioxidants, which protect our cells from free radicals, repair our cells, improve our immune systems... these are all benefits of plant-based proteins.
But what they are missing is the B-12. The main benefit of animal protein is that it contains vitamin B-12. There's one other non-meat source of B-12, which is bee pollen. Technically, it's not vegan, but as I said, it's non-meat. But there are other supplements you can take for B-12. [Nutritional yeast is another vegan source. Dr. Joel Fuhrman recommends supplementing B-12 when adopting a plant-based diet.]
Protein needs vary from person to person. Generally it should be about 10 to 15 percent of your calorie intake, maybe slightly more for athletes. The only people who might need additional protein would be people undergoing hospitalization, wound care, something like that.
Our bodies also don't store excess protein, so if you eat too much, it can lead to it being converted to fatty acids, which can lead to weight gain. There are also high protein diets that cause protein breakdown, which is a high-protein byproduct called urea, which causes increased water loss. Too much protein also causes calcium to be excreted in the urine and can lead to kidney stones and bone loss as well. There are studies that show that long term excessive protein consumption can lead to kidney and liver damage.
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SHOW ME HOW
So the bottom line is, if you're eating a nutritarian-style plant-rich diet, without thinking about it you're getting enough protein?
Absolutely. If you're eating a variety of plant foods, you're getting more protein than your body needs, and plant-based proteins are more digestable, more absorbable and require less energy for digestion and absorption than animal proteins.
Spirulina, for example, is one of the highest density plant-based protein sources. It's easily available in raw powder form. So just imagine: mix that with water and it's easily assimilated into your body. Now compare that to steak. It requires so much, to chew that, to get it to a liquid form, and to digest that solid food requires so much energy. So that's where a lot of your energy's going. That's why people are tired after eating heavy meals like steak.