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Where do you get your protein?

Posted by tinako on April 27, 2009

Almost anyone who finds out I am vegan asks me this, usually sooner rather than later.  It is absolutely the most common question asked.  As a practical matter, it’s really a non-issue for me, but non-vegetarians find it confusing, so I’m going to address it here because while you can see what my menus look like, you probably do not understand the underlying model on which they are based:  How do I decide what to eat?

Please: I am not a nutritionist. While this info is based on reliable sources, this is my own distillation, and I strongly encourage you to read more at very knowledgeable sites such as the Vegetarian Resource Group.  Think of me here as a know-it-all chatting with you over tea, not your doctor.

Protein is amino acids, and every living thing is made up of them, including plants.  There is protein in your carrot.  This makes sense, if you think about it, since what do the animals that we eat for meat eat?  Plants!  Some foods are higher in protein as a percent of their calories than others.  For example, tofu, broccoli, and asparagus get 40% of their calories from protein, and watercress, unbelievably, gets 83%, whereas eggs and hamburger get a measly 33%.  That is probably because eggs and hamburger are higher calorie foods due to their fat.

There are a bunch of different amino acids, but our body can make most of them itself.  There are nine “essential” amino acids that we can’t make, so we need to consume them ready-made, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.  Animal proteins are often called “high quality proteins.”  This is because other animals have the most similar body composition to us, and so the amino acids are approximately in the proportions we need.   Soybeans, quinoa, and spinach are also considered “high quality proteins.”  “High quality” does not mean that they are healthy, just that their amino acids are already in the correct proportions.

Most foods have all the amino acids, but many plant foods are not high in them all.  For example, grains are lower in lysine and legumes are lower in methionine than those “high quality protein” sources.  You could technically meet your protein needs just by eating bread, but you would have to eat loaves and loaves and loaves every day in order to get enough lysine.  Not practical or healthy.

It sounds like this could be really confusing, trying to keep track of nine amino acids and what foods are high in each one.  Fortunately, the amino acids in the plant world seem to lump into two main groups that are found together, and plant foods tend to fall into four basic categories: high in half the amino acids (nuts, legumes), high in the other half (grains), high in all (soy, quinoa, and a few others), and high in none (most other fruits and vegetables).

The logical conclusion, then, is to eat some grains and some legumes, and they will complement each other’s deficiencies.  Most people have heard of this, and so the next question I am asked is about “combining” proteins.  The idea is that grains and legumes have to be mixed together in some complicated ratio.  This is a myth.  The truth is that, yes, you need to eat some grains and some legumes, but this is no more complicated than eating some grains and some meat.

Here’s how I do it: I make sure to eat plenty of vegetables, but I don’t really look for high-protein ones – too much to keep track of – I’m eating vegetables for other reasons.  Next, I, like most people, have no trouble consuming plenty of grains.  So the only thing I have to pay attention to is nuts/legumes.  I just make sure to have some every day, at some point.  They don’t even need to be in the same meal as the grains.  The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says vegans need 2 servings of these per day.  A serving is 1 T nut butter, 1 oz. meat substitute (veggie burger, etc), 1/4 c nuts or seeds, 1/2 c cooked legumes, 4 oz tofu or tempeh, or 1 c soymilk.  You can have more than this to satisfy your caloric needs, but this is the minimum, and it’s not much.  All day long, 2 T of peanut butter on my sandwich would completely cover my legume needs.

By the way, when I say “minimum,” that is based on the RDA, which already has almost 100% padding in it.  There is no need to have more than the 2 servings “just in case.”

Two more resources for you.  Here is my favorite Vegan Food Pyramid from the University of Chicago.  I put a permanent link on the upper right corner of my site.  And here is a short, interesting and informative podcast on this issue.

I hope I have been able to clear up the confusion on this issue.


3 Responses to “Where do you get your protein?”

  1. […] a meat (and beans) group and a milk group.  Our mothers ask us if we’re getting enough protein.  There you go, what choice do we have?  Animals may suffer, but I can’t help that, […]

  2. […] No taste difference, but it helps the nutrition – I’m not sure it makes it a complete protein, but […]

  3. […] The only vegetable in this restaurant is a pickle.  Our mothers ask us if we’re getting enough protein.  There you go, what choice do we have?  Animals may suffer, but I can’t help that, I’ve got […]

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