Sunday, October 9, 2011

Vegans and Protein

I would venture to say that most of us in the United States grow up learning that meat is the vital source of protein in a healthy and balanced diet.  It is therefore not surprising to me that the question I am most frequently asked is how I can possibly get enough protein without consuming meat.  After all, the issue of protein is what kept me from going completely vegetarian for four years before becoming vegan!

Meat is obviously a huge part of the American diet.  In general, it seems to me that people are slowly shifting how they think about nutrition.  I am noticing more vegan products on the shelves in regular grocery stores, for example.  However, people continue to focus on protein as if it should be the greatest component of one’s diet.  In actuality, even the USDA’s nutritional recommendations have changed, and are now more favorable to a plant-based diet.  The Food Pyramid that we all grew up with has now been replaced with My Plate.   The Food Pyramid recommended a specific number of servings from each food group. My Plate suggests that we eat a variety of foods, and that half of our diet is comprised of fruits and vegetables.  Instead of the “meat, poultry, fish, dried beans, eggs, and nuts group,” My Plate has a Protein Food Group.  If you look at the way My Plate is broken down, the Protein Food Group is not the largest.  It really is not difficult for a vegan to consume the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of protein, which is 10% of calories from protein, from a variety of sources.



The book Skinny Bitch includes an entire chapter called “The Myths and Lies About Protein”—I love it!  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a succinct overview of the health benefits of going vegan, along with a good laugh.  Anyway, the authors point out that a plant-based diet provides all essential nine amino acids.  It also argues that “Too much protein—especially animal protein—can impair our kidneys; leach calcium, zinc, vitamin B, iron, and magnesium from our bodies; and cause osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, and obesity.  In addition, high amounts of protein can damage our tissues, organs, and cells, contributing to faster aging” (85).  Similar findings have been reported in the documentaries Food Matters and Forks Over Knives.  Too much protein is a bad thing!

I think the real danger with under-consumption of protein is for vegetarians and vegans who fail to carefully plan their diets.  It can be fairly easy to fall into one of two traps: a diet that lacks variety and is based on processed foods, or not eating enough food in general.  There is a lot of research and planning ahead involved with this lifestyle.  Rather than providing a list of all the ways a vegan can find protein in a plant-based diet, here is what I eat on a typical work-day:

            -1 cup cereal –  4 grams
            -1 cup Soy milk – 7 grams
            -1 cup orange juice – 2 grams

            -1 cup green grapes – 1 gram

            -2 pieces whole wheat bread – 8 grams
            -2 tbsp peanut butter - 8 grams
-1 pumpkin flax-seed granola bar – 3 grams
            -1 banana – 2 grams
            -4 tbsp hummus - 2 grams
            -1 cup whole wheat chips – 2 grams

            -1 cup spinach salad – 1 gram
-with cashews – 1 gram
            -1 cup brown rice – 5 grams
            -1 cup black beans - 12 grams
            -1 whole grain tortilla – 5 grams

And the grand total is, 63 grams!  If you'll notice, I usually don't even include "weird" foods like tofu or seitan on my daily menu.  It's not difficult to find protein in lots of different and delicious foods.  This is why there is a good number of athletes and even body builders who are vegan.  I typically run several miles each day, and have found that I feel more energetic on a vegan diet.  In fact, now that I’ve added it all up, I think I’m getting too much protein…

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