If there were a Buzzfeed list of “15 Things Vegans Totally Understand,”* the headaches caused by excessive eye-rolling in response to being asked, “But, where do you get your protein from?” would be topping that list.
The misconceptions about protein stem, in large part, from dietary information we are fed (pun!) by our governments and medical professions, namely, that you need to eat meat and dairy for protein and calcium. The argument that gets bandied about in favor of animal protein is that animal products are the only source of all essential amino acids. Even if the “only source of esssential amino acids” argument were actually true (it’s not), it’s still not a valid argument against a plant-based diet.
My own doctor had a minor conniption when I said I was vegan, and started rattling off buzzwords like, “essential amino acids,” and “protein deficiency.” When I wouldn’t budge, he sighed, and said, “Okay, well just make sure you get a mix of nuts and soy to get all the essential amino acids.” Really? REALLY? It is so tall an order to ask someone to eat two different food types, that it strikes you as easier to overhaul their entire eating practice to a less healthy one?
The other big concern medical professionals and family/friends alike have with veganism is that you just can’t possibly be getting enough protein (never mind the amino acid composition of said protein). Most people believe that all produce is completely bereft of any protein content. This wrong information is so pervasive that when I was in graduate school, a fellow graduate student from the Biology department sat across from me at lunch explaining to me that there was no protein in fruit. I nearly concussed myself from slamming my head into the table in front of me in disbelief of what I was hearing. This is a person who has a degree in biology, which is nearly impossible to achieve without stumbling across the concept of The Central Dogma of Biology, which is a fancy way of saying DNA gives RNA which in turn gives Protein. That’s the main thing that cells do. Everything else is downstream of protein production. The nucleus, the very control center of a cell? It’s a glorified a library of recipes to make proteins. In other words, if it has got cells, it has got protein.
Despite what you have been told, there is plenty of protein in fresh fruits and vegetables. Most plants contain about 5% of their calories in protein. That may not sound like much, but let’s compare that to breastmilk. Breastmilk is designed by nature to meet the needs of babies. During infancy, we have the fasted growth rate of any point of our lives, and thus have the single highest protein requirements of any point of our lives. That requirement? About 5% of your calories. At any other time in your life, regardless of your profession or exercise goals, you don’t need anywhere close to that amount. Even if you’re a bodybuilder, you are not doubling your weight in a 5-6 month period like a baby does.
Despite the fact that 5% protein is the peak of our protein needs over the entire course of our lives, we are told that protein-rich foods should make up between 10 to 35 percent of our daily calories by entities such as the USDA. This misinformation is taken up by nutritionists and doctors alike, and filters down to the general public via their family doctor and campaigns such as MyPlate. It’s not that the people making these recommendations are bad scientists. It’s that they are bad people. The simple fact is that the USDA committee that makes these recommendations is a massive example of conflict interest. Year after year, these people have financial interests in the meat and dairy industry. It benefits them to ignore scientific fact, and to promote the consumption of excessive protein through meat and dairy. Sadly, when this misinformation is delivered year after year, it becomes accepted by the public as fact to the point that delivering a scientifically-based message of healthy living becomes almost impossible.
But what’s the harm? So what if we’re eating 35% of our calories in the form of protein when, as adults, we likely need 1-2%. Surely our bodies will simply take what the need and excrete or egest the remainder? Nope. It is well known that excess protein in the body comes with a host of health risks including back pain, osteoporosis, kidney stones and renal disease, heart disease and even cancer, especially when those proteins are derived from animal products (P.S. men, animal protein causes Low-T). Too much protein is as bad for you as smoking! And, oh yeah, and excess protein gets converted to fat in your body.
The easiest way of ensuring your body has enough protein, without consuming the excessive amounts that contribute to so-called “diseases of affluence,” is to replace all animal-derived products with plant-based, whole foods. And before you worry about not getting enough protein, ask yourself this: have you ever met someone diagnosed with protein deficiency? Have you heard of a friend of a friend being diagnosed with protein deficiency, or even having the symptoms of protein deficiency? I have heard of plenty of people having anemia from iron deficiency. Iron is something you should supplement, or at least monitor the levels of in your diet. B12 is another tricky thing to get solely from plant sources.
But protein is something that never, ever needs to be supplemented. We get plenty of it, no matter what we eat, and no matter what we want our bodies to do. In closing, vegans get plenty of protein.
* added in proof.