One of the classic questions that vegans get is “Where do you get your vegan protein?” or questions to that effect. Most times folks are genuinely curious but there is also sometimes the undertone that a vegan diet cannot meet all your protein needs.
I like to keep pretty healthy as you’ll know if you’ve read this blog a bit. I keep at you to keep healthy and strong so that veganism can be seen as a lifestyle filled with health and vitality. As such, I often here questions about vegan protein from bodybuilders and gym rats who have been indoctrinated to believe that you need tons of protein and specifically animal protein in order to build muscle.
As such, the argument goes, you’ll have a hard time competing as a vegan bodybuilder. Though this is not about vegan protein requirements for bodybuilders, I think that the likes of Robert Cheeke, Kenneth Williams and Avi Lehyani might disagree.
But the focus of this blog post is a more generalized discussion of the types of vegan protein and perhaps answering the hidden question behind the question “Where do you get your protein?” which is “Can you get enough protein on a vegan diet?”
As an aside it is always fun to point out that the biggest land mammals are all veg*n. Take the likes of the elephant, rhino, hippopotamus and gorilla. Something else I don’t hear mentioned often is the fact that the veg*n land mammals generally live longer than the carnivores.
Elephants typically live for 50 to 70 years if not being hunted. Rhinos can live 35 to 50 years and gorillas can live 35 to 50 years. This compares favourably to the lion (16 to 26 years) and the hyena (12 to 25 years).
I find it fun to think about. I don’t know any science behind this, but I believe that a vegetable diet as opposed to a carnivorous or omnivorous diet is a cleaner burning fuel for the body and perhaps that is a part of the reason that veg*n animals live longer than carnivorous ones.
However, we are not elephants or rhino, lions or hyenas so one should be cautious when extrapolating from nature to the human condition.
So when talking about vegan protein requirements we first have to figure out how much protein a human being needs on a daily basis. And along with that we need to also have a rudimentary understanding of what the purpose of protein is in the human diet.
Proteins are basically the building blocks of life. Protein is needed to build and repair human tissues and it is found in all human bodily fluids except for bile and urine. Protein is also important during growth periods such as bodybuilding, childhood, adolescence and pregnancy. You can read more here.
As many of you may know, protein’s basic elements are amino acids and there are 9 essential amino acids which means that we need to obtain those amino acids from the protein in our foods. Our bodies cannot make these 9 amino acids. The human body however makes use of around 22 amino acids which means that we can make the other 13 which are considered non-essential.
The quick answer to the question “Can a vegan diet provide all essential amino acids?” is a resounding yes. If you eat a variety of plant foods and get sufficient calories you will meet your protein and essential amino acids requirements.
I mean, just think about it. How many people within your circle of friends/family/work etc are protein deficient in the Western World? None right?
The most common protein deficiency disease is kwashiorkor of which we are familiar with from those images of poor African children with the distended bellies. Kwashiorkor is commonly – almost always – associated with deficiency in calories. Kwashiorkor is hardly ever found in the West.
Okay, so we know that as long as we get enough calories from our varied whole foods vegan diet we don’t have to worry about protein. But it might be good to know how much protein the human body requires for those who are curious.
When looking at human protein requirement I prefer to go with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization’s recommendations rather than USDA or other groups that are poisoned by the influence of business. Not to say that the WHO is unimpeachable but perhaps the more honest of all of them.
This report suggests levels based on your weight and caloric intakes. But for our purposes, if you are getting 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight you are getting more than enough and a terrific safety margin to boot.
Put another way, your estimated percent of calories that should come from protein should be around 10% (just under, but 10% is a nice round number). So if you need 2,000 calories per day then 200 of those calories (50 grams) should be derived from protein. I get 50 grams because a gram of protein provides 4 calories so 4 calories x by 50 grams of protein = 200 calories from protein.
The Vegetarian Resource Group has a nice write up about how easy it is to get sufficient protein in your daily diet from a variety of vegan foods.
Now in my opinion, this 10% requirement for protein is probably twice as much or more than twice as much as is needed to sustain a healthy human. Why do I say this? Well because when I think of the time in our lives when we do the most growing (and remember protein is important for growth), it is in the first 1 to 2 years of our lives and our most common food during that time is breast milk – or it should be 🙂 And human breast milk is only about 5% of calories from protein (see link below).
As such, surely if at our most crucial stages of growth we only require 5% of calories from protein it stretches my imagination that we would need twice as much once we are fully grown adults or slower growing (as compared to babies) teenagers. But that’s just me 😉
Dr. McDougall cites the WHO as mentioned above which suggest 5% of calories from protein for healthy adults. The article at that link is a great read if you want an more in depth explanation about human requirements for protein.
In closing, getting enough vegan protein is easy whether you want to go for 10% or a more reasonable 5%. Also, there is no “best” vegan protein, all kinds are important and fruits, veggies, beans and legumes have varying amounts of the different essential and non-essential amino acids so enjoy variety in your diet.
And if you want to weight train and build extra muscle, you don’t need a ton more protein, the body can only produce so much extra protein or muscle per day. Stay tuned for a bodybuilding protein tutorial. But you can easily supplement with rice, hemp, pea, soy and other protein powders.
Stay strong, live plant healthy.