03 October, 2007

Where do you get your protein?

This seems to be the common follow-up to the, "What do you eat?" question. This inquiry is rooted in the Western culinary view that meat equals protein, end of story. If you are a cooking show addict (guilty!), you may note that in higher echelons of food preparation, chefs often use the terms "protein" and "meat" synonymously. So where the heck do vegans get their protein? For those of you playing at home, take note, for the next sentence will almost always be the answer to any "...where do vegans get essential nutrient X?" question. The answer--from a wide variety of foods and a naturally diverse diet.

First, let's cover what protein is. As keeping with the spirit of this blog, I am going to do this from my own understanding. I obtained most of this information from various health guides for vegans and maybe a few random biology lectures still bouncing around in my brain. Proteins are chains of amino acids, all which are necessary for healthy growth and living. There are 20 total 9 highly important essential amino acids which the human body needs to function properly. A protein is considered "high quality" or "complete" when it provides all 9 of the essential amino acids in one food. Though, this terminology often causes improper conclusions about food quality: the body needs all nine, there are no detrimental effects to one's health if they come from different sources, as long as proper quantities of all of the essential amino acids are consumed.

One of the most common sources of protein for vegans is soy/tofu/tempeh products. This is a "high quality" protein source meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids. This leads to a common misnomer. Many people with a small amount of knowledge of veganism believe that this is our ONLY source of protein. I know plenty of vegans who are allergic to tofu, soy or choose not to eat it for various reasons. It is quite easy to get sufficient protein from other sources as well!

Legumes (think beans and nuts) serve as another excellent group to satisfy protein needs. Additionally, raw vegans and those looking for less processed foods will happily choose items from this family to fulfill daily protein requirements. Legumes stand as an excellent choice for any diet; they are cheap, delicious, rich in protein and loaded with both fiber and iron.

Textured Vegetable Protein, as the name hints, is another great protein provider. Many vegan faux meats and substitutes offer substantial amounts of daily requirements. These are great supplement foods but especially new vegans should be warned they are highly processed and often loaded with sodium. Sodium, even for vegans, should be kept at moderate levels as it reduces the bioavailability of many helpful chemicals and nutrients. In simpler terms, one's body cannot absorb the good stuff when a diet is overloaded with salt.

Almost all vegetables offer protein, just in smaller amounts than the previously mentioned foods. Have no fear, a well planned, diverse vegan diet will provide you with plenty of protein. So how much protein does one need exactly? This depends on your size and level of activity. A 150 lb man that is not particularly active requires about 70 grams of protein per day, where a woman at 130 lbs will probably need around 60 grams. Those readers in countries smart enough to use the metric system (cough, cough, side rant) will find the calculation very easy....about 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight for those with average amounts of daily exertion.

Those in strenuous cardiovascular sports will most likely need around 1.5 the amount of those listed for sedentary individuals. If you are weight lifting to be a swarthy vegan pro-wrestler, you could need almost double the standard amount. This might sound like a huge challenge, but as a former weight lifter (several years ago) you will most likely find that heavy resistance exercise will leave you prone to seconds, thirds, fourths at dinner followed by covering the sofa in balsamic vinaigrette and devouring that as well.

I give you all of this information with the massive disclaimer that I am not a nutritionist. If you are particularly concerned about a well balanced cruelty-free diet, especially as a vegan newbie (I say this with complete love), a few consultations with a dietitian might be a worthwhile investment. This brings me to another warning, find a certified individual that is knowledgeable and friendly toward vegans. There are countless brilliant, intelligent, open minded nutritionists out there. There are also ones as ignorant as the general population. If you are going to drop the cash, a little investigative work will ensure that it is money well spent.

In closing, vary your diet. Don't skip the legumes. Soy and tofu are another great source if they are to your liking. If you still struggle to meet your requirements, consider nut butters and possibly vegan supplement shakes and drinks. Consulting a professional can help you thoughtfully plan out a protein packed menu, but a little foresight and some healthy habits go a long way.
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