The issue of protein in one's diet is a hot topic, especially the debate about vegan protein versus animal based sources. There is perhaps no greater talked about aspect of nutrition. By far the most asked question I have received as a nutritionist is about protein. But before we get into detail on this subject let's define our main terms.
According to Dictionary.com the definition of protein is, "Any of a group of complex organic macromolecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and usually sulfur and are composed of one or more chains of amino acids. Proteins are fundamental components of all living cells and include many substances, such as enzymes, hormones, and antibodies, that are necessary for the proper functioning of an organism. They are essential in the diet of animals for the growth and repair of tissue and can be obtained from foods such as meat, fish, eggs, milk, and legumes."(1)
I find this definition to be insightful on two levels. First, it does cover the biochemical nature of these compounds and gives a concise statement of their purpose in human bodies.
The second point that I find very interesting is the list of foods mentioned as sources for protein. As is typical in the U.S. mainstream nutritional analysis, meat and dairy are generally portrayed as the main protein sources, and vegan protein sources are barely mentioned and/or often said to be inferior. We will explore this point in further detail below, because it is a very important topic that needs to be brought under scrutiny.
Vegan and Veganism
The term vegan was created in 1944 by Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley. The impetus to create this term came from a desire to modify the word vegetarian in order to further designate a way of life and eating that excluded animal products.
The original definition of veganism, according to the Memorandum of Association of the Vegan Society was:
"In this memorandum the word 'veganism' denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, including humans and the environment.
In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."(2)
There are many modern adaptations of this definition, however, I feel that this one covers the scope and breadth of the term nicely. It is clear from this that a vegan is one who incorporates these ideas into many areas of their life, rather than just nutrition. I find that this integrative approach touches at the heart of what many vegans are trying to do, which is create personal as well as planetary health.
It is also interesting to note that Donald Watson lived to the ripe old age of 95 and was a vegan for over 60 years. His life is a testament to the efficacy of this diet toward creating and sustaining health.
Vegan protein, is any protein that comes from a plant source only.
Let the Truth be Told
Now that we are clear on what is meant by these terms, lets begin to look more deeply into this topic.
One of the first things I like to do when I contemplate on a subject is to probe in my mind's eye where I first gathered information on that topic. This allows me to question the root assumptions that I carry with me and helps me think critically rather than simply accepting my memories as facts.
During childhood and growing up I learned about the so called superiority of animal proteins from none other than the meat and dairy industries. This came in the form of influential commercials and grade school textbooks and charts, which touted meat and dairy as the only sources for quality protein.
According to John Robbins in his book Diet for a New America, the meat and dairy industries poured millions of dollars into campaigns to make schools proclaim that meat and dairy sources of protein are superior to plant or vegan protein (3). John also mentions that the basic four food groups of the recently modified food pyramid, which place more importance on animal based foods, were promoted by the National Egg Board, the National Dairy Council, and the National Livestock and Meat Board (4).
It is curious to consider that the main proponents of the superiority of animal based protein and inferiority of vegan protein, are industries that have a direct financial benefit through such claims.
Un-biased scientific data is the kind that humans deserve. No longer can we afford, both literally and metaphorically, to be swayed by corporations and groups that have a direct interest in the truth not being told.
The truth is, according to innumerable organizations such as the American Dietetic Association, the Max Planck Institute of Nutritional Research in Germany, the British medical journal Lancet , non-profit groups, and independent researchers, that plant based proteins and plant based diets supply all the necessary high quality vegan protein needed for the human body to flourish (5).
Complete Proteins and Protein Combining
A complete protein is one that contains all eight of the essential amino acids needed for human functioning. According to the Max Planck Institute of Nutritional Research, complete proteins can be obtained from the following plant foods: almonds, sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, soy beans, buckwheat, all leafy greens, and most fruits (6).
Protein combining was made popular in the U.S. in 1971 after the publication of Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Lappe. In the first edition of this book, she stressed the importance of combining certain foods together, such as beans and rice, in order to eat all eight of the essential amino acids in one meal and make complete proteins.
Although having good intentions, unfortunately Frances' ideas caught the imagination of the main stream and continue on to this day. In her 1981 edition of the same book, however, she renounced her statements on protein combining and stated that by consuming a variety of foods, protein requirements could be met. This has since been backed up by countless organizations such as the ones mentioned above. Conclusion: protein combing in unnecessary.
It should be becoming clear by now that vegan protein sources are definitely sufficient to meet our dietary needs. But would you like even more proof? Perhaps some numbers? Well, here they are...
Nutrient Level Data
The following data (7) of commonly consumed foods is taken from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21:
Note: g stands for grams of protein
1. Hazelnuts: 1 cup = 32 g
2. Lentils: 1 cup = 18 g
3. Quinoa, cooked: 1 cup = 9 g
4. Rice (brown): 1 cup = 5 g
4. Spinach: 1 cup = 5 g
5. Sunflower seeds: 1 cup = 24 g
6. Tofu: 1/4 block = 7 g
7. Wheat flour (whole grain): 1 cup = 16 g
1. Beef (ground): 3 ounces = 22 g
2. Egg: 1 large = 7 g
3. Fish: 3 ounces = 20-25 g
4. Cheese (cheddar): 1 ounce = 7 g
5. Chicken (meat and skin): 1 drumstick = 31 g
6. Milk (whole): 1 cup = 8 g
As we have seen, there are many plant based foods with comparable amounts of protein to animal based foods, and there are many vegan protein sources that have complete proteins. We also learned that protein combining is unnecessary because the body can store amino acids, and therefore what is essential is to supply the body with the needed amino acids, rather than supply continual complete proteins.
The overall message in this article has been to show that vegan protein sources are certainly as good as animal sources, and that it is possible to obtain all the required protein from a vegan diet. I sincerely hope that the false myths of the superiority of animal proteins, and the inadequacy of a vegan diet, will be laid to rest soon so that humans can make informed choices.
There is much more that could be said about this subject, so I encourage you to do more research if you are interested in the topic. There are many informative books and websites where you can gather more information. To see my website please visit: http://www.integral-health-guide.com/
(1) http://dictionary.reference.com/dic?q=protein&search=search Retrieved May. 3, 2009
(2) http://www.vegansociety.com/about_us/memorandum.php Retrieved May. 3, 2009
(3) Robbins, John. Diet or a New America pgs. 170-171
(4) Ibid. pg. 171
(5) Cousens, Gabriel. Conscious Eating pgs. 312-313
(6) Ibid. pgs. 312-313
(7) http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=17477 Retrieved May. 3, 2009