YES! Vegans Get Plenty of Protein!
Have you ever been asked if you get enough protein? Are you sick of answering the question?! I know I am! Sometimes, if I look ever so slightly tired or I move through my day with a little less energy than normal, someone will stop me to let me know I'd "feel better" if I "got some protein!" To that, I say, "SHUUUUTTT UUPPP!!!"
The frustrating thing about protein science is that it varies from source to source. The amount of protein you need truly depends on your current weight and your ultimate health goals. Most fitness companies will recommend anywhere from 100-180g of protein per day, but that is quite a different number than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) set forth by the Current Dietary Guidelines for America.
So, what is the right amount of protein? Well, here are some basic guidelines...
The recommended daily allowance of protein is about 46g for women and 58g for men. Pregnant or breastfeeding women are advised to up their protein intake to 71g per day. These are the minimum requirements to avoid protein deficiency. Shooting for slightly above that number would be considered adequate for muscle cell regeneration, and if you want to build muscle or lose weight, upping that intake by about 15-20g per day would be recommended.
In an effort to make sense of all the contradictory information out there, I do my best to seek out the most authentic sources to expand my knowledge. Although there are some great fitness and health resources on the world wide web, I focus my research on peer-reviewed, medical journals published by reputable health organizations. I've concluded from my research that the proper way to examine protein is to take into consideration the entire "protein package." In other words, ask yourself what exactly you are getting or not getting from each source of protein that you are consuming.
Let's take a look at two different diets to compare the consumed protein per gram. One diet is of a vegan on a conservative day, and the other is of a stereotypical, "American" non-vegan. [The charts below are only examples of different diets with a similar calorie count]
As you can see from the charts above, there are many different ways for your body to receive protein. But, what is the difference between "plant protein" and "animal protein?" Animal protein is considered more of a "complete" protein because, in smaller amounts, it contains nine essential amino acids that the human body is unable to synthesize on its own. Amino acids are necessary because they allow the body to absorb protein. But, animal protein also contains higher levels of fat and cholesterol along with added hormones and antibiotics. Plant protein is void of bad fat and cholesterol and also contains more essential nutrients. The trade-off is that in order to obtain all 9 essential Amino's you need to consume a much larger amount and wider variety of plant foods to get everything you need.
Soy is one of few plants found that is also considered to be a "complete" protein, but just like meat, soy can cause other health issues if consumed in excess ( soy in moderation is good and beneficial). All essential amino acids can be found in plant protein, but not every plant has every amino acid. So, to ensure you are receiving a "complete protein package" with all essential amino acids, you have to make sure to eat a variety of high-protein plant foods, such as Quinoa, Nuts, Seeds, Legumes, Rice, and Fresh Veggies. You will notice in the chart below that the diet example we used earlier has high marks for most all essential nutrients, including protein. It does however show that this diet is not getting enough Vitamin D, B-12 or Calcium. It's important, as you venture into this new lifestyle, to speak with your doctor about supplementing these nutrients.
The harsh reality is that most everyone is deficient in something. Animal products are certainly full of protein, but they are also full of substances that can really harm you. Combine that with the lack of many vital nutrients, and it is essentially rendering that protein counter productive to your overall well being. You will most likely face people who instantly become "expert nutritionists" when they discover you are Vegan. They will attempt to convince you that you are harming your body by cutting out animal protein. That is simply not true. You can easily receive plenty of protein as a vegan and you can rest assured that plant protein is not clogging your arteries or digestive track. People tend to lean on the fact that vegan's should supplement with B-12 and Vitamin ,D as if that should be a deterrent. For the record… many non-vegans are B-12 and Vitamin D deficient too. That's in addition to Calcium, Potassium, Vitamin A, Magnesium, Folate, Iron, Fiber, B-6...You get the picture. The need for supplementation is not a notion that is unique to a vegan lifestyle.
Finally, you must remember to look at the big picture. Protein is important, but it's not the only thing that matters. Try to zoom out from just protein and examine the overall risks and benefits of your diet and lifestyle. What I take away from all the data is this: The Vegan diet does supply enough protein, and though some sort of supplement regimen will need to be implemented, it provides far more complete nutrition. Personally, taking vitamins and supplements are way better than risking complications from high fat, high cholesterol, non-vegan foods. The proven anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, and immune-boosting power of a whole foods, plant-based diet far outweighs the "benefit" of being able to meet your RDA of protein in 1-2 meals per day.
So, the next time a meat-eater shows concerns for your health and asks you that cliché question, you can say, "I'm good. Are you?"