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The Role, and Sources, of Protein & Amino Acids in Living a Healthy Vegan Life


The Role, and Sources, of Protein & Amino Acids in Living a Healthy Vegan Life

With its ethical values and countless health and environmental benefits, veganism has significantly marked its ground. However, a persistent question that seems to loom large is - where does the protein come from in a vegan diet? Add another often overlooked but equally important inquiry - what about amino acids, the constituents of protein? Let's delve right into the role, and sources, of protein & amino acids in living a healthy Vegan life.


Contrary to the popular belief that achieving the required protein intake through a vegan diet is a Herculean task, several studies have emphatically demonstrated otherwise. A comprehensive 2017 report published in Nutrition Today clarified that a well-planned vegan diet indeed provides adequate amounts of necessary proteins to sustain a healthy life.


Index


1) What Is Protein and Amino Acids and What Do They Do?

2) Understanding Protein and Amino Acid Absorption in the Body

3) What are the Signs of Protein and Amino Acid Deficiency?

4) Vegan Sources of Protein and Amino Acids

5) Incorporating Protein and Amino Acid Rich Meals into your Vegan Daily Diet

6) How to Boost Protein and Amino Acid Absorption

7) Conclusion of What Vegans need to know about Protein and Amino Acids



1) What Is Protein and Amino Acids and What Do They Do?


Protein and its constituent amino acids have a significant role in our body. They lay the groundwork for disease resistance, tissue repair, and muscle building. Out of the 20 required amino acids, nine are "essential", meaning that they must be obtained from the food we eat.


Protein plays a critical role in numerous physiological processes in the human body, including:


1. Building and Repairing Tissue: Proteins help in the growth and repair of body tissues like muscles, skin, hair, and nails. They are also critical during phases of growth in children and adolescents, and during pregnancy.


2. Hormone Production: Some hormones, which serve as chemical messengers in the body, are proteins. For example, insulin, a protein, regulates blood sugar levels.


3. Enzyme Production: Many enzymes, which facilitate crucial chemical reactions in the body, are proteins. These enzymes are involved in digestion, metabolic processes, and more.


4. Immune Function: Antibodies, which help to fight off infections, are proteins. A sufficient intake of dietary protein is required to maintain healthy immune function and antibody production.


5. Maintaining Fluid and pH Balance: Proteins help to maintain the balance of body fluids and pH levels, contributing to overall homeostasis.


6. Energy Source: While not the body's primary energy source, protein can provide energy when necessary. Each gram of protein supplies about 4 calories of energy.


7. Transporting and Storing Nutrients: Some proteins, like haemoglobin and albumin, help transport essential nutrients throughout the body.


Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins, making them the building blocks of life. They are classified into two categories, essential and non-essential:


1. Essential Amino Acids: These are amino acids that our body cannot synthesize on its own, which means we must obtain them from our diet. Essential amino acids are crucial for various body functions such as protein synthesis, tissue repair, and nutrient absorption.


2. Non-Essential Amino Acids: These are amino acids that our body can produce, even if we don't get them from the food we eat. Non-essential doesn't mean they aren't important; it simply means that our body can produce them even if we don't consume them directly.


Here are the nine essential amino acids that you need to consume and their primary roles in your body:


1. Histidine: It is used in the biosynthesis of proteins and necessary for growth and repair. It plays a vital role in maintaining the myelin sheath, which protects nerve cells.


2. Isoleucine: It plays a vital role in muscle metabolism and is heavily concentrated in muscle tissue. It also assists with wound healing, immunity, blood sugar regulation, and hormone production.


3. Leucine: Leucine is crucial for protein synthesis and muscle repair. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, stimulates wound healing, and produces growth hormones.


4. Lysine: It plays an essential role in protein biosynthesis, and it's necessary for growth and development, assists calcium absorption, and helps produce collagen.


5. Methionine: It starts the process of protein synthesis in cells and plays a significant role in metabolism and detoxification. It's also necessary for tissue growth and the absorption of zinc and selenium, minerals crucial to your health.


6. Phenylalanine: It plays an integral role in the structure and function of proteins and enzymes and the production of other amino acids.


7. Threonine: It is a crucial part of structural proteins such as collagen and elastin, which are essential components of the skin and connective tissue. It also plays a role in fat metabolism and immune function.


8. Tryptophan: Although it's in small amounts, tryptophan plays a crucial role in maintaining proper nitrogen balance and is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, sleep, and appetite.


9. Valine: It is essential for muscle growth and repair, energy production, and stress management. It also stimulates the central nervous system and is needed for cognitive function.


By ensuring your diet includes these essential amino acids, you're giving your body the tools it needs to repair, grow, and function correctly. Remember, a balanced and varied diet will typically provide all the essential amino acids necessary for optimum health.


The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein depends on multiple factors, including age, sex, and physical activity level. Still, a general guideline from the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) in the United States provides the following daily figures:


- Infants: 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight

- Children (1-3 years): 13 grams

- Children (4-8 years): 19 grams

- Children (9-13 years): 34 grams

- Males (14-18 years): 52 grams

- Females (14-18 years): 46 grams

- Adult Men: 56 grams

- Adult Women: 46 grams

- Pregnant or lactating women: Approximately 70-85 grams, but this can vary


These are general suggestions and individual needs may be slightly different depending on overall health, lifestyle, and specific dietary requirements. For example, athletes or people doing heavy physical training often require more protein to support muscle repair and growth. Please consult with a healthcare provider or a dietitian for personalized advice.


The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for amino acids varies based on age and gender. The World Health Organization provides the following estimated daily requirement values for adults for each of the essential amino acids:


- Histidine: 10 mg/kg of body weight

- Isoleucine: 20 mg/kg of body weight

- Leucine: 39 mg/kg of body weight

- Lysine: 30 mg/kg of body weight

- Methionine + Cysteine: 15 mg/kg of body weight

- Phenylalanine + Tyrosine: 25 mg/kg of body weight

- Threonine: 15 mg/kg of body weight

- Tryptophan: 4 mg/kg of body weight

- Valine: 26 mg/kg of body weight


It's important to note that these are rough estimates and can vary depending on different factors including age, sex, and overall health status. Since individual needs can vary significantly, consultation with a healthcare provider or a dietitian is recommended to determine the optimal amino acid intake.


2) Understanding Protein and Amino Acid Absorption in the Body


Protein, one of the fundamental building blocks for our body, is made up of smaller units called amino acids. During digestion, proteins from the food we eat are broken down into these individual amino acids, so they can be absorbed and used by the body.


Here's a simplified breakdown of how protein and amino acid absorption works:


1. Ingestion and Initial Breakdown: When you consume protein, the process of breaking it down starts in your stomach. Here, hydrochloric acid denatures, or unfolds, the protein structures, and an enzyme called pepsin begins to break the proteins down into smaller units called polypeptides.


2. Further Digestion: The polypeptides then move into the small intestine, where they are broken down further into even smaller units - single amino acids and very small chains of two or three amino acids, known as di- and tri-peptides, through the action of various enzymes.


3. Absorption: The resulting single amino acids and small peptide chains are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine into the bloodstream. This absorption is facilitated by various transporters that transfer the amino acids through the intestinal cells and into the blood.


4. Utilization: Once in the bloodstream, these amino acids are transported to the liver and then to other cells in the body, where they are used as building blocks for new proteins, converted into other compounds, or used for energy.


It's worth noting that individual amino acid needs can vary based on several factors, such as age, sex, physical activity level, and overall health status. Certain amino acids, known as essential amino acids, cannot be made by the body and therefore must be obtained through the diet. Adequate dietary protein intake, including all essential amino acids, is crucial for the body's functional and structural needs.


3) What are the Signs of Protein and Amino Acid Deficiency?


Protein and amino acid deficiencies can lead to a range of health issues, as protein plays a multitude of roles in the body - from providing structure to tissues and cells, to supporting immune function, to serving as enzymes and hormones. Here are some potential signs and symptoms of protein and amino acid deficiency:


1. Slow Healing: Proteins play a crucial role in wound healing. If wounds or injuries are taking longer than usual to heal, it could be a sign of low protein levels.


2. Fluid Retention: A common sign of protein deficiency is edema, the swelling caused by the retention of fluid in the body's tissues.


3. Weakened Immune System: Proteins are vital for a healthy immune response. People deficient in protein may find they frequently get sick with common illnesses like colds and flus.


4. Hair, Skin, and Nail Problems: Hair thinning, brittle nails, and dry, flaky skin can all be indicators of low protein status, as these tissues require protein for growth and repair.


5. Decreased Muscle Mass: Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle tissue. A protein deficiency can result in muscle loss, leading to decreased strength and muscle tone.


6. Mood Changes: Amino acids, the components of proteins, are used to produce neurotransmitters in the brain. A deficiency can lead to mood changes, depression, and anxiety.


7. Increased Hunger: People with protein deficiency may feel hungry more often because protein helps to regulate appetite by promoting feelings of fullness.


8. Fatigue or Weakness: A lack of protein can result in low energy levels, fatigue, and general weakness.


If you suspect a protein deficiency, it's important to consult with a healthcare provider or dietitian for an evaluation and advice. They may suggest dietary changes, or in some cases, protein supplementation.


4) Vegan Sources of Protein and Amino Acids


Here are the top 30 sources of vegan proteins based on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, detailing the amount of protein and the types of amino acids found in them. (Please note that amounts listed are approximate and per 100g serving.)


1. Seitan: 75g protein, contains essential and non-essential amino acids. Glutamic Acid (3.94g), Leucine (2.16g), Lysine (1.53g), Aspartic Acid (2.79g), and Valine (1.3g)


2. Nutritional Yeast: 49g protein, complete amino acid profile. Histidine (137mg), Isoleucine (257mg), Leucine (397mg), Lysine (372mg), Methionine (92mg), Phenylalanine (214mg), Threonine (228mg), Tryptophan (45mg), and Valine (257mg)


3. Soy Protein Isolate: 88g protein, all essential amino acids. Valine (4.31g), Leucine (7.1g), Isoleucine (3.86g), Threonine (2.96g), Methionine (1.27g), Phenylalanine (3.96g), Lysine (5.53g), Tryptophan (1.44g), and Histidine (1.99g).


4. Spirulina: 57g protein, all essential amino acids. Leucine (4.13g), Isoleucine (2.71g), Lysine (2.79g), Methionine (1.24g), Phenylalanine (2.27g), Threonine (2.41g), Valine (2.89g), Histidine (0.93g), and Tryptophan (1.13g).


5. Dry Roasted Soybeans (Edamame): 39g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (1.17g), Isoleucine (2.16g), Leucine (3.57g), Lysine (2.54g), Methionine (0.56g), Phenylalanine (2.32g), Threonine (1.68g), Tryptophan (0.67g), and Valine (2.11g).


6. Lentils: 26g protein, contains essential and non-essential amino acids. Histidine (0.58g), Isoleucine (1.02g), Leucine (1.73g), Lysine (1.43g), Methionine (0.23g), Phenylalanine (1.14g), Threonine (0.81g), Tryptophan (0.20g), and Valine (1.05g).


7. Tempeh: 19g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.39g), Isoleucine (0.75g), Leucine (1.38g), Lysine (0.58g), Methionine (0.18g), Phenylalanine (0.96g), Threonine (0.61g), Tryptophan (0.17g), and Valine (0.81g).


8. Tofu: 17g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.20g), Isoleucine (0.39g), Leucine (0.33g), Lysine (0.30g), Methionine (0.14g), Phenylalanine (0.51g), Threonine (0.34g), Tryptophan (0.09g), and Valine (0.42g).


9. Chickpeas: 19g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.34g), Isoleucine (0.58g), Leucine (1.03g), Lysine (0.79g), Methionine (0.30g), Phenylalanine (0.76g), Threonine (0.43g), Tryptophan (0.16g), and Valine (0.59g).


10. Black Beans: 21g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.36g), Isoleucine (0.57g), Leucine (1.11g), Lysine (0.90g), Methionine (0.27g), Phenylalanine (0.79g), Threonine (0.54g), Tryptophan (0.20g), and Valine (0.64g).


11. Pinto Beans: 21g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.35g), Isoleucine (~0.62g), Leucine (~1.14g), Lysine (~0.81g), Methionine (~0.23g), Phenylalanine (~0.70g), Threonine (~0.51g), Tryptophan (~0.21g), and Valine (~0.65g).


12. Quinoa: 14g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.41g), Isoleucine (~0.64g), Leucine (~1.23g), Lysine (~0.97g), Methionine (~0.61g), Phenylalanine (~0.85g), Threonine (~0.56g), Tryptophan (~0.23g), and Valine (~0.82g).


13. Spelt: 15g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.33g), Isoleucine (~0.51g), Leucine (~0.97g), Lysine (~0.37g), Methionine (~0.21g), Phenylalanine (~0.66g), Threonine (~0.40g), Tryptophan (~0.15g), and Valine (~0.59g).


14. Green Peas: 5g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.27g), Isoleucine (~0.77g), Leucine (~1.26g), Lysine (~1.19g), Methionine (~0.22g), Phenylalanine (~0.90g), Threonine (~0.66g), Tryptophan (~0.20g), and Valine (~0.82g).


15. Almonds: 21g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.63g), Isoleucine (~1.64g), Leucine (~2.87g), Lysine (~0.85g), Methionine (~0.33g), Phenylalanine (~1.34g), Threonine (~0.78g), Tryptophan (~0.33g), and Valine (~1.61g).


16. Chia Seeds: 17g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.63g), Isoleucine (~0.99g), Leucine (~1.62g), Lysine (~0.97g), Methionine (~0.67g), Phenylalanine (~1.20g), Threonine (~0.78g), Tryptophan (~0.46g), and Valine (~1.14g).


17. Hemp Seeds: 32g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (~1.23g), Isoleucine (~1.64g), Leucine (~2.16g), Lysine (~1.07g), Methionine (~0.60g), Phenylalanine (~1.31g), Threonine (~0.96g), Tryptophan (~0.37g), and Valine (~1.49g).


18. Buckwheat: 13g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.37g), Isoleucine (~0.67g), Leucine (~1.24g), Lysine (~0.67g), Methionine (~0.36g), Phenylalanine (~0.71g), Threonine (~0.61g), Tryptophan (~0.20g), and Valine (~0.77g).


19. Oats: 17g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.41g), Isoleucine (~0.68g), Leucine (~1.17g), Lysine (~0.42g), Methionine (~0.24g), Phenylalanine (~0.87g), Threonine (~0.42g), Tryptophan (~0.23g), and Valine (~0.90g).


20. Pumpkin Seeds: 19g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.81g), Isoleucine (~1.36g), Leucine (~2.47g), Lysine (~1.23g), Methionine (~0.51g), Phenylalanine (~1.19g), Threonine (~0.81g), Tryptophan (~0.38g), and Valine (~1.39g).


21. Sunflower Seeds: 21g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (1.09g), Isoleucine (1.79g), Leucine (2.18g), Lysine (1.22g), Methionine (1.08g), Phenylalanine (2.24g), Threonine (1.46g), Tryptophan (0.57g), Valine (1.83g).


22. Amaranth: 13.5g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.54g), Isoleucine (0.97g), Leucine (1.67g), Lysine (1.67g), Methionine (0.47g), Phenylalanine (1.11g), Threonine (~0.79g), Tryptophan (0.2g), Valine (1.15g).


23. Kamut: 14.7g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.37g), Isoleucine (0.62g), Leucine (1.18g), Lysine (0.43g), Methionine (0.23g), Phenylalanine (0.78g), Threonine (0.47g), Tryptophan (0.15g), Valine (0.69g).


24. Teff: 13.3g protein, all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.33g), Isoleucine (0.52g), Leucine (0.98g), Lysine (0.36g), Methionine (0.21g), Phenylalanine (0.66g), Threonine (0.40g), Tryptophan (0.15g), Valine (0.57g).


25. Millet: 11g protein, contains most essential amino acids. Histidine (0.38g), Isoleucine (0.59g), Leucine (1.13g), Lysine (0.38g), Methionine (0.26g), Phenylalanine (0.71g), Threonine (0.42g), Tryptophan (0.15g), Valine (0.61g).


26. Wild Rice: 15g protein, contains most essential amino acids. Histidine (0.34g), Isoleucine (0.53g), Leucine (0.94g), Lysine (0.26g), Methionine (0.16g), Phenylalanine (0.54g), Threonine (0.34g), Tryptophan (0.13g), Valine (0.48g).


27. Black-eyed Peas: 8g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (0.33g), Isoleucine (0.62g), Leucine (~1.03g), Lysine (0.99g), Methionine (~0.28g), Phenylalanine (~0.76g), Threonine (~0.50g), Tryptophan (~0.20g), Valine (~0.62g).


28. Peanut Butter: 25g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.92g), Isoleucine (~1.58g), Leucine (~2.68g), Lysine (~1.23g), Methionine (~0.54g), Phenylalanine (~1.76g), Threonine (~1.17g), Tryptophan (~0.57g), Valine (~1.68g).


29. Pistachios: 20g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.77g), Isoleucine (~1.25g), Leucine (~2.13g), Lysine (~1.07g), Methionine (~0.76g), Phenylalanine (~1.43g), Threonine (~1.04g), Tryptophan (~0.39g), Valine (~1.38g).


30. Tahini: 17g protein, contains all essential amino acids. Histidine (~0.61g), Isoleucine (~1.04g), Leucine (~1.77g), Lysine (~0.92g), Methionine (~0.60g), Phenylalanine (~1.51g), Threonine (~0.96g), Tryptophan (~0.41g), Valine (~1.25g).


Please note amino acid profile and protein content can vary by cooking method or brand. Always refer to product labels for the most accurate information.


Many of the above Vegan protein sources have all or most of the essential amino acids, however, the amounts of each vary. Hence it is necessary to combine your Vegan protein sources in order to get the required amounts of all the amino acids in your diet.


5) Incorporating Protein and Amino Acid Rich Meals into your Vegan Daily Diet


Meeting your daily protein needs on a vegan diet is completely attainable with a little planning and variety. Here are some suggestions on how to incorporate protein and amino acid rich meals into your daily vegan diet:


1. Breakfast: Start your day with a protein-rich meal. Add a scoop of plant-based protein powder to your smoothie, pair whole grain toast with peanut or almond butter, or make a tofu scramble.


2. Snacks: Opt for protein-rich snacks like a handful of mixed nuts, hummus with raw vegetables, or roasted chickpeas.


3. Lunch: For lunch, include a variety of plant proteins such as beans and lentils. Making a mixed bean soup or a lentil salad are great options.


4. Dinner: For dinner, consider quinoa or brown rice paired with tempeh or tofu. You might also enjoy a chickpea or lentil curry.


5. Desserts: Believe it or not, desserts can be an excellent opportunity to incorporate protein. Chia pudding made with plant-based milk, protein mug cakes, or black bean brownies are delicious options.


Eating a diverse array of plant proteins throughout the day should help you to meet your essential amino acid needs. Combining different types of plant proteins, such as beans with whole grains or seeds, can ensure you're getting all of the essential amino acids your body needs to function optimally.


If you're new to a vegan diet or if you’re finding it challenging to meet your protein needs, you may want to consider consulting a dietitian to help you devise a personalized eating plan. A high-quality, vegan-friendly protein powder can also be a smart addition to your nutrition regimen, especially if you lead a very active lifestyle.


6) How to Boost Protein and Amino Acid Absorption


To maximize your body's absorption of protein and essential amino acids from a vegan diet, consider the following tips:


1. Pair Foods: Certain plant-based foods provide complementary amino acid profiles when eaten together. So try to combine different types of plant proteins, such as whole grains with legumes or seeds, to ensure you're getting all of the essential amino acids.


2. Eat Enough Protein: The more protein you eat, the more your body absorbs. While it's not advisable to go overboard with exceedingly high protein amounts, ensure your diet meets the recommended daily requirements.


3. Maximizing Digestibility: Certain cooking methods, like soaking, sprouting, and cooking, can improve the digestibility of plant-based protein sources.


4. Hydration: Water helps to transport nutrients, including protein, to different parts of the body. Make sure you're staying well-hydrated throughout the day.


5. Include Soy Products: Soy products such as tempeh, tofu, and edamame are considered complete proteins because they contain all the essential amino acids, enhancing your body's ability to make use of the protein.


6. Use Protein Powders: Adding a scoop of plant-based protein powder to your smoothie or oatmeal can help to increase protein intake and ensure a good amino acid balance.


7. Prioritize Whole Foods: Enrich your diet with whole food sources of protein, such as lentils, black beans, chickpeas, quinoa, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and almonds.


In general, eating a varied vegan diet that includes a range of plant-based protein sources can help to ensure maximized absorption of proteins and amino acids. If you're concerned about your protein intake, it may be wise to consult a dietitian or healthcare provider for personalized advice.


7) Conclusion of What Vegans need to know about Protein and Amino Acids


In conclusion, the vegan diet can indeed cater to all protein and amino acid needs beneficial for optimal health. A well-curated assortment of vegan food items, ranging from legumes, grains, nuts, seeds to superfoods like quinoa and soy, can ensure complete protein and the necessary amino acid provision. The key lies in conscious selection, variety, and daily nutritional deliberation. As all proteins essentially break down into amino acids, focusing on the intake of complementary protein sources could mean getting an ample amount of all nine essential amino acids without relying on animal-based sources. Undeniably, the shift towards a vegan journey remains a personal choice. Yet, the potential health and environmental gains double the worthiness of the move towards veganism. Living a healthy vegan life is not only doable but is also backed by ample scientific evidence. Let's savour the wholesome goodness of the plant kingdom while nourishing our health and contributing to a greener earth.



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- Office of Dietary Supplements - Protein. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Protein-HealthProfessional/.

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Disclaimer: This blog provides general information and discussions about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your healthcare provider or seek other professional medical treatment. Do not disregard or delay seeking professional medical advice because of something that you have read on this blog. Do not use the information in this blog to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or to prescribe any medication or other treatment. Always consult with a healthcare professional before beginning any diet, exercise or supplementation program, don't stop taking any medication without first consulting your physician.

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