By David Hewitt
If you’re vegan, you’ve heard “where do you get your protein from?” just about as often as “don’t you miss cheese?” or “If you were on a desert island, would you eat a pig or your own teeth first?” Those questions kind of go with the vegan territory.
So, at the outset of this article, let’s get this straight that as a vegan, protein is of course vitally important and yes, vegans are perfectly able to get enough of it. By way of validation, your author is a vegan and is absolutely not drafting this for you to read via a Ouija board courtesy of a fatal protein deficiency. Just so we have that cleared up.
The real question should be about, again as vegans, the effective amino acid profile of the foods they eat. Amino acids and protein are kind of intimately entwined with one another. That may be new to you, so we get onto that distinction between the two in a short while.
First up, let’s look at a little bit more as to what exactly protein is and what it does.
Human bodies, like all organic bodies, have protein at the heart of every cell structure. Protein is responsible for the manufacture of bones, muscles enzymes, hormones, insulin and blood as well as helping damaged tissue to repair and recover. So, all in all, pretty darn vital to having a good day as a carbon-based life-form.
Protein sources are abundant and readily available, including of course to vegans. Some well-known and lesser-known examples are nuts, beans, lentils, quinoa, artichokes, green peas and many, many more. The list truly goes on and as a savvy reader, you know how to delve further into that sort of detail further if you wish. In contrast, sanctioning the killing of perfectly innocent animals for a misconception about animal protein intake sources, is, let me suggest, absolutely perfectly not ok.
A word to the wise about protein over-load.
So, here’s the deal. I’d love to have a swimming pool. My mornings would be so much more relaxed and come to that, my evening too. There’s no question to me that this would benefit me. That said, living in a swimming pool close on twenty-four is going to be a bad, skin-crinkling thing.
It is of course common sense – too much protein is going to be a bad deal for you. And yes, yes it is. Evidence of this particular over-indulgence causes weight-loss, constipation and halitosis. That’s some first date just right there. Other risks include, in no particular order, dehydration, cancer, calcium loss heart disease and kidney damage. Any one of those is going to mess up your day to a greater or lesser extent.
So maybe the cry of “where do you get your protein from?” might want to morph into “where do you get a reasonable amount of your protein from?”
So, the picture is set for protein, what it is and what it does. Yet there’s more to this still as we need to delve into the realm of amino acids.
Amino acids are the brick and mortar of protein and are absolutely vital to biological health. They are at the core of protein and after water, they make up the greatest part of our body weight. Our bodies need amino acids to help protein repair damaged tissues, build new cells and provide cell structure, carry oxygen around the body and strengthen our immune system.
As acids go, you truly don’t want to be caught short with these guys. Not only do they build up the very physical fabric of what we are, they also contribute to our feeling of well-being and also our clarity of thought and cognition.
Drilling down further into the land of amino acids, you will discover that there are twenty types of amino acids, divided into two types: non-essential and essential (sometimes referred to as indispensable.) Your body, awesome entity that it is, is self-reliant in manufacturing eleven of those: known as non-essential as your own biology does the grunt work of manufacturing these unaided. So, all’s sweet in that regards.
However, and of course there just had to be one of those at this juncture, there are 9 amino acids that your body can’t manufacture and consequently looks for outside help to do so.
Biology time. They are:
• Histidine: anti-inflammatory and anti-infection focused, it also helps with managing allergy reactions.
• Isoleucine: helps the body and muscles to recover from the exertion of physical endurance activity.
• Leucine: associated with energy levels.
• Lysine: another energy focussed amino acid, also associated with anti-viral activity.
• Methionine: plays an important role in the processing of other protein for the body’s benefit.
• Phenylalanine: boosts energy, mental focus and feelings of well-being.
• Threonine: helps the central nervous system stay in good shape.
• Tryptophan: known to have influence on mood, memory and how we interact with others.
• Valine: required primarily for tissue / muscle repair.
So those are the essential amino acids. And that outside help? That’s where your diet swings into action as it needs that external help.
And to add to that, unlike fat or carbohydrates, the human body is no good at storing up excess essential amino acids. So, there’s no delving back for them, they need to be topped up daily. Consequently, your essential amino acids intake needs to be a daily concern because there’s no storage reservoir for your body to delve back into. Which makes the need to be aware of this beyond important.
From a vegan perspective, it is of course a commonly held myth that you need to eat meat to satiate all of your protein (read amino acid) requirements. Most, but crucially not all, plant foods are missing the following essential amino acids: lysine, tryptophan, methionine and phenylalanine (LTMP). Your gang of four amino acid miscreants, at least if you listen to the anti-vegan omnivore school of misinformation.
There are perfectly viable ways for vegans to meet their LTMP requirements. To wit:
Lysine. Beans rock. Seriously, they do. You can get more than adequate sources of lysine from kidney, black, lima and chick-peas. A serious bean fiesta. And on the off-chance that that beans aren’t your thing, I guess it could happen, you can also get your Lysine hit from fenugreek seed, lentils, quinoa, yeast, pistachios, soy products and wheat germ. It’s also in spirulina – a nutrient found in barley grass which is ridiculously good for you in general, let alone the Lysine side of things.
Tryptophan. Who doesn’t need an excuse to eat almonds? If you do need an excuse, then it’s because by doing so you’ll get a great hit of Tryptophan. In fact, nuts in general do the Tryptophan trick, but almonds are the stand-out providers. Other sources include deep greens like spinach and asparagus. On top of all that you can go for pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and wheat germ.
Methionine. Better than almonds, at least to your author (yes, that was just typed), how about avocados for helping vegans get their methionine hit? Brazil nuts, oats, oatmeal and sunflower seed butter are all going to get you in Methionine shape.
Phenylalanine. Similar(ish) to the deal with Lysine, vegans get to delve once more into pumpkin and sesame seeds, chick-peas, lentils, lima beans and pecans.
Keep in mind that each vegan protein source will have a different amino acid profile. Therefore, because of those profile variations (some better than others, some with particular amino acids, some lacking others and so on), variety is a definite spice to add to your vegan diet. Creativity in the kitchen is a trait shared by many vegans, so mixing things up, and there are so many possible bean and lentil combinations, and experimenting with your protein sources to ensure a good amino acid profile becomes part of the natural vegan vibe in your kitchen.
Beans and lentils come in an avalanche of varieties, so why not mix them up in a meal? Why not go for a Mexican bean dip, using different beans, or a black bean soup? Lentils in a chickpea curry or a red and yellow lentil dahl are awesome ways to be both creative and mix up those protein sources. Home-made bean burgers or a vegan bean chilli keep those creative juices flowing and those amino acids going.
In summary, vegans have made a conscious decision to be better to the world, better to the animals we share the world with and ultimately better to themselves. They need to mindful of keeping themselves at the peak of health, particularly so when taking into account protein and amino acids. There is an awful lot of anti-vegan propaganda out there – absolutely don’t buy it.
Vegans and protein get along just fine!