Despite being asked time and time again: “Where do you get your protein?”, vegans are always keen to reveal the best-kept secret about this misunderstood nutrient. As a society, we have long been told that animal products are synonymous with protein and deceived into thinking that all plant foods are devoid of an adequate amino acid profile. But as more and more people are thriving on a plant-based diet, it is clear that protein is not exclusive to animals products. In fact, all protein is originally synthesized by plants, as only plants have the ability to take nitrates from the environment and convert that into amino acids; the building blocks of protein.
Like us humans, non-human animals are unable to synthesize protein on their own, which means they must get it from their environment. The only reason animal products contain protein is that the animal consumed vast amounts of plant-protein while it was alive. If you really think about it, we are simply filtering our protein through the body of an animal. When we consume their flesh or secretions, we are getting protein but we also get a host of undesirable aspects like cholesterol, saturated fat, and IGF-1 that are inseparable from the animal product itself. But when we consume plant-protein, we are receiving the fiber, water, vitamins, and micronutrients that our bodies need with no strings attached.
The idea has been perpetuated that you must combine different plants in order to get a complete protein profile, but this is information is simply false. This myth was created by a 1975 issue of Vogue magazine, with an article on vegetarian diets. The idea was that in order to supplement the protein lost from avoiding meat, we need to eat complimentary protein from different plant sources. While this myth has been debunked decades ago by peer-reviewed research, the mistaken idea that plants contain incomplete protein lives on. Even the American Heart Association was called out in 2001 for publishing a report questioning the completeness of plant protein. It has since changed its stance and acknowledges that plants contain all essential amino acids and provide complete protein with no need for combining complementary proteins.
Our body is extremely intelligent and maintains pools of free amino acids that can be used when needed. Bodies also recycle protein every day, meaning that our bodies release stored protein, break it down into essential amino acids and reassembles based on the proportions we need. This is why it is impossible to design a diet of whole, plant-based foods that is devoid of protein. From this study, they concluded that: “consumers do not need to be at all concerned about amino acid imbalances when the dietary amino acid supply is from the plant-food proteins that make up our usual diet.” The bottom line is: if you are consuming an adequate amount of calories every day you are guaranteed to get enough protein. There is no need to be overly concerned with protein consumption, just ensure you are getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. Focusing on a balanced vegan diet will ensure you are getting enough protein and everything else our bodies need as well. This may seem like a completely counter-intuitive approach in a society of proteinaholics. The focus on protein comes at the neglect of other vital components in our diet like fiber, iron, and calcium.
While many doctors are concerned with their patients switching to an entirely plant-based vegan diet, it is important to note doctors are not adequately trained in nutrition. Doctors are trained to treat illnesses, not prevent them. The American Dietetic Association is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals and is a trusted source for questions concerning diet. It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. They go on to say that a vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence and for athletes. To illustrate this point, one need only consider elite athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, Carl Lewis, Patrik Baboumian and Novak Djokovic are all thriving on a plant-based vegan diet. Many say removing animal products from their diet has improved their performance and recovery time. Often, people eat meat to be big and strong like an ox, forgetting that the ox eats plants. The largest and strongest animals in the world like elephants, gorillas, and rhinos are all entirely herbivorous animals and no one asks where they get their protein. This myth that vegans lack muscle and strength will be put to rest once and for all when the documentary The Game Changers by James Cameron is released in February 2019.
Given the wealth of research into this topic, it is mistaken to think that you can only get adequate amino acids from animal products. We simply need to remember that all protein was originally plant-protein. The only sure way to answer the protein question is by leading by example and thriving on an entirely plant-based diet. We need to change the rhetoric around health away from “Where do you get your protein” to “Where do you get your fiber and antioxidants?” For too long we have been under the protein choke-hold, it is time we shift our paradigm to a more balanced understanding of overall health.
For more information on how to live a vegan lifestyle, sign up for free mentoring with Challenge 22. You will receive recipes, tips, and can ask any questions about nutrition to certified dietitians. After the 22 days are up, you will feel so good you won’t want to stop!