Vegans: where’s the protein?

vegetarian proteinTwo random articles got me thinking about vegans and protein.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a big proponent of plant-based eating.  Vegetarian and vegan diets can be nutritionally balanced and extremely healthy.  But when it comes to vegans, protein can be very tricky.  After all, a vegan diet means avoiding all of the high (and high quality) protein foods humans have relied on for thousands of years: meat, eggs, dairy, fish.  What’s left?  Soy foods like tofu, fake meat like soy burgers, nuts and legumes (dried beans).  These foods are lower protein and lower quality protein, so vegans have to include plenty of these foods every day to ensure adequate intake.

When it comes to vegans, I’ve been seeing two distinct approaches to the protein intake question, neither of which is great in my professional opinion:

  1. vegans who chow down on soy burgers day after day, maybe also drink soy milk and call it a protein day
  2. vegans who just eat whatever, as long as it’s not from an animal, and blissfully ignore the issue of protein intake

I was reminded of this recently while reading an article about chefs, one of whom was apparently famous for a vegan taco, filled with corn and squash.  Well, that’s nice I thought, but where’s the protein?  Traditionally tacos have cheese, maybe meat and refried beans.  All of those add up to a a decent amount of protein.  A small modest taco would have 15-20 grams, depending on how much cheese or meat was used.  A taco made with corn and squash?  8 grams?

Then there was the story about another group of chefs who were promoting the use of discarded food remnants to make meals.  They’d cooked up a meal for some dignitaries, including a burger made with mashed up old vegetables.  A modest 4 oz beef burger will have 25 or more grams of protein; a burger made with vegetable left-overs?  Assuming it has even 5 grams of protein is probably a stretch.  If your meal is based on a low protein plant burger, you’ll need to add some other protein sources to that meal.

Many people become vegan with no real understanding of the nutritional consequences.  Their main focus is avoiding animal-sourced foods.  If they avoid those, everything must be fine.  But in fact avoiding animal-sourced foods can have a detrimental impact on nutritional balance and health if you aren’t paying attention.  Protein quantity and quality can easily fall below levels necessary to maintain skeletal muscle, heart and other muscles, cells and tissues, biochemicals like enzymes necessary for metabolic systems and bones (see below).

If you’re going the vegan route, you have to pay attention to protein intake all day everyday.  You can’t just eat vegetable tacos and drink (very low protein) coconut or almond “milk”* and pasta with plain tomato sauce and assume all will be well.  Some vegans take the soy/fake meat approach.  They eat soy or plant-based burgers, soy meat substitutes and soy milk.  Those can improve protein intake, but if that’s your solution, then you’re going to have to eat those types of foods at pretty much every meal.  The potential for soy burger burn out is significant.  How much processed soy can you tolerate everyday?

Honestly, I don’t get that approach at all.  If you’re going to make a point of avoiding meat, why eat fake meat?  Not to mention, turning soy beans into fake meat involves a whole lot of processing.  Not exactly a natural sort of product.  The whole fake meat thing just doesn’t seem to go along with the vegan philosophy.

The best protein sources for vegans are:

  • tofu
  • soy foods like soy milk, edamame
  • legumes (beans like pinto, kidney, black and garbanzo)
  • nuts and nut butters

Because even these foods are lower protein compared to animal-sourced foods, you need to include one or more of those at each meal.  For example, breakfast can include soy milk and oatmeal sprinkled with walnuts.  Lunch can include a salad with crumbled tofu and sunflower seeds along with peanut butter on a bagel.  Dinner can include a bean and vegetable stew, such as chili.

Speaking of protein, I ran across a study this week that again points out the critical importance of adequate protein intake for bone health.  A group of young women were fed controlled diets, and calcium absorption and bone mineralization were measured with highly sophisticated lab techniques.  Result: during the low protein intake period, the women’s bones lost calcium.  The study ran for just over 6 weeks, but the researchers noted that if a woman eats a chronically low protein diet for many years, bones can deteriorate significantly.  Taking more calcium isn’t going to fix the problem if protein intake isn’t improved as well.

Note that this study looked at the effects on young women, a population that might be attracted to a vegan diet.  Just one more reason to be especially vigilant about protein intake if you are switching to a vegan diet.

*Non-soy plant based milks are very low protein, and frequently have added sugar to make them palatable.  And contrary to popular myth, goat’s milk is NOT vegan.  Goats are not plants.

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