Friday, September 20, 2013

All About Protein

My parents have come to visit, so in the midst of a super hectic schedule, I thought I would share an article I wrote for a friend's vegan zine back in 2011. I wanted to clarify some aspects of protein, and dispel some common ideas when it came to vegetarians/vegans and protein. Enjoy!  


Protein is one of those macronutrients that is largely misrepresented by meat-eaters & vegans alike. On one hand, meat-eaters can tend to assume that vegans can never get the huge amounts of protein we all supposedly need without consuming animals and animal products. Vegans, in turn, often downplay the importance of protein, citing studies that show how excess protein can actually be detrimental to our health, “proving” that protein itself is not as important as we are made to believe.

Protein is not needed in the amounts (excesses) often touted by meat eaters, but that should never give anyone the idea that it is not vital to our well-being.

So what exactly is protein?

Proteins are molecules made up of variations of the 22 natural amino acids. What are amino acids? They are the building blocks of protein and will help shed some light on the protein debate.

Amino acids fall under three categories: first, there are the essential amino acids, which our body cannot produce on its own, and therefore are needed through diet. Second there are the nonessential amino acids which our body can make, and third, the conditionally essential, which we can make after a certain age in our lives.

So there are essential amino acids - but why exactly are they essential? Let's look at some of the many roles protein has in the body:

*all enzymes are proteins (enzymes are responsible for digestion throughout the digestive tract)
*protein is a primary component of our muscles, hair, nails, eyes and internal organs
*protein can act as a "carrier" molecule - transporting nutrients such as vitamin A and minerals such as iron to be utilized
*many hormones such as insulin are proteins

Complete & Incomplete Proteins:

When we talk about complete proteins, this simply means that a given food has all the required amino acids within it. This is predominately reserved to animal-based proteins such as eggs and fish. While there are some complete proteins in the plant-based department, such as spinach and quinoa, by comparison the amounts of amino acids are lower than in the animal-based foods meaning that a LOT of spinach would be needed to provide sufficient amounts of complete protein.

While plant-based foods do of course contain protein, they are usually low in a given amino acid (incomplete), and if an effort is not made to "complete" the protein, deficiencies can arise. So what can we do to get a balanced amount of essential amino acids in our bodies?

Protein complementarity!

There is a very simple way of making sure that vegans get the complete protein they need: just mix & match incomplete proteins to make them whole. Amino acids are just looking for their partners (or soul mates, aw...) to be complete - and we can help! While some foods, such as legumes, will be low in a certain amino acid, another, like grains, will have that missing amino acid in high amounts and when combined, can be considered a complete protein. All this really means is to add a little company to dishes - instead of eating brown rice alone, add some kidney beans or seeds. Instead of eating a delicious bowl of quinoa alone, add some leafy vegetables, it can be that simple!

It gets even easier: our bodies do not even require the protein combining to happen within the same meal - or even the same day. Proteins can be complemented for up to three days - meaning if you eat the aforementioned bowl of brown rice on its own for lunch on day one, and then eat a handful of sunflower seeds as a snack on day two, these incomplete proteins will still combine to create a full protein. Just make sure to incorporate protein combining in as many meals of the day as you can to ensure sufficient amounts.

So with just a little understanding and some effort, vegans can get the complete proteins in their diets that are so crucial. So add some variety in your diet and mix and match legumes, grains, seeds/nuts and leafy greens and become the talk of the vegan town!

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