Understand Protein

From my experience, I have found that in transitioning to a vegan diet, one must have a basic understanding of what protein is and the myths that surround it. The building blocks of protein are amino acids. Our bodies make all but nine of the twenty common amino acids. These nine amino acids, which have been labeled essential amino acids, must be acquired from our diet in order for our bodies to make protein. Protein is necessary for many bodily functions, including the growth and maintenance of tissues.

The first myth is that meat, eggs and dairy are superior sources of protein because they contain all twenty amino acids. But when one realizes that protein is simply a combination of these twenty amino acids and that these amino acids exist in varying degrees in nearly all beans, grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, any dependence on animal proteins with the inherent problems that accompany them (for the human body and the environment) [google “Cowspiracy” for more info] is simply ignorant. Peanuts, soy, wheat protein, quinoa (an increasingly popular grain) products and spinach contain all twenty amino acids in a similar distribution as meat and dairy, and are therefore also considered “complete proteins,” which leads me to the next myth.

This second myth is that a vegan must take great care in combining foods, so that all twenty amino acids are present in perfect protein-building amounts in each meal. This myth has since been repudiated. “Vegans eating varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to maintain weight.” [“Protein in the Vegan Diet” by Dr. Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.] In other words, if you are starving, you are probably not getting enough protein. Also, if you are subsiding on fruits, sugars, fats and alcohol which are all low in essential amino acids, your protein levels will be deficient, which leads me to the third myth.

This myth is the prevalent misconception that our bodies need huge quantities of protein. Perhaps this obsession with protein has been predicated by the meat and dairy industries. However, recent studies show that the human body functions best with only 10-12% of our calories coming from protein. This falls in line with a good vegan diet, as opposed to the protein intake of non-vegetarians, which is close to 14-18% of calories. According to Dr. Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., it has also been found that “athletes do not need more protein than the general public.” He also claims that, “Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease.” Scandinavian countries, which consume the greatest amount of dairy products, have the highest incidence of osteoporosis. Another myth is dispelled: that the human body needs to drink baby cow milk in order to have strong bones.

The high intake of protein in non-vegans leads me to a very important issue which I would like to emphasize. I have too often seen people come off a heavy animal-protein/saturated-fat diet to a high-sugar simple-carbohydrate diet in their attempt to be vegan. In other words, they try to keep their general eating habits, and just eliminate the animal products. This doesn’t work because their bodies will crave protein; even more so if they are eating simple carbs. The typical “American diet” is a perfect example of what macrobiotics would call yin and yang. When one eats the very heavy, hard to digest, animal proteins and fats, which are very yang; one then craves the very light, easy to digest, high sugar/simple carbohydrates, which are very yin — and vice-versa. Think about it: what do you want after a steak dinner? Dessert, of course!

This is not to say that vegans have to give up dessert and all simple carbs; it’s just that the craving is no longer there. Simple carbs are no longer a staple in their diet. I never use white flour and rarely use cane sugar. I enjoy the higher glycemic fruits, such as apples, bananas and dates with nuts or nut butters, which balances the natural sugar. I consume lots of berries, which are low glycemic, in my smoothies. My recipes use whole grain flours and pastas, which are high in fiber and low glycemic; and I recommend xylitol, stevia, agave and coconut crystals as sweeteners because they also have a low glycemic index. These are carbohydrates and sweeteners that do not spike the blood sugar (which would make one’s system very yin).

In addition, I emphasize the need for the soy, quinoa and wheat products, the legumes, beans, veggies, and nuts and seeds for the vegan proteins that are much lighter and easier to digest, with healthy fats that are devoid of bad cholesterol. These vegan proteins are not so yang as the heavy animal proteins. Therefore, the vegan diet maintains a balance somewhere in between the yin and yang extremes, eliminating cravings for sugar and alcohol and for heavy proteins and saturated fats. Not only is this balance felt in the body, it is also felt in the mind, bringing about a calm and peacefulness. This balance, this centeredness is the foundation for a rich spiritual life.