Luckily we know that you can get your protein source from many different ways, you can get it through vegetables if you’re a vegetarian. I have seen many body builders that are vegetarian and they are strong and healthy” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
Admittedly, Arnie doesn’t have a reputation for being the smartest tool in the shed, but I want to acknowledge such a brave and honest comment. This is a man whose claim to fame, Mr Universe no less, was in an industry that prescribes (what I believe having worked in it for several years) a powered milk and rice-and-chicken-breast diet.
The question of whether one is meeting their recommended daily intake of protein is, without doubt, one of the first questions anyone is asked when they adopt veganism. I think this begs two questions; is meat and dairy really the only sufficient source of protein available? And if it’s not, why is the belief that it is so enduring?
As I have already referred to several times in previous health-related posts, the data analysed in the most recent Australian Health Survey found this of protein in the average Australia’s diet:
Almost all Australians (99%) met their requirements for protein
Approximately one in seven males (14%) and one in twenty-five females (4%) aged 71 years and over did not meet their requirements for protein.
I’m not about to jump the gun – within the same data set as few as 2.1% of Australians stated they specifically avoided meat. However, there are several studies that prove that even this vegetarian and vegan sub-group of the population are getting enough protein.
To summarise everything that I have learnt about protein consumption over the last few years:
There is ample protein in plant-based foods, especially so in mushrooms, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods have the benefit of being low in calories (if that’s your thing) and high in fiber
Eating a whole-food plant-based will provide around 10% of energy from protein
Foods high in protein such as meat and dairy aren’t necessarily healthy, as eating these foods comes at the cost of high calories, cholesterol and harmful chemicals. Moreover, the link between consumption of animal-based protein and disease is well established (as mentioned in my Disease blog).
Humans actually don’t need that much protein, in fact too much can be harmful especially on kidney function. Carbohydrates are the body’s most efficient source of fuel. I acknowledge that essential fats also play an important role, and that nutrition is the combined activities of countless food substances of which different organs have different preferred energy sources. But the choice to make my primary energy source carbohydrates was a personal preference, which just so happens to have a strong basis in scientific evidence.
Protein deficiencies are just about non-existent in populations other than the malnourished in poverty stricken countries or the elderly, as protein deficiencies are associated with caloric deficiencies.
If you want to get more plant-based protein in your diet this info-graphic lists some of the richest sources of protein in plant-based foods.
I hope I’ve adequately disproved the notion that vegans don’t get enough protein, or at least made you reconsider this myth. And if you can’t imagine going to the gym without a protein shake, I reassure you there are some great vegan brands including Sun Warrior protein powders. The one I use is brown rice-based, chocolate-flavoured and tastes no worse than whey-based protein shakes and fulfills the illusion that I’m fit (and hopefully restoring my muscles by drinking it).
But why is the belief that meat and to a lesser degree dairy, are the best sources of protein so persistent?
In addition to the association between meat and protein, we have also been told to eat and drink dairy products for calcium, fish for essential omega fatty acids and red meat for heme-iron. But who gets to tell us this? The scientists whose studies were funded by a large donation from an agricultural company, or the industry with enough money to buy the Heart Foundation tick of approval? To get a greater insight into a food myths we have been told, I highly recommend watching Forks over Knives and What the Health documentaries.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
Protienaholic by Dr Garath Davis
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013). Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.008~2011-12~Main%20Features~Macronutrients~200
A news report I watched a few years ago about the health detriments associated with protein powder http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2014/s4042829.htm