Veganism is a lifestyle choice that dates back to 1944, but is currently attracting a lot of mainstream media attention due to the detrimental impact of animal farming on the environment and scientific studies that point to the healing and anti-aging benefits of a plant-based diet. These health boons are anything but anecdotal; millions of people the world over can present hard evidence on the miraculous benefits of eating a plant-based diet. They have done well by not believing vegetarian myths mostly created by the meat and dairy industries or the nutritionists and scientists supported by meat and dairy manufacturers.
Let’s clear some basics first, because the mainstream press tends to confuse these issues when enthusiastically reporting about celebrities that have “Gone Vegan”. Vegetarians completely abstain from all kinds of animal flesh such as beef, pork, poultry, and all kinds of seafood, including products derived from them such as beef/chicken cubes, fish sauce, and gelatin capsules. They, however, allow animal byproducts such as eggs and dairy into their diet. Vegans are much stricter vegetarians in that they do not consume animal products or byproducts and eat a complete plant-based diet, further ethical vegans also avoid using products derived from animal use and exploitation (to the extent it is practically possible).
“Where do you get your protein?” This is exactly what we are going to cover in detail in this two part series. If truth be told, this is probably the most annoying question that vegetarians and vegans have to answer when other people find out that they exclude animal products from their diet. The common myth is that plant foods contain low and inferior protein compared to animal protein. While it is true that a serving of meat is packed with amino acids, this doesn’t necessarily mean that animal protein is better for your body. In fact, animal-based proteins and fats have been associated with increased mortality rates, including increased cardiovascular mortality and increased cancer mortality. Further, Kwashiorkor or protein deficiency is unheard of among vegetarians and vegans. Conditions of malnutrition that once were ascribed almost exclusively to lack of protein are now thought to be caused by lack of food and good nutrition in general.
ALL fruits and vegetable contain essential amino acids. There is no exception to this. Some vegetables and fruits just happen to contain a higher number and amount of amino acids compared to others. Plant-based diets are generally considered to be lower in protein than one consisting of animal products. However, excess protein is not necessarily good for you either. In order to be useful to the body, the amino acids in protein need to be broken down and absorbed into the blood, a process that is unduly taxing to the digestive system, particularly the kidneys.
Good vegan sources of protein include whole grains such as quinoa, barley, wheat germ, brown rice, whole wheat, corn, and oatmeal; vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, cucumbers, bell peppers, cabbage, celery, eggplant, tomatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, bok choy; algae such as spirulina, chlorella, and blue-green algae; sea vegetables such as nori, kelp, and wakame; fruits such as honeydew melon, lemon, strawberries, grapes, watermelon, bananas, apples, oranges, and papaya; legumes such as soy (tofu, soy milk, tempeh, miso), peanuts, peas, lentils, mung sprouts, and beans; seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seeds; and nuts such as almonds, cashew, walnuts, pecan, pine nuts, and pistachio. Some of these foods also contain a significant amount of calcium and iron thought to be lacking in vegan diets. A lot of vegetarians and vegans also eat mock meat that is packed with protein and made from soy and wheat gluten. Some varieties of analog meat taste so good that true-blue omnivores admit they taste better than the real thing.
More on how much protein you really need and the benefits of plant protein in the second part of this article. Stay tuned!