The most common questions a vegan gets, upon sharing that he or she follows a plant-based diet, are: Where do you get your protein? How do you get enough? Do you have to combine plant proteins? These questions will often come from individuals who, prior to their concern that your plant-based diet will lead you to die of protein deficiency, never gave a thought to nutrition in their life. This can frustrate the most docile vegan into belligerence, but it is an important question to a lot of people, so it deserves a thoughtful answer. Where does our protein come from?
As children we are taught that we need to eat a lot of protein to grow up big, strong and healthy, and to get it we should make meat and dairy products the centerpiece of our diets. Vegetables are merely an unpleasant but necessary means of earning dessert. The fact that the broccoli on your plate has twice as much protein per calorie as the steak it’s next to (11.2g vs 5.4g per 100 calories) is not widely known, leaving the average person doubtful that a plant-based diet could ever fill that imagined steak-shaped void in their protein requirements.
When you take a step back, where does protein originally come from? Yes, animal muscle tissue has a lot of protein, but do animals make it all from thin air? No! Animals have to take in amino acids (the building blocks of protein) from plants in order to make that muscle tissue. Yes, animals can convert some aminos into others as needed, but they can’t make any of the essential or conditionally essential amino acids from scratch – only plants can do that. When you’re looking at that steak on your plate you aren’t seeing the only possible source of dietary protein in nature, you’re actually seeing second -hand plant proteins that have been stripped of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and packaged with cholesterol and environmental contaminants; whereas the broccoli has plenty of freshly crafted protein and tons of nutrients besides!
And this makes sense if you consider it. If plants have no protein and you need protein to grow big and strong, how on earth do animals like elephants, gorillas and oxen get so big and strong eating only plants? A diverse plant-based diet can obviously support a big, powerful body. A typical adult human needs between 46 and 56 grams of protein per day (according to the United States Dietary Reference Intake guidelines) which is easily supplied by a whole foods plant-based diet. As a vegan bodybuilder I have gone as high as 300 grams of protein per day, all on a whole foods plant-based diet! And what about getting all the essential amino acids we need? Not a problem! A variety of plant foods eaten throughout the day will supply your body with all the essential amino acids it needs to perform and recover – no special food combinations needed!
Now that it’s clear a plant based diet has all the protein anyone needs, let’s consider what it takes to produce that protein and get it to your plate. With a whole plant food this is fairly simple: just consider the amount of land the plant was grown on as well as the water, nutrients, and labor required to grow it, and the distance it had to travel to get to your grocery store and you’ve got a fair idea. Now consider the animal protein. How much plant food did the animal consume in its life before it was slaughtered? How much land, water, nutrients, and labor was needed to produce all of that food? Additionally, how much water, land, and labor did it take to then raise the animal to adulthood, slaughter it, process it, and transport it… you get the idea. The animal consumes massive amounts of resources to essentially convert plant protein into its own muscle tissue, so why not just skip the middle man?
When viewed this way it becomes clearer that plant foods not only provide a great source of protein packaged with a bounty of essential nutrients, they also use far less resources like water, land, labor, and produce far less pollution in the process. Even if you don’t examine the spectacular health benefits of a plant-based diet such as the prevention of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, the case for following such a diet becomes substantial. With that in mind, the next time you get the question “Where do you get your protein?”, you may want to turn around and ask the questioner if they know where theirs comes from.
Derek Tresize Image Credit: Josh Avery