As some of you know, I gave up eating meat earlier this year. It started as an experiment, and so far I haven't felt the need to return. I also tried about thirty days of veganism, and afterwards returned to fish and very small amounts of dairy. I am not ready to declare myself a fish-eating vegetarian yet; I am open to the idea that I may return to eating meat again one day, in a very different way than before. For anyone else out there who has experimented with vegan or vegetarianism, you've probably been asked more than once "But how do you get enough protein if you're not eating meat?" It's a valid question. And I think another important question to ask ourselves, whether we eat meat or not, is what quality of protein are we getting, and how much are we consuming? There are a lot of opinions out there. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to share my understanding based on what I’ve learned the past couple of weeks.
So, what is protein anyway? And why is it important? Proteins are large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. Our bodies are constantly metabolizing them, recycling them, and using them to build new proteins. Not only are they a source of energy, we need 'em to do a whole whack of stuff in the body, including building muscle, enzymes, hormones and antibodies. They are the second largest component of what makes up the human body, next to water. Okay, okay, so it’s clear we need adequate amounts of protein, how much is enough? The answer is: you need to consume from your diet food that contains an adequate amount of all nine essential amino acids, in the same day. This is also known as a ‘complete protein’.
There are nine essential amino acids that the body requires in order to survive. The term ‘essential’ refers to the fact that they are not produced by the body and must be obtained from diet. If the body’s supply of these essential amino acids runs out, then the body won’t be able to effectively use the protein. The term 'complete protein' refers to the combining of low amino acid foods with high amino acid foods to build one complete amino acid or protein. A practical example of this is combining beans (low in amino acids) and grains (high in amino acid) in the same meal. There are also sources of complete protein out there that don’t require any combination, and I bet you can guess where they comes from. Yep, animal protein: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy. This means that if you sit down and consume a (reasonable) portion of beef, or an egg, you’ve had your complete protein for the day.
You can probably tell where this is going. Since vegetarians don’t eat meat, they must have to do a whole lot of food combining in order to consume all nine essential amino acids, right? Right. Unless of course they are pescetarians who eat fish, and/or lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat dairy products and eggs. Otherwise, food combining is super important. Same goes for vegans, obviously. Not all is lost! I have one piece of very good news for the readers who don’t eat any animal protein: quinoa is a complete source of protein! Faith restored, yes? But what does this look like if we don’t like quinoa or don’t want to eat it every day? Below are some examples of how vegans and vegetarians can combine their food in order to consume a complete protein:
* hummus and brown rice cakes
* almond butter and whole grain toast
* kale and farro
Protein deficiency is (in)arguably a concern for vegans and vegetarians alike, and is caused by not only inadequate intake, but also poor absorption. The point being, you could be eating protein, and if your body’s not digesting and absorbing it, you could have deficiency symptoms such as dizziness, weakness, and fatigue. (By the way, these are symptoms for a lot of other things, too.)
Now that we know how important protein is and that we need it in order to survive, is there such a thing as too much? Is excess protein a bad thing? Protein is made up of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Nitrogen is actually toxic. The liver and kidneys are responsible for the metabolism of amino acids, and a byproduct of this process is nitrogenous toxic waste (for example, ammonia). Therefore, eating an excessive amount of protein places a toxic load on your liver. The urea in our kidneys filters and concentrates our urine so that we can expel the toxic waste. If we’re overburdening our liver and kidney, they can’t keep up with the metabolism and filtration and we end up with toxic build up, which can obviously lead to increased risk of kidney and liver problems, as well as some other not-so-nice things. It’s definitely something to keep in mind when you’re considering a high-protein diet.
To keep a healthy balance, it’s important to eat some protein at every meal, whether it be from animal or plant sources. It’s equally important to avoid an excess of animal protein, and keep portions to 3-4 oz (or the size of the palm of your hand).
So there you have it. Hopefully you're armed with some information the next time someone questions your protein (in)adequacy!