Where do you get your protein?
Where do you get your protein? This is something every vegetarian or vegan has been asked countless times. I follow a semi-vegetarian diet that is 90% meat and fish free, and regardless of my degree in dietetics and time spent studying nutrition, people are constantly concerned about my wellbeing. Nutrition is a polarizing field and these days even people without any knowledge fancy themselves experts. So, how do vegetarians get their protein? Very easily, it turns out! Let’s start with the basics. Protein is an important nutrient responsible for many critical functions in the body, including providing structural components such as cartilage, building and repairing muscle tissue, facilitating movement such as muscle contraction, functioning as a hormone like insulin, and working as enzymes, transporters, and receptors.
Amino Acid Profile
Protein is found in both plant and animal sources. The difference between the two lies in the amino acid profile. When we ingest protein, our bodies break it down to amino acids which are absorbed then used to synthesize new proteins. There are nine essential amino acids. They are essential because our bodies don’t make them naturally, so we must get them from the food we eat. Animal protein has often been referred to as “complete” or “high biological value.” This is because animal protein contains all the essential amino acids in the right proportion required by humans. This means that new proteins are synthesized readily and at a faster rate. Plant proteins also contain all the essential amino acids but most, except for items like soy or quinoa, are usually low in essential amino acids like methionine, lysine, or tryptophan. For this reason, plant proteins have often been referred to “incomplete” and in the past, it was thought that vegetarians had to eat complementary proteins such as beans and rice, together at each meal for the body to efficiently synthesize new proteins. This has since been proven false, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even wrote a position paper on this in 2009 stating that well planned vegan or vegetarian diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intake and that the terms complete and incomplete are misleading when used to describe plant proteins. For some reason, this misinformation is still being spread on the internet and even in universities. Still don’t believe me? Check for yourself. A friend pointed out recently, that even if you put 2000 calories of just potatoes into a food tracking app, you will get all your amino acids. Of course, no one would recommend eating only potatoes, as you will need to eat a variety of plant sources to get optimum nutrition, but you get the point.
With that said, most research points to animal protein as being better for muscle building. This may be because animal protein contains a higher amount of the essential acid leucine. Leucine has been linked to being important for muscle protein synthesis and the amino acids in meat are more easily digested. Though it may be harder to put on muscle on a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is doable, and there are many vegan body builders and athletes such as UFC fighters Nate and Nick Diaz and tennis superstar Venus Williams, who are certainly not lacking on the muscle front. Aside from being adequate in protein, consuming a plant based diet may also decrease your environmental footprint and even reduce risk of chronic disease. So, spread the news and counter the misinformation. It is 100% possible for vegans and vegetarians to get adequate protein!