Monday, November 1, 2010

The protein myth?

If you're a vegan you have no doubt been asked "so where do you get your protein?"
If you aren't a vegan you have probably asked!
I have read a ton of really great books, articles, and blog posts answering this question in a few different ways... I am going to talk about some of those ideas and also throw in my own thoughts from a weight training perspective.
The concern from the general populace seems to be that:
1. you cannot get enough protein from a vegan diet
2. there are essential amino acids in meat/animal products that you cannot get in a vegan diet
3. the protein from vegetable sources isn't as "good" as from meat sources

Well. The first thing to understand is that we don't need protein to repair tissue and rebuild muscle, we need amino acids. When you eat protein your intestines break down the protein into its amino acid components and the amino acids are what contribute to cellular regeneration and repair, tissue maintenance and regulation, hormone and enzyme production, fluid balance, and the provision of energy.
When you eat foods with high levels of the essential amino acids you are getting your requirements, even if they aren't in a tidy little package called "protein". Many raw foodists argue that it is actually better for your body to consume amino acids that do not make a complete protein, with the reasoning that it takes less energy for your body to digest and assimilate the amino acids since the peptide bonds do not need to be broken down in your intestines.
Regardless of the above argument it is still more than possible to consume all the protein recommended for daily allowance on a vegan diet.
From "The Recommended Dietary Daily Allowance for both men and women is 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. People with special needs (such as pregnant women) are advised to get a little more. It's important to note that most nutritionists, dieticians, and official sources agree that we need only 2.5%-10% of our calories from protein, and ALL vegetables offer us more than that."
In fact, there are only a few things on a vegan diet that you should avoid eating in excess if you are concerned about getting enough protein... Those things are fats, sugars, and refined flours... duh.
The average woman only requires 50g of protein a day... The average man 65g. That is pretty easy to get if you are eating a balanced diet containing vegetables, nutrient dense grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds.
Here is an example: an almond butter and banana sandwich made with dave's killer bread is 17g of protein. That is over 1/3 of your protein requirement for the whole day!
As far as the value of your vegetable source protein being lesser than animal source protein, I believe this stems from the fact that a lot of vegetable proteins do not contain as many amino acids as many animal proteins. However if you are eating a varied diet you are going to get all of them at one point or another, so no need to worry.
There are some circumstances where a higher intake of protein is recommended. Athletes, body builders, and pregnant women are advised to eat a higher amount of protein daily. Currently I have seen recommendations for as much as 400g of protein for a body builder on a 4000 calorie diet. This just seems absurd. Any protein in excess of what your body can use is flushed out through urine and can be very hard on your kidneys. Long term excess protein consumption, especially animal protein, has been linked to kidney damage. When I am lifting regularly I am going on the 2g per kilogram of body weight suggestion I see fairly often. Which is around 100g of protein daily. It seems much more moderate and doesn't seem to bother my kidneys. When I am not lifting I drop it back down close to 60g. I have noticed that in upping my protein intake from 50g to around 80-100g I have had a decrease in muscle soreness and what seems to be a quicker recovery rate. I also do a few other things that may contribute to this as well- which will be the next post.
I think overall the best thing to do is listen to your body and let it tell you what you need. When in doubt add more dark green vegetables, not only are they high in protein, they also contain calcium, magnesium, and iron which contribute greatly to muscle condition. I usually supplement with a vegan protein powder when I am trying to hit my 100g mark, Sunwarrior, a raw sprouted rice protein with a high assimilation rate.
Anyone else have thoughts on this? What works for you?