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Where Do Vegans Get Their Protein?

By June 20, 2018August 2nd, 2022No Comments

Hello All! I have had a lot of people ask about protein in the last few months, so I wanted to share a wonderful article written by my husband. He is nearly 50 years old, rides motocross, runs obstacle course races, lifts weights and has been vegan for 20 years with mostly raw food in the last year or two. We are constantly questioned about where we get our protein, especially in the last year that we only eat fruit and vegetables. So my husband decided to give everyone very specific foods and amounts in a concise and well written paper. Enjoy!
By the way, this is what 50 and vegan looks like……

Where do you get your protein? By Anthony Serpico.

As a vegan this is the question I most often hear. The reasoning is as follows: as a vegan you don’t eat any meat, poultry, fish or dairy, and therefore could not possibly be getting sufficient quantities of high quality protein. As we shall see, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it possible to obtain all the protein necessary as a vegan I would go further and argue plant based protein is actually superior to animal protein. So, let’s get started investigating this non-issue.

How much protein do we need?

The answer to this question provides us with a starting point for understanding protein needs. Unfortunately, there is no definitive optimal daily protein requirement. The short answer is, no one really knows precisely how much protein an individual needs for optimal health. There are guidelines that identify minimal requirements, but “minimal” does not imply optimal. Sedentary people are believed to have lower protein requirements than active individuals. And it’s generally accepted that high intensity training increases protein requirements. The operative words being “generally” and “believed.” I hate to muddy the waters so much, but the fact is there’s still a quite a bit that is unknown about protein metabolism. That being said, there is a lot that is known and we can use this knowledge to guide us along. So, back to the question “how much protein do we need?” Generally accepted guidelines suggest that healthy adults should consume between .5 and 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. So, for an adult weighting 150 lb that would be between ~34 and ~105 grams. That’s quite a variation! You might ask, “What’s the right number”, but you already know the answer to that question. For our discussion let’s just settle on .8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. This represents a reasonable daily intake that meets the recommended minimum daily allowance yet is not so high as to present any risk to healthy adults. As wide as the above variations are, I have seen advice doled out suggesting individuals should consume 1 or even 1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. For me, that would be between 130 and 195 grams. I have also witnessed NDs and other holistic healers use ultra low protein detox-diets with great success in curing difficult chronic illnesses.

What are essential amino acids?

First a little background. Every cell in the body is comprised of proteins. Amino acids are the substances that make up protein. Our bodies use 22 amino acids to synthesize the ~50,000 different proteins we need to be healthy. Of the 22 amino acids, there are 9 that are labeled the essential. An essential amino acid is one that cannot be synthesized by the body from other available resources, and therefore must be supplied by ones diet. You may have heard of branched chained amino acids, abbreviated BCAA. There are three BCAAs, all of which are among the 9 essential amino acids. They are:· Leucine· Isoleucine· Valine For this discussion, let’s ignore what technically distinguishes a BCAA from a regular amino acid. So, why do I bring them up? BCAAs account for ~33% of the essential amino acids found in muscle proteins. So there is a concern, mostly among men trying to build muscle, that a failure to consume these essential elements will hinder their development.

So, where do you get your protein?

I’m glad you asked. The plant kingdom provides so many excellent sources. Just about any plant, nut or seed that you eat will provide good protein. But let’s go over a few of the more interesting options.· Hemp seeds.· Chia seeds.· Dark green leafy vegetables (Chard, Spinach, Kale, Collards, etc.)· Sprouted sunflower seeds.· Quinoa· Pea Sprouts Hemp seeds It is quite possible that there is no better source of protein than hemp seeds. By weight, they are one of the most protein dense foods in the world. One ounce (28 g) contains an impressive 9 g of protein. That’s 30% protein by weight. This puts virtually all animal based sources of protein to shame. But this is only the beginning. Taking a closer look we find the real power in hemp protein is not in its quantity, as impressive as it is, but in its protein quality. Hemp seed protein is ~67% globulin edistin, and ~33% globulin albumin, this makes hemp a protein that is readily available in a form quite similar to that found in blood plasma. Of course, hemp seeds contain all 9 essential amino acids. In addition, hemp seeds also contain the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 in the proper ratios. Hemp is not a low calorie food; at ~160 calories per ounce it is fairly dense. But don’t let that scare you off, hemp seeds are phenomenal source of protein. As an added benefit, most hemp is organic, Being a weed, it is a tough, resilient plant that requires little attention when grown in suitable conditions. Pesticides and herbicides are rarely needed to successfully grow hemp.

Sprouted Sunflower Seeds – Sprouted sunflowers are truly impressive; their nutritional numbers are off-the-charts. I encourage you to look into them further. For our discussion we are focused on protein, and here too, sprouted sunflowers don’t disappoint. One of the richest sources of protein, 1 ounce (28 g) of sprouted sunflower seeds contains an impressive 6.5 grams of protein, that’s ~25% protein by weight. And sprouted sunflower seeds are quite low in calories yet rich in many nutrients and minerals. A mere 3.5 ounces of sprouted sunflower seeds contains a whopping ~23 grams of protein! The same amount of:· Chicken breast meat contains just slightly more protein at ~26 grams· Hamburger patty ~24 grams protein· Most cuts of beef ~24 grams of protein· Tuna, ~26 grams of protein· Most fish fillets or steaks contain ~22 grams of protein

Dark green leafy vegetables (Chard, Spinach, Kale, Collards, etc.) Often overlooked for their protein value, dark leafy green vegetables contain high concentrations of protein per calorie. For example, 30 grams of spinach contains only ~7 calories but has ~1 gram of protein. As a general rule, 5 ounces of dark leafy greens contain ~4 grams of protein at around 40 calories. While this may not seem like much, it compares very favorably to animal protein sources. For example, one cup of 2% milk contains ~122 calories and ~8 grams of protein. For the same 122 calories you would get over 15 grams of protein from spinach. That’s nearly double the calorie to protein ratio. And contrary to popular myth, virtually all dark leafy greens provide a complete source of protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids. Our focus on protein ignores all of the other health benefits found in dark greens, but that’s a topic for another article.

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-WAH)You might ask “what is Quinoa?” Quinoa is the seed of a green leafy plant that is indigenous to South America. It is often referred to as a grain but I believe it is technically the fruit of an herb. The great thing about Quinoa is that it can serve as a direct replacement to rice. Wherever you use rice and however you cook rice, you can use Quinoa in its place. As a protein source, Quinoa is quite good. It is a complete protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids, it’s gluten free, easy to digest and quite high in fiber. One ounce of Quinoa contains ~4 grams of protein and ~110 calories. One cup of cooked quinoa contains ~9 grams of protein.

Chia Seeds – Chia seed are comprised of ~20-30% protein, ~35% oil and ~25% fiber. Chias are gluten-free, very low-sodium and have a very good omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Of course, they are a complete source of protein, providing all 9 essential amino acids in an easily digestible form. Chias are also a great source of soluble fiber. At ~140 calories, one ounce (~28 g) of Chia seeds contain ~5 g of protein. I could go on extolling the virtues of chia seeds but we are focusing on protein. Let’s compare 1 ounce of chia seeds to one egg, often considered an excellent source of protein. One large egg (~46 g) contains ~90 calories with ~6 g of protein. Both eggs and chia seeds contain all essential amino acids. It turns out the calorie to protein ratio of an egg is a bit better than chia seeds, but at what cost? An egg gets ~70% of its calories from fat and contains a whopping 220 mg of cholesterol (The RDA for cholesterol is 300 mg). So let’s put this in perspective, if you eat just two eggs you will have only gotten ~12 g of protein at a cost ~440 mg of cholesterol. According to the RDA, your already way over your daily cholesterol limit and should stop consuming any more foods containing cholesterol. Or to put it another way, you need to stop eating additional meat, poultry, fish and dairy.
Pea Sprouts Pea sprouts are another great source of protein. A 3.5 ounce serving contains ~9 grams of protein at 128 calories. That’s about the same protein to calorie ratio as an egg, except pea sprouts contain 0mg of cholesterol and only 1% fat (non saturated). And, like virtual all sprouts, pea sprouts are nutrient dense.

Do plant based foods contain “complete” proteins ?First, we should answer the question what properties must a food have in order to qualify as a “complete” protein source. Unfortunately, the answer to this depends on who you talk to, although it probably shouldn’t. In any case, below are the two most common definitions, with the latter being more restrictive.· A food must contain at least all 9 essential amino acids in order to be a complete protein source.· A food must contain at least all 9 essential amino acids in the proper quantities in order to qualify as a complete protein source. The theory being that if a food contains one or more amino acids in quantities below some threshold, then the body will be unable to synthesize protein from that food source. It doesn’t really matter which you choose to believe because neither present a dietary challenge for vegetarians. As for the first definition, it appears to me that virtually all plant based foods contain all 9 essential amino acids. I was unable to find any fruit or vegetable that did not qualify as a complete protein source based on this definition. The second definition is a bit more nuanced. According to this, even if a food contains all 9 essential amino acids it still may not qualify as a complete source of protein because it may lack one or more of the amino acids in sufficient quantities. But this definition is unrealistic about how it considers food consumption. Who eats a single serving of a food in isolation over a 24 hour period? To illustrate my point let’s consider peaches, not exactly know as a power packed source of protein. One large peach, ~175 grams, contains ~2 grams of protein. Of course, it contains all 9 essential amino acids, but, according to conventional nutritional thinking, at least 7 of these amino acids are lacking in sufficient quantities in order to consider a peach a complete protein. But what if I eat two peaches, will I then have consumed enough of the 7 lacking amino acids? The answer is yes. So this notion of needing to consume foods that are complete proteins in-and-of-themselves or the combining of complimentary foods is unnecessary. All that you need to do in order to consume sufficient quantities of protein is to eat the proper amount of calories needed to maintain your proper body weight. Let’s take this peach example one step further. Again, a large peach contains ~2 grams of protein at ~68 calories. I weigh 150 pounds and require ~2000 calories a day to maintain my bodyweight. If all I ate were peaches (2000 calories worth of peaches) I would be consuming ~59 grams of protein a day. That’s still above the ~55 grams suggested for someone my weight. Let me be clear, I am very much in favor of eating a wide variety of plant based foods, for many reasons. But from the perspective of protein, it’s not really necessary.

Making dietary choices

This article focuses on the protein component of plant based food sources. But this is really an overly simplistic way of evaluating the quality of any particular food. To isolate a specific compound in a food, in this case protein, and make judgments as to the quality of one’s selection ignores everything else about the particular food. This is not really a rational way to make dietary choices. For example, the dairy industry loves to remind people that milk contains copious amounts of calcium, and by extension, must therefore be good for bones. But it has been clearly established that milk is, in fact, quite bad for bones. Why? Well, like virtually all animal protein sources, milk acidifies the body pH which in turn triggers your body to perform a correction to rebalance. It turns out calcium is an excellent acid neutralizer and the biggest store of calcium in the body are your bones. So the very same calcium that our bones need to stay healthy is depleted in order to neutralize the acidifying effect of milk. My point being that food must be evaluated in its totality. In the first paragraph of this article I stated that I believed plant based protein to be superior to animal protein. I believe this to be the case not because I think plant protein is in-itself somehow superior to animal protein but rather because I believe the foods delivering plant based protein are a far superior source because of all their other qualities.

What about supplementation?

As you have already probably guessed, I don’t really think protein supplementation is necessary provided you are eating a healthy plant based diet sufficient to maintain your normal bodyweight. However, for those that feel it necessary to supplement their normal protein intake, I have put together a list of specialty foods that can be used for this purpose. I prefer supplementing with whole foods rather than using isolates. The rational being that there are so many dependencies (known and unknown) in food digestion and nutrient absorption that isolates can too easily cause imbalances that limit their usefulness, or worse, actually cause problems. You can’t really overdo it with the “supplements” listed below. Remember, these are really whole foods (sans the hemp protein) and can be used as such. That being said, I recommend you avoid consuming spirulina or chlorella if:

  1. Have allergies to seafood or seaweed.
  2. You’re current experiencing a fever.
  3. You’re pregnant or nursing.
  4. If you suffer from hyperparathyroidism or some other autoimmune disease, consult with you healthcare professional before consuming spirulina or chlorella.

So, let’s have a look at the list.

  • Spirulina – This blue-green alga comes as a powder and is comprised of ~60% protein by weight. An ounce (28G) contains an impressive ~17 G of protein with only ~80 calories. The protein to calorie ratio of spirulina is higher than any other whole food that I am aware of. The issue with spirulina, or for that matter any alga, is finding a trusted source. These foods can easily be contaminated from the water where they are grown. So you need to take care in finding a supplier that has good quality organic spirulina.
  • Chlorella – This is a single celled green alga that grows in fresh water, it is believed to be among the earth’s oldest living organisms. Chlorella contains ~17 grams of protein per ounce, making it one of the most protein dense foods in the world. Chlorella is available in a powder, preferably where the outer cell wall has been cracked in order to aid in digestibility. It has a fairly high iron content, so that might be an issue for men. Otherwise, it is reasonable low in calories @ 115 calories per ounce and contains a broad array of nutrients. Because chlorella has been known to cause upset stomach, I suggest you start with a low dosage when first using chlorella and work your way up slowly to your desired daily intake.
  • Hemp protein is made from hemp seeds, however it has a higher protein density than the seeds and is lower in calories. One ounce (28g) contains ~14g of protein as opposed to 9g for the seeds. And at 120 calories per ounce, it has 25% fewer calories than the seeds.
  • Alfalfa – The alfalfa plant contains ~20% protein by weight. Alfalfa is popular as an animal feed, particularly for horses. But don’t let that scare you off. In addition to its high protein content, Alfalfa is a great source of many vitamins and minerals. As a supplement, it normally comes in powder form.
  • Wheatgrass and Barley Grass – These foods contain ~5g of protein per ounce with ~65 calories. (in powdered form). They are both very nutritious, packed with vitamins and minerals. All sorts of claims have been made about the benefits of juicing with wheatgrass. I can’t claim to know how much of it is true, however I have used it for many years and can tell you it’s an acquired taste. It sort of tastes like your drinking your freshly cut lawn. As a supplement, it comes in powder form, which is much easier to take.I use these foods quite regularly, but not for their protein content. I use them for all of the other nutritional benefits they offer. You might wonder why I don’t have soy on this list.

There are three reasons.

  1. I don’t recommend GMO products and it can be difficult to find non-GMO soy.
  2. Many people are allergic to soy. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates soy is among the top ten most common food allergens for allergy patients.
  3. Soy contains trypsin inhibitors which blocks good protein absorption

My own experience. I have been a vegan for over 20 years and have never experienced symptoms of protein deficiency, and I make no special effort to regulate my protein intake. I simply eat a variety of fruits and vegetables along with occasional grains, nuts and seeds. From the ages of ~26 through ~37 I was involved in the sport of bodybuilding. A sport most would say increases ones protein needs. When I was 29 I switched from a typical animal based diet to a vegan diet. Not only did the switch not impede my performance, I believe that in the long run it actually contributed to my development. My body seemed to better manage the stresses of heavy weightlifting. Recovery times appeared to shorten and I suffered fewer nagging low-level injuries. For the past eleven years I have been busy participating in the sport of motocross / supercross racing, and at no time did I feel at a disadvantage due to diet. Quite the opposite, I believe being a vegan has allowed me to perform at a high level in this very demanding sport. In motocross it is inevitable that injuries will come, but my body’s ability to recuperate seemed no different from when I was much younger. Again, something I attribute to diet.

In the past year I have mostly stopped supercross racing and have decided to get back into bodybuilding. There are those that would believe I have put myself at a disadvantage trying to pursue bodybuilding as a vegan. I don’t think this is true. Every two to three months I go for physiograph testing in order to track my progress, so far, my development has been quite good.

My typical diet

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at my own diet on a typical day to see what food sources I am getting my protein from. As I stated earlier, I don’t make any special effort to regulate or monitor my own protein intake. So this is actually the first time that I will be adding up what my daily protein intake is. Of course, my daily diet does not exactly follow what I did today, which is what I wrote down below, but it does follow a very similar pattern, especially during the work week.

  • Wake up and have 1 cup of coconut water and peach or some other fruit (3 grams).
  • Morning shake consisting of 1 oz. of almonds 1 oz, of hemp seeds, one banana, water and ice. I sweeten with stevia. Sometimes I include cacao beans (17 grams)
  • About two hours later I have 1 banana (1 gram)
  • About 1 hour later I have ~2 cup of grapes and ~1 cup of strawberries, or some similar mix of fruit (3 gram)
  • About 1 hour later I have ~2 oz. of sprouted sunflower seeds and ~1 oz of dandelion or similar leafy green and 1 cup of coconut water (16 grams)
  • Short time later I have 1 Florida avocado with 1/2 oz of hemp seeds and 12 oz of fresh vegetable juice (10 grams)
  • About an hour later I have 5 oz of mixed greens (red chard, green chard, arugula, spinach, tat soi, etc.) 4 grams1/2 cup of quinoa with 1 1/2 cups of steamed mixed vegetables (11 grams)

Total: 65 grams 0.94 grams per kg of bodyweight

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