Luckily we know that you can get your protein source from many different ways, you can get it through vegetables if you’re a vegetarian. I have seen many body builders that are vegetarian and they are strong and healthy” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
Admittedly, Arnie doesn’t have a reputation for being the smartest tool in the shed, but I want to acknowledge such a brave and honest comment! This is a man whose claim to fame, Mr Universe no less, was in an industry that prescribes (what I believe having worked in it for several years) a powered milk and rice-and-chicken-breast diet.
The question of whether one is meeting their recommended daily intake of protein is, without doubt, one of the first questions anyone is asked when they adopt veganism. I think this begs two questions; Is meat and dairy really the only sufficient source of protein in the human diet? And if it’s not, why is the belief that it is so enduring? As I have already referred to several times in previous posts, the data analysed in the most recent Australian Health Survey found this of protein in the average Australia’s diet:
- Almost all Australians (99%) met their requirements for protein
- Approximately one in seven males (14%) and one in twenty-five females (4%) aged 71 years and over did not meet their requirements for protein.”
I’m not about to jump the gun – within the same data set as few as 2.1% of Australians stated they specifically avoided meat, but there are several studies that prove that even this sub-group of the population are getting enough protein. To summarise everything that I have learnt about protein consumption over the last few years;
- There is ample protein in plant-based foods, especially so in mushrooms, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods have the benefit of being low in calories and high in fibre.
- Eating a whole-food plant-based will provide around 10% of energy from protein.
- Foods high in protein such as meat and dairy aren’t necessarily healthy, as eating these foods comes at the cost of high calories, cholesterol and harmful chemicals. Moreover, the link between consumption of animal-based protein and disease is well established (as mentioned in Disease blog).
- Humans actually don’t need that much protein, in fact too much can be harmful especially on kidney function. Carbohydrates are the body’s most efficient source of fuel. I acknowledge that essential fats also play an important role, and that nutrition is the combined activities of countless food substances of which different organs have different preferred energy sources. But the choice to make my primary energy source carbohydrates was a personal preference, which just so happens to have a strong basis in scientific evidence.
- Protein deficiencies are just about non-existent in populations other than the malnourished in poverty stricken countries or the elderly, as protein deficiencies are associated with caloric deficiencies.
If you want to get more plant-based protein in your diet this infographic lists some of the richest sources of protein in plant-based foods.
I hope I’ve adequately disproved the notion that vegans don’t get enough protein, or at least made you reconsider this. And if you can’t imagine going to the gym without a protein shake, I reassure you there are some great vegan brands including SunWarrior. The one I used is brown rice-based, chocolate-flavoured and tastes no worse than Whey-based protein shakes and fulfils the illusion that I’m fit (and hopefully restoring my muscles by drinking it).
But why is the belief that meat and to a lesser degree dairy, are the best sources of protein so persistent? In addition to the association between meat and protein, we have also been told to eat and drink dairy products for calcium, fish for essential omega fatty acids and red meat for heme-iron. But who gets to tell us this? The scientists whose studies were funded by a large donation from an agricultural company, or the industry with enough money to buy the Heart Foundation tick of approval?
What if I told you, you could get calcium from leafy greens, several different bean varieties? And that your body could absorb more of the calcium from these plant-based sources than from animal-based sources. And what if I told you, you could get Omega 3, 6 and 9 from flax seeds, walnuts and avocados? It’s true that there is essentially nothing that you can get from animal products that you can’t get from plants, except one micronutrient, which is vitamin B12. If you’re transitioning to veganism, forget protein intake, it’s a given – the main thing you should be considering is your vitamin B12 intake, which is almost solely derived by animal products. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are serious health concerns, even low Vitamin B12 intake can result in heart function and pregnancy complications. The Vegan Society recommends one of the following:
- Eat fortified foods (including some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms (mcg or µg) of B12 a day (my favourite source is nutritional yeast).
- OR take one B12 supplement daily providing at least 10 micrograms.
- OR Take a weekly B12 supplement providing at least 2000 micrograms.
If you’re suspicious about having to monitor Vitamin B12 on a vegan diet, don’t be, I recently learnt people over 50 are routinely prescribed B12 supplements. I consider B12 supplementation the equivalent of blood pressure medication within conventional Western diets.
Finally, the old iron debate. A few months ago, I learnt I was iron deficient, again. Often when I tell people I am iron deficient they assume it is because I don’t eat meat. We are often told that being vegetarian or vegan is a risk factor for iron deficiency. As iron is important is several bodily functions, this association can lead people to believing that these lifestyles are unhealthy ones. On the contrary, studies which differentiate between those who consume heme and non-heme iron, find that while veggos tend to have slightly lower iron stores, they are no more likely to be iron deficient than meat eaters. Whilst it is true that heme-iron (derived from animal-based products) is easier to absorb than non-heme iron (derived from plant-based products), heme iron is strongly associated with several diseases including cancer, stroke and heart disease. The truth is, since puberty I have struggled to maintain healthy iron levels. When trying to donate blood in grade 12, upon being declined and having to consult my GP, I was found to be not only iron deficient, but anaemic. That was despite that year being one of the peak years of my red meat consumption. According to the Australian Health Survey data, I am not alone in this:
- Females were much more likely to have inadequate iron intakes from foods than males, with one in four (23%) not meeting their requirements compared with one in thirty males (3%).
There are several other risk factors associated with my iron deficiency including being a women, iron deficiency being highly hereditable and blood donation (I now only donate plasma). I have accepted it is something I will have to manage for the rest of my life, particularly during pregnancy. Dr Michael Greger describes iron as a double-edge sword, non-heme is not as easily absorbed but heme iron is strongly associated with disease. So if I have to eat more greens to get the same amount of iron as a carnivore, at least this serves to protect me from disease, rather than contribute to my likelihood of getting them.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013). Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.008~2011-12~Main%20Features~Macronutrients~200 (Protein)
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013). Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.008~2011-12~Main%20Features~Key%20findings~100 (Iron)
What Every Vegan Should Know About Vitamin B12 (The Vegan Society) https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/vitamins-minerals-and-nutrients/vitamin-b12-your-key-facts/what-every-vegan-should-know-about-vitamin-b12
The Safety of Heme vs. Non-heme Iron; http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-safety-of-heme-vs-non-heme-iron/
A news report I watched a few years ago about the health detriments associated with protein powder http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2014/s4042829.htm