The Protein Myth

 

If you are reading this, then you can probably imagine what I’m about to say. People always ask me if I get enough protein as a vegan. I cannot tell you how many times I have had people look at me completely flabbergasted at the fact that I haven’t somehow disintegrated into thin air because I don’t eat any meat. In all honesty, a lot of this sentiment comes from people that I interact with on a daily basis: friends, family members, coworkers…From skeptics to outright trolls, I have had to deal with my fair share of ‘expert protein inquirers.’ All said and done, however, I believe it’s incredibly important to educate rather than shame - so hopefully this article will help demystify the protein myth. 

Let’s start by talking about our understanding of the importance of protein in our diet. Protein is made of amino acids; and there are nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. It may sound counterintuitive, but these amino acids are called ‘essential’ because our bodies cannot product them on their own, and must obtain them through your diet. In short, we have to be aware of the foods that we eat in order to guarantee that we are getting all of the essential amino acids required for healthy bodily function. Want to know more about each of the nine essential amino acids? Here’s a quick primer on the roles and functions of each of the nine essential amino acids from Healthline:

  1. Phenylalanine: Phenylalanine is a precursor for the neurotransmitters tyrosine, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. It plays an integral role in the structure and function of proteins and enzymes and the production of other amino acids.

  2. Valine: Valine is one of three branched-chain amino acids, meaning it has a chain branching off to one side of its molecular structure. Valine helps stimulate muscle growth and regeneration and is involved in energy production.

  3. Threonine: Threonine is a principal part of structural proteins such as collagen and elastin, which are important components of the skin and connective tissue. It also plays a role in fat metabolism and immune function.

  4. Tryptophan: Though often associated with causing drowsiness, tryptophan has many other functions. It’s needed to maintain proper nitrogen balance and is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your appetite, sleep and mood.

  5. Methionine: Methionine plays an important role in metabolism and detoxification. It’s also necessary for tissue growth and the absorption of zinc and selenium, minerals that are vital to your health.

  6. Leucine: Like valine, leucine is a branched-chain amino acid that is critical for protein synthesis and muscle repair. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, stimulates wound healing and produces growth hormones.

  7. Isoleucine: The last of the three branched-chain amino acids, isoleucine is involved in muscle metabolism and is heavily concentrated in muscle tissue. It’s also important for immune function, hemoglobin production and energy regulation.

  8. Lysine: Lysine plays major roles in protein synthesis, hormone and enzyme production and the absorption of calcium. It’s also important for energy production, immune function and the production of collagen and elastin.

  9. Histidine: Histidine is used to produce histamine, a neurotransmitter that is vital to immune response, digestion, sexual function and sleep-wake cycles. It’s critical for maintaining the myelin sheath, a protective barrier that surrounds your nerve cells.

 

As you can see, all nine of the essential amino acids play an important role in our bodily functions. There’s no denying that. But, back to what we know. We know that animal products like meat and dairy contain protein. In fact, they contain all nine essential amino acids. Quite frankly I didn’t know they had all nine essential amino acids - and I didn’t even know about the different kinds of amino acids until going vegan. (Totally guilty!) Now, if you’ve gotten this far and you’re asking yourself, ‘So where does the plant-based protein come from?’ Let’s get one thing clear. You absolutely can get all essential amino acids on a plant-based diet. You just have to make sure you eat a diverse group of whole grains, legumes, and vegetables in order to do so! Not too hard, right? But what exactly makes plant-based protein different than animal protein? Is one better than the other? Well, for all you burger lovers out there - I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but plant-based protein is in fact better for you than animal protein. The reason? There are plenty. First, animal protein comes high in saturated fats. Think, red meat, milk, fish…although you get your required amounts of protein, you are also intaking saturated fat which in excessive amounts leads to an increase in LDL cholesterol and an increased in risk of cardiovascular disease. Plant-based equivalent ‘fatty foods’ like nuts, seeds, and avocados have far lower amounts of saturated fats, so they don’t come with as much risk.

Reason number two goes to fiber! Plant-based foods not only provide you with all nine essential amino acids, but they also provide you with fiber. Yes, fiber is extremely important for our digestive system and body as a whole. Fiber helps create a healthy gut microbiome and is associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk. So think twice before jumping into Keto SZN (read: ‘season’). Even though a Ketogenic diet may provide short-term gains like weight and fat loss, it can be detrimental to longterm health. Excessive protein consumption - as suggested in the Atkins, or now, Ketogenic diet - can lead to poor bowel movements (i.e. constipation or diarrhea due to lack of fiber), dehydration, increased risk of various cancers (breast, prostate, colorectal — which has been skyrocketing in young people), and kidney damage. Although these risks are highly associated with consumption of animal products and processed food that lack fiber, it’s important to note that excessive amounts of protein still is not good even with a plant-based diet. Most national food guidelines suggest an upper limit of 25% of your daily calories to be protein sources. So be mindful of what you are eating!

One last thing: pound-for-pound, plant-based protein sources are far more nutrient dense than animal protein sources. Remember that next time somebody asks you how you can be vegan without eating meat! So don’t forget - we need nine essential amino acids. We can get these amino acids from a diverse set of plant sources as well as animal sources. However, the plant-based sources are more nutrient dense, higher in fiber, and lower in saturated fat. Have any questions about how to add more plant-based sources of protein into your diet? Leave your questions down below! 

Resources:

US National Library of Medicine, Association between total, processed, red and white meat consumption and all-cause, CVD and IHD mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies, 2016.

US National Library of Medicine, Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women, 2016.

Jama Internal Medicine, Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality, 2016.

Healthline, Essential Amino Acids: Definition, Benefits and Food Sources, 2018.

Popular Science, Why plant protein is better for you than animal protein, 2018.

WebMD, More Young Adults Getting, Dying From Colon Cancer, 2018.