While doing research on vegan nutrition and protein, I discovered that the idea of “complete proteins” and “incomplete proteins” is a complete myth. It was based off an idea that was published in a book from the 1970’s by an author that wasn’t even a nutritionist, dietician or in any medical field.
The book called “Diet for a Small Planet” was written by Frances Moore Lappé and there a was an idea she wrote on the fact that some plant proteins don’t have all of the amino acids which resulted in her “incomplete protein” theory. She stated that to be a “healthy vegetarian” multiple plant proteins had to be combined and eaten at the same time. In later editions she even retracted her statement and acknowledged that this wasn’t true. In this case, it was simply a matter of not understanding the science at the time.
45 years later (plus a lot of nutrition science and research) professionals are still regarding this incorrect information as fact.
One thing that Jeff Novick mentioned in his article is that how are people suppose to know the truth when doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, text books and even the medical establishment references incorrect information from the 1970’s that has been proven to be wrong. They continually repeat this information to this very day as if it were true. Why they do things like this is up for debate.
Now that you know where that false theory came from…the way plant protein in the vegetarian and vegan diet works is this: If your getting plenty of food in your diet and eating a variety of vegetables, plants, legumes, grains, pseudo-grains, etc… your body is getting enough protein.
Most vegetarians and vegans are creative with what they make and eats all kinds of things. Certainly a wider variety plants and vegetables than many omnivores.
Hemp protein is an amazing source of protein and a nutritional power house and that’s only one plant. I know many vegans love quinoa so protein shouldn’t be an issue.
The recommended daily protein intake is 0.8 grams per kg of your weight or 0.36 grams of protein per lb. If your between 120 lbs to 200 lbs (54 kg to 90 kg) that works out to be 43-72 grams of protein per day. I can get most of that in a single protein shake.
Yes, protein is important. If your vegetarian or vegan and have a well rounded diet with plenty of calories I wouldn’t be too concerned about getting enough protein at the end of the day.
If your on a low carbohydrate or other restrictive diet as a vegetarian or vegan, that’s where plant protein shakes and other foods specifically made to be high in protein would be helpful.
So now that protein has been covered, lets get into what nutrition a vegetarian or vegan does need to be concerned about. We’ll discuss very good reasons as to why.
Nutrition A Vegetarian or Vegan Does Need
I wrote an article called Nutrition Tips for Becoming a Vegetarian which covers a lot of the vegetarian basics leading up to being vegan and the protein in certain foods. It was written for people who aren’t vegetarians or vegans but are interested in giving it a shot and for people are new to the lifestyle. That’s a good place to start if your new to all of this.
Getting into the information of what vegetarians and vegans really aren’t getting enough of. Yes, there are nutrients that we don’t get from plants that are critical, unfortunately.
It is true that vegetarians and vegans don’t get enough DHA or EPA which are omega 3 fatty acids. These are very important especially in North American diets.
Modern diets supply way too much omega 6 fatty acids (which are inflammatory) and no where near enough omega 3 fatty acids (which are anti inflammatory). Both of these balance each other out.
It is possible to get DHA and EPA sourced from seaweed or algae.
Typically you would get DHA and EPA from fish or fish oil (which is a very rich source of those). DHA in particular is very beneficial to brain development in the early stages of human life. Throughout all stages of life both compounds have a lot of benefits and help protect against degenerative brain diseases.
Some plants do have omega 3 fatty acids but they’re different omega 3’s. Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) is the omega 3 that some plants have. Its found in things like walnuts, soybeans, flax seeds, hemp products, seaweed, algae and some plant oils. ALA is the compound that EPA and DHA are made from. Fish eat plant sources that contain ALA and break it down into the 2 other compounds that are beneficial for us, EPA and DHA.
ALA that comes from plants is also beneficial to us and is associated with things like preventing high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease to name a few.
Priority Nutrients for a Vegan
Carnosine turns out to be a fairly important amino acid that strict vegetarians and vegans don’t get at all. Carnosine shares a part of it’s name with the word carnivore since amino acid is only found in meat tissue in animals.
Beta alanine and histadine combine to from carnosine. This particular amino acid is responsible for preventing degenerative diseases and building/repairing tissues in the body. Research dating all the way back to the 90’s shows that carnosine is important in the healthy aging process and has a lot of seemingly random benefits all over the body.
Benefits of Carnosine:
- “Anti-oxidant like” properties that specifically protect the heart from toxins
- Anti-glycation properties meaning it protects arteries and tissues from sugar damage
- Reduces dangerous levels of blood glucose indirectly
- Helps protect DNA from damage
- Prevents the release of inflammatory cytokines
- Beneficial to numerous brain functions and the protection from brain diseases
Thankfully, we can supplement with carnosine as well as the next nutrient Vitamin B-12.
Vitamin B-12 is one of the key nutrients found in animal tissue that is critical to our function. A deficiency of Vitamin B-12 can create brain damage which is irreversible. Studies suggest that brain shrinkage is a potential issue. B-12 also helps protect against degenerative brain disease and other neurological issues. For a vegan this is one of the most beneficial things to include in your diet.
Vitamin B-12 is easy and inexpensive to supplement with. The methylcobalamin form of B-12 is much better absorbed by the body and usually dissolved under the tongue.
Iron is another very important nutrient. Ordinary diets usually get iron from meat but there are plenty of plant sources that provide iron. Quinoa, nuts and dark leafy greens are all fairly high in iron. Using a little bit of science we can also increase iron uptake from plant sources by supplementing with Vitamin C, roughly 1000 mg.
As a vegetarian or vegan its important to understand the science and nutrition of what vital nutrients your really not getting, why and how those nutrients work. That way you have the knowledge to take care of yourself and still continue with a healthy lifestyle.
I love you all. Have fun and most importantly be healthy.