My least favourite question I get from people about being vegan is: surely you don't get enough protein? I have had family friends say I look weaker now I'm vegan (even though I am a personal trainer) and even ask directly what I eat that supports my protein levels. My mum subtly adds nuts to every meal when I go over and if I get sick its blamed on my diet.
I want to bust the myth that vegans will wither away due to the fact they don't eat meat and dairy. I would firstly like to point out most of the strongest animals on the planet are vegans: gorillas, elephants, rhinos and buffalo's to name a few. But we are not built the same as these animals I hear you say, well what about some amazing athletes. Venus Williams, Jermain Defoe, David Haye, Austin Aries and Kendrick Yahcob Farris are just a handful of vegan athletes. Scott Jurek is a famous extreme distance runner winning numerous races. He won the Hardrock 100 mile race 7 consecutive times, set numerous course records and has the American 24 hour distance record. He has broken the course record for the 2189 mile Appalachian Trail, and is described as the greatest ultramarathoner of modern times all while being vegan.
Yet we are still questioning vegans on their protein levels and don't fully listen when vegans promise them they get enough. First off let me tell you how protein works. Put simply, protein provides your body with the necessary foundation to create the amino acids that are needed to build muscle tissue, quicker and more efficiently. This is why bodybuilders are so obsessed with protein levels. however while you don't need to count your protein levels every meal its important to get the right amount. By increasing your protein intake you are also giving your muscles more time to recover and they grow faster as a result. Throughout the digestion process protein is broken down by dietary enzymes known as proteases. The quicker these a broken down, the faster they can be converted into amino acids which can repair muscle tissue faster and promote quicker but natural growth. It is also known to improve the overall immune health of an athlete, helping them to stay healthier, fitter and stronger.
We all need protein but how much do we actually need? Well the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. This amounts to 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man and 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman. However the National Diet and Nutritional Survey has found that we typically eat considerably more – in the region of 75-100 grams. This is mainly down to how much meat the average person consumes and having too much protein can be dangerous.
"Many large, long-term population studies have also found that people who consume large amounts of protein, especially in the form of red and processed meat, are more likely to be obese or develop type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer" says the Guardian. “A lot of this work was supported by the food animal industry in the US, which was all for getting people to eat more meat,” Sanders says. “But then it was shown that, by eating a variety of plant-based foods, you can get all the amino acids you need." Over the past 50 years, research has consistently found that whenever we tinker with our natural protein needs, it can have adverse consequences, at all phases of our lives. Human breast milk is quite low in protein: when cow’s milk formula was first used to create an artificial replacement for breast milk, the excessive protein content was found to cause accelerated growth rates in early life. This became associated with an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer in later life, forcing the formula to be adapted to have a lower protein content. Now i'm not saying you need to avoid meat and dairy but just know that you don't need to have it everyday to get the right amount of protein. It also doesn't give you the right to say vegans are unhealthy due to not eating meat.
Okay so how do I get my daily protein levels as a qualified PT and a vegan. Well ill give you it in facts, we know we need about 50 grams of protein a day which makes the maths pretty simple. I will start with the everyday foods that you can use to replace meat a few times a week.
Lentils contain 18 grams of protein per cooked cup which is more than 1 egg contains. Both beans and chickpeas contain about 15 grams of protein per cooked cup. Nuts are very high in protein. 1 cup of almonds is 20 grams and just 1 cup of peanuts has an amazing 38 grams the same as chicken and more than pork.
You can also have things like tofu, seitan or tempeh which are all very high in protein.
Nearly all veg has protein in it so even if you have a few portions of veg with your meals it will slowly rank up to your daily amount. And dairy doesn't actually hold as much protein as you probably think. 1 cup of milk only has 8 grams and butter has only 0.9 grams of protein per 100 grams. There is no factual proof that shows we need to eat meat and dairy to get the right amount of protein. Actually most vegans are much more aware of what they need to eat to reach the right amount than you think. While you can choose the diet best for you it might be beneficial for your health to make small swaps and eat more veg.