Protein: Can Vegetarians Get Enough?

vegetarians Mar 21, 2017

Mike Tyson Turned Vegan in 2009

Mike Tyson Turned Vegan in 2009

Ever since I read The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell in early 2009, I have been trying to increase vegetarian protein while minimizing animal protein (i.e., meat and dairy) in my family's diet.  Never having been a huge meat eater, it wasn't too hard to cut down on meat significantly (and the cheese that had become a staple of our diets was surprisingly not missed with the help of our cold-pressed juices).  After I got pregnant in spring 2009, however, my diet felt out of my control.  And, since the baby arrived at the end of 2009, nursing has escalated my appetite to insatiable levels!  So I do eat (and crave) more meat and dairy while breastfeeding because I haven't been able to figure out how to eat enough without them.

I'm Still Learning How To Live Without Animal Protein

Now that we're in the back-to-school season and my three-year-old has to start taking lunch to school, I just started revisiting my books on nutrition and health.  Although I'm not confused that minimal animal protein is best, I am confused about what to feed them instead.  In the meantime, since I've been eating more animal protein since getting pregnant last year, I have provided my family with more of it (we had cut it out almost 100% before I got pregnant).  At the same time, I am still trying to make sense of disturbing claims by experts who know a lot more about this stuff than I, like:

Quinoa Plants
Quinoa Plants: Quinoa is a good source of protein
 “Let there be no doubt: cow’s milk protein is an exceptionally potent cancer promoter…”

-- page 62 of The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell

“…the depth and breadth of evidence now implicating cow’s milk as a cause of Type 1 diabetes is overhwhelming…”

-- page 194 of The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell

Do Vegetarians Really Get Sufficient Protein?

In addition, I sometimes question whether my three-year-old gets enough protein and fat.  As such, the following was interesting to read:

"In the 1950s human protein requirement studies were first conducted that demonstrated that adults require twenty to thirty-five grams of protein per day.  Today, the average American consumes 100 - 120 grams of protein per day, mostly in the form of animal products.  People who eat a completely vegetarian diet (vegan) have been found to consume sixty to eighty grams of protein a day, well above the minimum requirement."

-- Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right (2005) by by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D.; page 32

That's helpful context! Quantifying estimated protein requirements and consumption clearly shows us how much Americans should not worry about consuming enough protein -- even vegetarians!  The numbers are recapped in the table below:

Protein Requirements

Estimated Protein Requirements and Consumption

All Protein Is Not The Same

Dr. Fuhrman writes that protein is ubiquitous, contained in all foods, not only in animal products. So, then, from our bodies' perspective, what is the difference between animal protein and non-animal protein?  One way to look at it is focusing on macronutrients versus micronutrients.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are the nutrients that contain calories, thereby supplying us with energy.  Protein, fats, and carbohydrate are macronutrients, the only macronutrients that exist.  Processed foods and animal products mostly contain macronutrients, but are deficient in micronutrients.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are those nutrients that don't contain calories, but have other essential roles to play.  Examples of some micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, fiber, bioflavonoids, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals.  Plant foods have a high level of micronutrients.

In summary, protein may be looked at as existing in two main packages: macronutrients and micronutrients.  And since nutrition plays a highly influential role in a person's quality of health during the growth years (the first ten years of life -- and especially the first two!), I'm incorporating as many micronutrients as possible into my daughters' diets.

Sources of Micronutrients?

Since Americans eat an excessive amount of animal foods, it's been very challenging to figure out how to eat vegetarian (and vegan sometimes).

"In North America, about 70% of dietary protein comes from animal foods.  Worldwide, plants provide 84% of the calories."

-- Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right (2005) by by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D.; page 32

According to Drs. Campbell and Fuhrman, foods with the most nutrients per calorie are vegetables and beans.  Vegetables are also very rich in protein and calcium.  Did you know that most vegetables (peas, green vegetables, and beans) have more protein per calorie than meat and more calcium per calorie than milk?

"By eating more of these high-nutrient, low-calorie foods we get plenty of protein, and our bodies get flooded with protective micronutrients simultaneously.  Animal protein does not contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, plant protein does.  Plus, animal protein is married to saturated fat, the most dangerous type of fat...  Vegetables, beans, and nuts and seeds are all rich in protein, and they also have no saturated fat or cholesterol.  But the clincher is that they are higher in nutrients than any other foods...  These foods also contain an assortment of heart disease-fighting nutrients independent of their ability to lower cholesterol, and they fight cancer too."

-- Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right (2005) by by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D.; pages 29-31

Most Delicious Ways To Consume Micronutrients?

Vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds... never sounds interesting enough...  However, living in NYC, we've been lucky enough to be exposed to impressively creative and delicious ways to consume a vegetarian or vegan meal in an extremely enjoyable way.  For those of you looking for recipes, some of my favorites are below:

Liquiteria Juices

Liquiteria Cold-Pressed Juices

  • Cold-Pressed Juices.  Cold-pressed vegetable and fruit juices are still a meaningful part of our diets.  Our favorite juice bar is Liquiteria in the East Village.  Not only are we quickly and easily consuming tons of vegetables (like kale, spinach, cucumber, celery, and much more), but these juices have healtherized our cravings!  It's been amazing.  Check out the Liquiteria menu for ideas on how to make your own.  Click on Juicing to read more about our family's experience and learn more about juice machines to make your own.
  • Soups.  If you click on the link, you'll find recipes for creamy, delicious and fully satisfying vegan soups.  What's the secret? The cashew cream.  Made from soaked raw cashew nuts, the cashew cream makes the soups a filling and nourishing source of the healthiest protein and fat while accompanied by lots of micronutrients!  (We add as many vegetables as we can sneak in without sacrificing taste.)  A batch will a couple of days.
  • Pasta.  We now use the cashew cream sauce in a variety of ways, including a creamy tomato sauce.  Add to sauteed shallots, garlic, and tomatoes, this creamy tomato sauce has become another staple recipe.  On top of some whole grain pasta (protein content for a serving of pasta can vary from 5g to 9g), this is a very satisfying meal!
  • Avocado sandwich.  Mashed avocados, a slice of tomato, Vegenaise, (onion, if not for my daughter), on sprouted bread is delicious.
  • Fried Rice.  Various versions of stir-fried vegetables and beans over various whole grains is also a staple.
  • Pancakes.  We make our own at home from whole wheat flour (we do use one egg per batch and add flax seeds).  We then sprinkle fruit and crushed nuts on top (walnuts and almonds).  With some 100% Grade A maple syrup (or agave nectar), this is a delicious healthy breakfast.
  • Black Bean Brownies.  I love these.  They taste a bit caramely, which I love.

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