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Ask the Chef: Perplexed by Protein
“Dear Chef Linda, I feel like I’m ready to start my vegan journey, but my family is not on board. I want to be prepared to answer the question that I know I’ll get about protein. Can you explain to me, so that I can explain to them, how I’ll get all the protein I need? Perplexed by Protein”
Dear Perplexed, I think people are less interested in the answer than they are to opposing our choice. If they don’t frame veganism as extreme, unnatural or “crazy”, then how can they justify their own lifestyle that supports the exploitation, oppression, and suffering of animals merely to satisfy their appetites? Basically, if I can make you look crazy, it makes me look sane. And just to put a plant-based diet and protein in context, people in developed countries, like the U.S. don’t die from a lack of protein; they do however, die from diseases that are caused in large part by eating animal protein and their secretions, like cancer and heart disease. But I digress…sort of.
Look at the biggest, strongest animals on the planet, like elephants, oxen, gorillas, and cows. Guess what? They eat plants, not other animals. Protein is made from amino acids, and amino acids are found in most foods, not just animal foods. Our bodies make some of the amino acids that we need, and the rest, we need to get from a food source. These are called essential amino acids – they are essential to get from our food since we don’t produce them ourselves. Animals, and foods that come from animals, contain all of the essential amino acids. That’s why people think you need to eat animals (or their secretions) to get enough protein, but that’s not true. Amino acids are found in plant foods, as well as animal foods, in varying amounts. You can eat a well-balanced, plant-based diet and get the amino acids to make all the protein you need. Promise.
How much do you really need? The recommended daily allowance for women is 46 grams per day and for men, it’s about 56 grams. That equates to roughly 10-35% of your daily caloric intake, so you can see, protein is not supposed to be the bulk of your calories.
When people ask you specifically, what you’ll be eating to ensure you get enough protein, you can tell them that you have endless possibilities and combinations that are far healthier for you, the planet and of course, better for the animals. Here are some of the protein powerhouses you can start to include in your meal planning; quinoa, soy (tempeh, tofu, edamame, milk, etc.), hemp seeds, chia seeds, lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, seitan (wheat-meat), grains, and sea vegetables. Other vegetables contain varying amounts of protein (and lots of other important nutrients), so be sure to eat a wide variety of natural, plant-based foods. Oh, and that myth about needing to combine certain proteins at every meal to ensure you don’t become deficient…that was disproved by nutritionists and scientists years ago, so don’t buy into the argument that it’s complicated to plan your meals as a vegan. And just for fun, you can check out some of the unbelievably fit and powerful athletes who are vegan, and seem to be getting plenty of protein!
Personally, I believe that vegans are ambassadors of compassion and owe it to ourselves, the animals and the planet to demonstrate that we can do more than survive, we can thrive, by eating a plant-based diet. Congratulations to you for choosing to begin your journey. I’m confident that it will be a joyful and rewarding one!