Bold statements about protein come from both carnivore and vegan camps. “Vegan protein is incomplete and inferior!” or “You can get enough protein just eating broccoli and rice!”. But which one is right? Well, both… but also neither… it is complicated. Maisie Torr is here to clear up the consensus on vegan protein.
Protein is a macronutrient that sits alongside carbs and fat as an essential part of our diets. Proteins, also known as amino acids, can be split into two basic groups: essential amino acids or proteins we need to get from food because our body cannot produce them and non-essential amino acids. These are proteins that we could get from eating food but do not need to because our body can make it anyway. It sounds complicated but, simply, your body can make any protein found only in meat using the proteins found in plants. Easy.
It starts to get a bit more complicated when the anti-vegans start to bring “complete” and “incomplete” proteins into the mix, calling vegan sources of protein inferior due to their incompleteness. In my opinion, the concept of complete and incomplete proteins is something that only belongs in science textbooks since it is rarely applicable to a diet with even the slightest bit of variation. Complete proteins are foods that contain all the essential amino acids we talked about before. These include all animal products and some plant-based foods like soy and quinoa.
Most vegan foods are incomplete, meaning they only contain some of the essential amino acids but not all of them. However, it is important to remember that every plant-based food contains a slightly different combination of these essential amino acids, meaning that eating a normal variety of food will practically guarantee you consume every essential protein you need. Long story short, you would have to work extremely hard at only eating one food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day to miss out on some of the essential amino acids.
“See! That means even if eat only broccoli and rice or raw fruit all day I’ll still get enough protein!” Nope. But also, yep. Why can nothing be simple with nutrition? As mentioned before, most plant foods tend to be low in certain essential amino acids. The main offender for vegans tends to be lysine, an essential amino acid mostly found in animal products that tend to be quite low in plant foods that are not protein-rich, like fruits and veggies.
This means that even though you would technically get the right amount of protein generally if you ate enough calories of broccoli and rice, you would be lucky to get even half of the correct amount of lysine specifically since it is low in these two foods. Now, this does not mean that the meat-eaters are right, and we are all slowly dying of that protein deficiency your family told you about, just eating a couple of servings of protein-rich vegan food a day (such as tofu, lentils, beans, Nooch, meat-substitutes, etc) is more than enough to keep it at bay.
In summary, protein is important, but not as important as people think. It has been suggested that the average consumer of a Western diet eats double the recommended amount of protein per day, so if you are worried because you feel you are eating slightly less protein than the people around you, you are probably still doing fine. If you eat in a reasonably normal, balanced way your chances of protein deficiency are low, no matter what people say about vegans!
This article is not a substitute for medical advice, if you are feeling unwell on any type of diet, please seek medical attention.
About the Author: Maisie Torr is a third-year medical student at the University of Manchester who is passionate about vegan nutrition and sustainability.