Sunday, March 2, 2008

Protein on a Plant-based diet?

"How on earth are you eating enough protein just eating raw foods?" Okay, maybe people don't say "how on earth" but that's the look in their eyes when they ask about protein in raw food. Most vegans and raw foodists say they hear this repeatedly. I do too. (But the question comes from people of all sizes -- not just like little comic down below -- it is pretty funny that people often ask nutritional concern questions while eating something really unhealthy :)).
Back to the question about protein, it makes sense that people are wondering because we've been told all our lives that you can only get your protein from dairy and meat (and maybe grains and vegetables IF they're combined properly to get the right balance of amino acids). Well, like all other nutritional information "out there" that comes and goes -- this too should go!

I have to write a disclaimer for myself that I am no scientist and even though I got A's in Science in High School and maybe some form of a B in my college science classes, I don't retain information well for repeating. It sinks into my knowledge bank well enough for me to assimilate it into practice, but I'm a pretty poor person to spew back the details. My husband is amazingly good at it. He can read an article 3 years ago and know the dates, statistics, and general message. I can barely recall the general message, but have changed my life in some small bit as a result of it (and will mess up the numbers like crazy -- Was it 10 million or 10 thousand? Something like that anyway). So keep that in mind as I write what I've learned about Protein. I will give links to articles so you can find out the details for yourself.

I took a class a few summers ago at the Vibrant Living (Raw Food) Expo (at the Living Light Culinary Institute ). One class was completely devoted to this topic, "Where do you get your protein?" by Dr. Rick Dina. He told the history of protein requirements (what's it called on the cereal box nutritional information -- recommended daily requirements?) -- how rats were tested to determine the amount of protein required for humans (who incidently are different from rats in how they eat and what they require -- would have been better to test monkeys or some other animal with more of a genetic make-up like ours). This study was done over 50 years ago and they actually took the result and doubled it to make sure we weren't deficient.

Then somewhere along the line, the theory (yes, the THEORY) came out about proteins in plant foods being sufficient IF they were combined properly. This was widely taught in 1971 in a book called "Diet for a Small Planet." The author later came out with the newer studies that most plant foods (a few exceptions with some fruits) contain all the essential amino acids and that humans are virtually certain of getting enough protein from plant sources if they consume enough calories. But no one seemed to take note of it. I remember my mom telling me about it in the late 70's which was likely years after the new studies were performed.

So the newest studies have shown that protein in any form -- plant or animal is useful to our bodies. There studies show that the only deficiencies may come if you consume a diet solely based on fruit consumption. There are some lower protein foods that may only have some of the required amino acids, our bodies have the other amino acids sloughed from previous digestive processes (don't ask me to explain that one!) to complete the digestion properly. (I can't remember if our bodies produce the acids or if it comes from enzymes or what -- I'll research it and see what I can find).

You've probably heard "the proof is in the pudding." Dr. Dina showed some slides of accomplished athletes and body builders who are either raw foodists or vegans to show that yes, even those who don't eat meat or dairy can build muscle, have the strength and endurance to compete and achieve amazing feats. One who was familiar to me was Carl Lewis -- multiple gold medalist track star. He says that his best year of track competition was when he started eating a vegan diet. Here's the article . I could write all the info on how much protein is in what plant food and how you really don't need as much as you've heard your whole life, etc., but just seeing this photo of Carl Lewis and knowing he can achieve world records while eating this way is plenty proof that it's adequate.

In case you do want some statistics though, here's an article with some good information on protein in a plant foods, as well as the difference in digestability of plant proteins vs. animal protein. When you get your protein from plants, it digests much more fully and you get a much greater percentage of that protein actually assimilated into your body. When your protein comes from animal foods, a smaller portion gets used by your body. You may actually get less protein overall assimilated into your body when you eat animal foods than from the plants you consume. But like they say on "Reading Rainbow," don't take my word for it, read this .

What else? Oh, I'd also like to share the information Dr. Joel Fuhrman has in his Eat to Live book comparing protein with plants pound for pound with steak. I remember brocolli, in particular being at the top of the list and having MORE protein pound for pound than steak. The problem is that we don't eat as many ounces or pounds of veggies as we do meat (yes, meat is dense and heavy). He has a newsletter completely devoted to this (if you are a member on his website, it's the May 2003 issue). I just read through it and wish I could give a link because it has so many good articles on the subject (all written by medical doctors who have studied nutrition), but it's for members only. I will give you some information from the charts though just to illustrate protein content in plants. This is just a sampling:

Protein content as a percent of calories:

Watercress 50%
Spinach 51%
Broccoli 45%

Chinese Cabbage 32%
Mushrooms 31%
Romaine greens 28%
Peas 27%
Kidney Beans 27%

Cauliflower 23%
Oats 15%
Walnuts 14%
Almonds 13%
Apricots 10%

Cantaloupe 9%

Grapefruit 8%
Brown Rice 8%

As for grams of protein, there are other charts in Dr. Fuhrman's newsletter and "Eat to Live" book, but I just found a chart that shows sample menus for vegans and the plentiful protein count.

Alissa Cohen says that leafy greens are the best source of quality, usable protein. She does a raw food author/chef and enjoys strength training for fitness. She said that she is constantly questioned on how she can get enough protein. Here's what she says about it. Check out her before and after photos (after eating raw a few years -- you'll have to scroll down to the bottom). She doesn't look like she's lacking in protein to me.

The bottom line, though, is something that Dr. Fuhrman taught in his newsletter. He said that protein, carbohydrates, and fat are macronutrients and are readily available in all food. If we live in America or any other prosperous country, we are pretty much exempt from having a deficiency in any of the macronutrients (and shouldn't be a concern for anyone in the developed world -- unless you're anorexic, then that's a whole other story). It's the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber) that we need to worry about. They don't contain calories, but are essential for good health and for fighting disease. Most Americans DO have a deficiency in micronutrients because they don't eat enough plant foods in their natural forms.

So there you have it -- my long-winded explanation -- but thanks for asking because I've learned a lot about it in the process.

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