The Flaming Vegan

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Where Do You Get Your Protein?
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Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Sigh. This question we're all familiar with, "Where do you get your protein from?" is one that carries with it mixed feelings each time I hear it. I imagine most vegans and vegetarians can relate to this, considering the question is practically inevitable when someone first learns of our dietary choice to exclude meat.

The mixed feeling thing comes from the diverse variety of people who feel compelled to ask this tired question and the fact that I don't want to discourage anyone from learning more about the exotic lifestyle of plant-eating. My reaction depends on who's doing the asking, but here's my typical range of feelings with regard to this inquiry:

First, I'm mostly annoyed. Partly from the fact that I've answered this question innumerable times already, in only 3 meat-free years; and partly because I feel like it's the least important question out of all the questions one might ask regarding a vegetarian lifestyle. Other questions such as why I'm vegetarian, or what benefits/challenges/detriments/awesomeness accompany such a lifestyle seem more important to me. Also, I'm pretty sure that despite asking this question, nobody actually cares about the answer. Do you really want to know what I eat every day? I didn't think so.

Next, something like pity seems to creep in. I guess I sort-of feel sorry for a person who is uneducated or perhaps misinformed about the "mystery" of protein consumption from food sources with no eyes. For the person who really wants to know the answer to the protein question, I'm happy to actually respond sincerely. To the person who uses the question as a way to scoff at vegetarianism, I'm sorry for your ignorance. This, of course leads to anger and disgust when I resort to blaming our country and what the food system has become for a terrible lack of education in any number areas, not the least of which is nutrition.

Bringing the emotional spectrum full circle, is the excitement and child-like wonder I feel when finally I recognize this as an opportunity to help enlighten others about some of the delicious and wonderful foods we veggies proudly enjoy on what outsiders seem to regard as our never-ending quest for protein. This is an opportunity I take no matter the motivation for the question. --That's right dumb-guy who thinks making fun of my food choices is a great intro to a pick up line-- you just opened the door for education. I provide classy citizens like you with a genuine answer to your question, as well as a ton of other information you couldn't care less about. (And thank you for your kind offer for a protein source, but clearly you don't understand what it means to be vegan). I'd feel guilty if I did these people the disservice of letting them continue on without this much needed information.

Clearly the subject of protein is a loaded topic of discussion for me. It may lead you to question my mental state, as well it should –I question it all the time. But then again, why shouldn't this be a passionate subject for me? There's something disturbing to me about the generally accepted notion that we must eat meat to survive. Not because I want everyone in the world to renounce meat and immediately adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, but because it's such a wasteful and unhealthy misunderstanding to think that we must all consume meat all the time. (And because, let's be honest -it's getting boring answering the same question repeatedly).

I think if this question came only from people I expect it from, it wouldn't be as provocative for me. But the fact is, it's a question I've been asked by people who I feel should know a little something about protein, nutrition, healthy foods, and so on. Asked by not only unhealthy eaters and the purveyors of agribusiness, this question about protein has also been posed to me by the likes of health and fitness "experts", teachers, and even physicians —that's right folks— actual medical doctors.

Because the concept of protein is seemingly the quintessential query about veg-life, I'd like to answer the question here and now for anyone who may still be wondering, "where do you get your protein?"

Everywhere. There it is. All the foods I eat (and most of those that you probably eat), contain protein. If it's a whole food, it has protein. I know that's not the answer most people are looking for, but it's the truth. Without getting into specifics for the sake of sparing you a scientific exploration into amino acids, suffice it to say that getting enough protein in a vegetarian or vegan diet is not all that difficult. I don't want to minimize the amount of planning and preparation we do to make sure we're eating healthy, nutritious foods (and enough of them), but honestly, eating a diet rich in a variety of whole foods pretty much ensures that we are getting what we need. Not only can we mix foods to get everything in, but get this —many plant-based foods are COMPLETE PROTEINS! This means they contain all 8 amino acids the body doesn't make on its own. This seems to be widely misunderstood. I'll save for another day a blog post singing the praises of quinoa, asparagus, nuts, seeds, and the other friends that fall into the plants-that-are-complete-proteins category, of which there are many. For now, just know there are several tasty and easy sources for we veg-folk to get all the protein we could dream of.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention another misunderstood concept about protein that factors into the question of how we eaters-of-no-meat have managed to stave off wasting-away from lack of protein. For some reason (a lot of us know the reason, but to avoid pointing fingers I'll leave big agribusiness out of this), the amount of protein thought to be necessary in the human diet has inflated to a ridiculous proportion over the past 30 years or so. The typical American does NOT need as much protein as they consume.

According to all the leading nutrition research, the upper limit of protein an intensively active athlete needs for example, is only 2 grams per kg of body weight. This means a 180 lb male athlete, doing some seriously hard work for which protein is required for recovery, should be consuming, at the most, 163 grams of protein per day —and that's for an athlete in training. The average American on the other hand, requires only 0.8 grams of protein per kg body weight per day, so the same 180 lb male only needs around 65 grams of protein per day if he is not an athlete. (I would credit a source here, but it comes from so many that it's become general knowledge for me). Look up protein recommendations, and you'll find a plethora of information leading to this same conclusion.

Here's why all of this matters to me: I think the pervasive belief in western society that a human can only be properly nourished by exploiting other living beings is one that contributes significantly to the sad state of our nation's health. The rapidly declining health of our population is something I'm invested in helping to change. As a wellness coordinator, I can tell you that there is a great deal of resistance among the general population to the concept of eating food for the sole purpose of nourishing oneself. For the people doing the good work of health ambassadors, even getting someone to acknowledge that food is fuel and not a reward/treat/something to do is tough enough as it is. It gets tougher yet when a shadow of misinformation lurks about, leading people to think that without their daily steak and chicken, they could never get all the protein they need.

So I encourage you —the veggie lovers of the world— to spread the word! We're well-nourished, protein-packed-powerhouses loaded with information! Since nobody else seems to be getting through, I guess we'll just have to take it upon ourselves to educate the world about the beauty of plant-based proteins one "Where do you get your protein?" question at a time.

And just to keep the conversation colorful, consider offering an alternative answer to any healthcare professionals and others who should know better when they inquire about your protein sources. My go-to? "Protein? Oh, I've adapted, so I don't need it anymore." That'll keep 'em guessing.


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Leave a Comment

  1. hoygs740
    Awesome article!!!
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  2. Veganara
    Vote no 4. Yep, agreed, really great blog! And it's so true, we are all being brainwashed into thinking we need a lot more protein than we really do, when in actual fact we probably only need about 5% protein in our total calorie allowance. You are also so right in saying that most people don't see food as fuel and nourishment, but as some kind of reward/placebo, etc, often to make up for other things that are missing in their lives. Which is why so many have such unhealthy diets and obesity has become such a huge problem (pun intended!) People don't seem to realise you can have a healthy, vegan diet without overeating and living off takeaways, etc, and still really enjoy food! I have just submitted a post, Breakfast Bagels with Spicy Fruit Compote, have a look at that, and if you like it, please vote!
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    1. nezarynew
      Thank you for the comment! I was 24 when I realized I needed to reestablish what my relationship with food was, once I evaluated my lifestyle and made the choice to be healthy, I experienced just what you've described- I love food even more now! Except I love it for what it's supposed to be, which makes a huge difference. I might just be a dork, but I get really excited about creating delicious meals that are power-packed with nutrients and good stuff! Speaking of... I voted on your recipe for Breakfast Bagels with Spicy Fruit Compote- looks delicious!! I think I'm going to try that out and add a little almond or cashew butter for a pre-long-run meal next week!
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  3. dianabart
    LOVE LOVE LOVE this! I never really worried about my daily protein intake when I went Vegan because I knew t hat we were created to survive and thrive off of a Vegetarian diet to begin with... meat is a desire, not a need. Our bodies can speak to us.. are we feeling healthy or are we feeling sick? You are so correct on the fact that most people are getting "WAY" too much protien in their diets... Heres what I discovered.... With this question I decided the last two days to keep account of my protein intake, and I meet my daily quota before dinner. And I'm talking healthy proteins, no animal and no junk, simply Gods good earth! :) voted and shared!
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    1. dianabart
      btw... I also consumed 100% daily value of Vitamin B12 before dinner is served. In-case that question is next! ;)
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    2. nezarynew
      Thanks for this great comment!! It's so awesome you kept track of protein and B12 (I'm surprised I don't get asked about this more often... ) for two days and found you're getting it all in --and before dinner, even! You're absolutely right -I think if more people would tune into their bodies, they might discover just how sick our standard way of living here in the West is making us. When I became vegetarian, I think I would describe the difference in the way I felt as less weighed-down (not meaning body weight) if that makes any sense. It's amazing how the body responds when once you allow it to do what it's meant to do! Thank you for sharing how this whole protein rant of mine translates to real-life- you made my day! :-) (And thanks for voting too!)
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