When a vegan talks about their dietary choices, certain questions, judgements and even accusations tend to be repeated. One of the most familiar phrases for many vegans is “but how do you get enough protein?”
Protein is an important part of a healthy diet, but it’s not something that’s hard to come by. Protein is common in many plants, especially legumes. Quinoa, arguably the trendiest grain of the last few years is packed full of whole proteins. It’s simply silly to assume that vegans can’t get the required amount of protein to stay healthy.
But why does protein come up so much anyway? If you’re just dairy-free, people don’t badger you about how you get your calcium. If you don’t drink red wine or coffee, people don’t nag you about your heart health. Why the obsession with protein?
Well first, Americans in particular do have an obsession with meat. Meals are often built around meat, and American portions contain double (or more!) the amount of meat required to get recommended amounts of protein. It makes sense that people would justify this with a health concern. They obviously need that much meat because they need protein.
But studies show that most people have way too much protein in their diet. Why do people think they need so much protein? Well, there are two main culprits. One is the fitness industry. Obsession with body image has led to a lot of half-knowledge about fitness. People know that protein is important for bodybuilders (because working out damages their muscles and protein helps build them back up). So they assume that eating more protein will help them get fit.
The other culprit is changing trends in food marketing. The food industry is notorious for changing their minds about what is healthy and what isn’t. They’ve demonized fats and sugars in various forms, but protein has never been on the “bad” list. That’s because the body processes protein so differently, that it can’t be spun into “protein makes you fat and unhealthy” in the same way that sugars and fats can.
So as usual, marketing is the main reason people think they need more protein than they do. There’s not a lot vegans can do about this except to educate people on the fact that, yes, it’s possible to get more than enough protein from a vegan diet. Talking about eating habits in other countries is also useful. Most European countries do not center meat as much as we do. Other countries also have different snacking habits and eating schedules, focusing on small, nutritious meals rather than large decadent portions.
When it comes to health, people often look for the lazy way out. This is why they cite the importance of protein for fitness, even if they don’t work out enough to need larger amounts of protein. It’s also why they get their ideas of healthy food from labels and commercials, rather than from scientific studies. It won’t be easy to educate the world on the many ways vegans can get sufficient amounts of protein, but continuing to educate those around you will help you have the conversation less often, and be more prepared with the facts about our real protein needs and how to meet them.
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