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.