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Laissez "Fare" Nutrition: Protein

The number one question most vegetarians get asked is " How do you get enough protein?" Here's a quick-take on the subject, followed by the science which backs up these assertion.

The Bottom Line: Old and New Think on Protein

Old, Outdated, Just-Plain-Wrong Think: Protein is the single most important element in our diet, and we are always in danger of not getting enough of it. We need to focus on it, counting grams to stay healthy. Protein from meat, fish, poultry, milk and eggs is far superior in quality to that incomplete vegetable protein in foodstuffs like nuts and legumes. Grains have no protein to speak of. Vegetarians are particularly likely to become protein-deficient, but everyone must be vigilant about taking in adequate protein.
New, Accurate, Live-Longer Live-Better Think: Too much protein is as harmful as too little, and is linked with shorter life expectancy, increased cancer and heart disease risk, leaching of calcium from the bones, kidney stress, and overweight. Though high protein-diets cause momentary weight-loss, they do so at the expense of overall health, and the weight is quickly regained once individuals begin to eat normally (and everyone does sooner rather than later; body and soul cry out against an almost carb-free diet). It is almost impossible to become protein-deficient outside of famine conditions (in which too few calories overall are ingested to support life, and those calories derived from only one or two food sources). A varied vegetarian diet with adequate calorie intake ensures adequate protein inherently. Lastly, complete animal protein is not superior to incomplete vegetable protein: animal protein merely supplies in one substance what vegetable proteins supply in two. In fact, because of what the latter doesn't include (excess calories from fat, toxic residues, overabundance of protein), the incomplete proteins can be considered superior.  
Probably no component of food has been so misunderstood, and so radically reinterpreted, as protein, one of the foundations of nutrition --- and of life itself. Most of us were taught how essential protein is; if we remember one thing about what used to be called "Health and Hygiene Class," it was the importance of eating enough protein. With increasing affluence, notes New York Times writer Jane Brody, we "took to protein with such a vengeance that now the average person in this country, rich or poor alike, eats at least two times more protein than is really needed for good nutrition." The cyclical popularity of high-protein low-carbohydrate quick weight loss diets, like Dr. Atkin's Diet Revolution also boosted our go-overboard-with-protein tendency.

What is this thing called protein?

Vegetarian sources
of protein:

Soyfoods (tofu, tempeh, TVP, soy milk,  "new generation" soyfoods such as "soysage", ready-grounds, etc)

Beans & legumes (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, kidney beans, ad infinitum), especially in combo with whole grains

Nuts & seeds (including nut butters)

Seitan (wheat gluten)


All living tissue, animal or vegetable, contains protein. Much of our body, excluding the water, is made up of one or another kind of protein: protein supports and maintains our blood, organ and muscle components, our hair, skin, and nails; the chemicals produced by our glands, antibodies and other immunological factors --- all are made up mostly of protein. Protein is the stuff children grow big on, the stuff with which our bodies knit themselves back together after surgery, the stuff of which we're made. Small wonder, then, that its derivation is the French proteine, or primary substance, from the Late Greek proteios, primary, from Greek protos, first.
If we are made of protein, protein, in turn, is made of amino acids, linked long cluster-chains of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (keep an eye on the nitrogen; it will resurface later in this discussion --- think of it as a kind of protein facilitator). The cookbook Laurel's Kitchen puts it beautifully: "As the twenty-six letters of our alphabet can combine to form an unlimited number of words, the more than twenty amino acids in the body can combine to form countless varieties of protein, making possible a whole language whose literature is the complex tissues of life."
Perhaps some of this is  a little too chemistry class to be clear. Don't worry, you can still be well nourished without a PhD. But for those who want to understand a little more, follow along: of the twenty amino acids required by the body, nine of them are called "essential," because they must be brought in from outside, as it were --- ingested. The other eleven amino acids, the body is able to synthesize from within, given that it has the other nine. Of the nine essentials, three, called the limiting amino acids, are truly critical --- the other six are abundant and easily found in many foodstuffs. It is these three limiting amino acids which really determine the completeness of a foodstuff's usable protein. For when these three run out --- and they are the three that are in shortest supply generally --- the remaining amino acids cannot make new protein. (The names of these limiting amino acids: lysine, tryptophan, and the interchangeable methionine/cystine; we will come back to them later).
Protein-rich foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called "complete"; most of them are in animal-based foodstuffs --- flesh, milk, eggs. Although there is one complete protein that is plant-based (soybeans, whose protein structure closely resembles that of milk, and anything made from soybeans, such as tofu or tempeh) as a rule plant-based protein foods --- legumes, grains, nuts, seeds --- contain only some of the essential amino acids and are thus called "incomplete." But "complete" does not mean superior. Animal protein is not in some way better than incomplete vegetable protein, though we might say it is simpler: animal protein merely supplies in one substance (an egg; a steak) what vegetable proteins supply in two (beans and rice). The complete protein is simpler in the way that putting on a one-piece jumpsuit is simpler than putting on jeans and a sweater; it's one thing, not two, but either way covers you. But the proteins themselves --- made, as they are, of the same old amino acids --- are neither inferior nor superior. When you get down to the molecular level, an atom of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen is the same, whether its source is animal, vegetable, or mineral.
But when we consider the sources of protein, we can't evaluate the protein in them as an isolated element, because it isn't: when you chow down on a steak or a bowl of chili, you don't get just the protein, you get the whole package. Considered this way, it is quite easy to make a judgment call on superior or inferior. Yes, meat, fish, chicken, eggs and milk are good sources of complete protein. But are they as healthful as a whole? Most of their calories come from fat, not protein, and those fats are saturated. Much of this fat is both cholesterol-containing and, in some people, cholesterol-inducing. Even high-protein diets selected from relatively lean animal-based foods have been linked to fat-clogged arteries, according to Jane Brody. Besides, flesh-based foods, being higher on the food chain, also contain higher percentages of pesticides and residues of medications fed to the animals during their raising. (Perhaps this is why, in a study of fourteen thousand women covered recently in Epidemiology, those who ate red meat daily --- whether beef, lamb, pork, or luncheon meats --- had twice the incidence of breast cancer as those whose primary protein sources were fish, poultry, and dairy).

Vegetable-based proteins are superior not only because of what they don't include, but what they do..

That a lesser overall protein intake, derived primarily from plant-based foodstuffs, supplies adequate protein while lowering the amount of cholesterol, fat, and pesticide residues we consume, is incontrovertible. We would have to say, given all this, that though animal-based protein may be complete, it is inferior to vegetable-based proteins. Vegetable-based proteins are superior not only because of what they don't include, but what they do: positive elements like complex carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, fiber, just-being-discovered nutritional factors.
Why, then, does it take two or more vegetable proteins, combined, to equal the protein in meat? Because of those limiting amino acids we discussed a few paragraphs back. Some plant-based proteins are strong on one of these limiting amino acids, but weak in two; some are strong in two, but weak in one. In 1971, a groundbreaking book called Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe, pioneered the concept of protein complementarity: combining plant-based foods so their particular amino acid strengths and weaknesses balanced out.
Naturally, those new to cutting back on meat often imagine this business of combining incomplete proteins to get complete protein to be difficult or mathematical. In fact, it's as complicated as eating a bean burrito or a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread. You've already done this a zillion times. Ms. Lappe's work was precise in its balancing of this amino-acid-lacking foodstuff with that foodstuff rich in it, but the next generation of nutritionally-based vegetarian cookbooks, like Laurel's Kitchen, pointed out that the cook didn't have to be quite so arithmetically adept: " In the kitchen it is enough to balance food families, because the members of like families like grains, legumes, and milk products share similar amino acid strengths and weaknesses." Doing this meal to meal, and day to day, without too much precision necessary is easy, because, again, many of the world's great dishes are just these kinds of combinations: beans and cornbread, stir-fried vegetables with tofu over rice, or Boston baked beans with steamed brown bread.

Doing this meal to meal, and day to day, without too much precision necessary is easy, because, again, many of the world's great dishes are just these kinds of combinations: beans and cornbread, stir-fried vegetables with tofu over rice, or Boston baked beans with steamed brown bread.

Then, in the '90's, Dr. Dean Ornish made things even simpler and more straight-to-the-point in Reversing Heart Disease: "You don't have to be a scientist or nutritionist to combine foods properly. It's easy: just eat any grains and any legumes sometime during the same day. That's all, folks! " He goes on to say that while the ideal proportion is approximately two-thirds grain to one-third legumes, "this is not critically important. As long as you consume enough non-sugar calories to maintain your ideal body weight, you will likely be eating enough protein."
Which is how much? The theory is a bit complex, but practice is simple, so bear with me.  First off, protein needs fluctuate according to age, body-weight, health, general stress and situation, and from which dietary sources the protein intake comes. However, the body itself is to a large extent able to compensate for differing amounts of ingested protein, cleverly keeping itself at the requisite and constant internal protein levels all the time. Laurel's Kitchen explains:
The protein tissues themselves... are not static but in a constant state of turnover, being continuously degraded and rebuilt throughout the day. In this process the body efficiently recycles the nitrogen portions of the degraded proteins for use in making new protein structures, so that none of this critical element is lost in tissue turnover. The only nitrogen which actually leaves the body is a small but steady amount in sloughed-off skin, growing hair and nails, and various secretions and excretions. The amino acids and nitrogen lost in this way must be replaced by the protein we eat. During digestion, this protein is broken down into its component amino acids from the turnover of body proteins to form a common amino acid pool. The body can then draw on this pool twenty-four hours a day to get the raw materials it needs to make new proteins for growth and tissue repair.
he body's hoarding of nitrogen (remember nitrogen, the last element on the cluster chain of which amino acids are made up?) makes this possible. Excess protein intake cannot be stored by the body as protein; it is either broken down and burned for energy (a function much more efficiently and healthfully done by eating carbohydrates) or it is --- regrettably --- stored as fat (any extra calories, from any source, get stored as fat, although excess calories from fat evidently do so most quickly). Typically, as this process of dealing with excessive consumed protein by burning or storage takes place, one element of the protein, the nitrogen, is excreted. But, if you happen to take in too little protein, assuming, always, that your overall caloric intake is up there where it needs to be, your body retains that nitrogen, from which it builds its own protein, from within.
Given this, almost any combination of foods eaten anywhere in the world, IF they are from a wide variety of whole foods and IF an adequate number of overall calories are ingested, will meet adult protein needs.


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