Friday, 29 March 2013

Protein? Protein!

"So, where do you get your protein?"

This is, by far, the most common question asked by non-vegans. It's a legitimate question, and it deserves a closer examination.

Here is the most recent update of Canada's Food Guide:


We're all fairly familiar with the four basic food groups, but there is a lot of confusion about where to find specific minerals, vitamins and nutrients, especially when looking beyond these guidelines.

Ask anyone about the most commonly accepted food truths and they'll likely say:

"Milk will give you healthy teeth and bones!"

"Meat is the best source of protein!" (the hacksaw is a particularly nice touch)

"We need to drink orange juice to get enough vitamin C!"

The list goes on...

These ideas aren't exactly incorrect, but they present specific foods as the only viable option to achieve optimal health and wellness. The traditional Western diet narrows down our our appreciation of food into limited, structured categories and it's only recently that we've begun broadening our understanding beyond these classic dietary proverbs.

Let's take a look at protein.

Broadly speaking, protein provides structure to the cells in our body.  When digested, these proteins are broken down into amino acids. There are nine amino acids the body requires from food sources, whereas the other eleven are created within the body itself.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Reference Intakes chart, the average man requires approximately 56 grams of protein per day, while a woman needs about 46 grams.

I think it's safe to say that North Americans have become a little protein-obsessed.

Yes, protein is important in our diets, and yes, some vegan/vegetarian diets are decidedly deficient in protein. But it's a fallacy to believe that protein needs to be at the centre of our diets.

Beyond the realm of meat, there is a huge variety of high-protein foods vegans and vegetarians can add to their diet to achieve healthy intake levels.

Here are a few examples of super vegan protein sources from No Meat Athlete:

Corn - 3 gm
Sun-dried tomatoes - 4 gm
Soy beans - 4 gm
Soy milk - 11 gm
Navy beans - 8 gm
Peas - 8 gm
Lima beans - 5 gm
Brussell sprouts - 6 gm
Spinach - 6 gm
Broccoli - 6 gm
Potato - 4 gm
Asparagus - 2 gm
Apricots, dried - 3 gm
Peaches, dried - 3 gm 
Cereal, Bread, Grains & Pasta
Oat bran - 5 gm
Oats - 5 gm
Wheat flour - 4 gm
Spaghetti, whole wheat - 8 gm
Buckwheat - 4 gm
Couscous - 4 gm
Bulgur - 3 gm
Millet - 3 gm
Bread, pumpernickel - 2 gm
Bread. whole wheat - 4 gm
Bread, white - 2 gm
Rice, brown long grain - 5 gm
Rice, white - 4 gm
Pita bread, whole wheat - 3 gm
Pita bread, white - 3 gm
Nuts & Seeds
Pumpkin seeds - 5 gm
Walnuts - 7 gm
Pine nuts - 4 gm
Almonds - 6 gm
Pistachios - 6 gm
Sunflower seeds - 5 gm
Peanuts - 7 gm
Cashews - 7 gm
Hemp seeds - 11 gm
Let's see...a breakfast of oatmeal, walnuts and dried apricots, a lunchtime smoothie including soy milk, spinach and hemp seeds, plus dinner with whole wheat pasta and sun-dried tomatoes.

Voila! That's already 54 grams of protein without a ton of effort or out-of-the-box meal planning.

The bottom line is that protein is just one piece of the nutritional puzzle. We also have to consider other key macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat and fiber as well as vitamins like A, C, D, K, B12 and minerals like calcium, iron and sodium.

In the end, it's all about balance.

My food philosophy is simple - eat what you love, and love what you eat!