Vegan Protein Requirements – It’s Just Like Building Cars

When we say the word protein, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? For most of us in the industrialized world, the first food that enters our mind is meat – most commonly – beef. Meat, fish, poultry and other animal-produced foods like eggs and milk rightfully have a reputation for being good reliable sources of protein. However, meat is not the only protein source available to us. Vegan protein requirements can easily be satisfied by eating a diet of various plant-based foods. With a minimal amount of planning, a vegan diet can provide all the necessary daily protein needed to maintain a healthy body.

The difference between protein obtained from plant-based foods and protein obtained from meat is that meat contains complete proteins. A complete protein (sometimes called a whole protein) is a protein source that contains all nine essential amino acids in the correct ratios that our bodies need. All plant-based foods (with the exception of soy beans and quinoa) are lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids.

Amino acids are important because they are the building blocks of proteins. There are 20 different amino acids that our body uses to construct proteins. Of these 20, the body can manufacture only 11. The other nine essential amino acids must be obtained through diet.

Obviously, when you eat a steak, your body doesn’t just build new muscle with it by just smearing it around on your insides like some sort of body putty. It doesn’t weave that chicken breast into your breast or that ham into your hamstring to build muscle. During digestion, your body breaks that steak and that chicken breast down into its component amino acid building blocks and stores them away in an amino acid pool. When your body needs a protein, it chains together amino acids from the pool in the correct sequence and correct ratios required to build that particular protein. Thus, it’s not necessary to eat complete proteins in order to be able to build protein. It is only necessary to eat a combination of foods that will keep the amino acid pool sufficiently supplied.

I live in the Detroit metropolitan area so let me give you and automobile-based analogy. Suppose we are in the previously owned luxury car-building business. However, just as your body doesn’t just smear beef or chicken body putty all over to build and repair tissue, we don’t just resell cars. We build new cars from old parts. We tear old vehicles down into their component parts, clean the parts up and store them. When someone orders a car from us, we just take parts put of the parts pool and build up a luxury car. Buying fully-optioned luxury cars is an easy way to keep our parts pool fully supplied. When we buy a fully-optioned luxury car, it is a complete luxury car—it has all the parts and all the options that we need to build a complete new luxury car. Buying only fully-optioned luxury cars is like eating meat. All the components we need to keep our parts pool full all come from a single type of car.

But buying only luxury cars is not the only way to maintain a fully-stocked parts pool. Suppose we buy a car that has every option imaginable except it has no cruise control and no mp3 player. And we buy a second car that is also fully optioned but the tachometer and automatic traction control are both broken. Both of these vehicles are missing some components and functions so they are incomplete luxury cars. But, after we tear them down and store all the good parts in the parts pool, we will have parts enough to build a complete luxury car. We will have the cruise control and mp3 player from one car, the tachometer and automatic traction control from the other and the rest of the parts from either car.

Building fully-optioned luxury cars from other cars that are missing options is analogous to eating complementary proteins.

The most common example of using complementary foods to meet vegan protein requirements is the legumes and grains combination. Legumes provide adequate isoleucine and lysine but not methionine and tryptophan. Grains are deficient in those amino acids that legumes contain and have the amino acids that legumes lack. Just like combining the parts from two cars that are lacking in two different areas, eating from both these food groups everyday insures that our amino acid pool remains suitably stocked.

So, eating meat makes the protein issue a “no-brainer”. It’s like always buying complete fully-optioned luxury cars in our imaginary business. Everything you need is always available—with no thinking.

However, it takes a little bit of inventory management to build new cars from incomplete cars. If one car is missing an oil pump and a compass, you will have to keep track of that fact and buy vehicles in the future that fill those gaps. Similarly, if you’ve eaten some whole-grain cereal today, you will have to keep track of that and possibly eat some lentils, beans or peas later in the day—or just get it over with and throw a handful of peanuts in your cereal.

When it comes to satisfying vegan protein dietary requirements, the complementary protein issue is an extremely small and easily-manageable issue. To be certain, the health and ecological benefits gained from a vegetarian and vegan diet far outweigh this tiny inconvenience.

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