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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

But Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Confused about how much protein you need, whether you're getting enough, and
which are the best sources?

If there is one question anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet is used to hearing it
is the above. That the asker is usually genuinely confused and concerned is
symptomatic of a massive and widespread misunderstanding about what protein
is and how the body uses it. Most of us grew up conditioned to believe that the
best place to get protein is from animal foods and that every other source is
suspect. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, meeting protein needs without animal foods is easy, and raw vegans
are the least likely group of all to have a protein deficiency for one simple,
biochemical reason: the highest-quality, most easily digestible source of protein
for humans is raw plant protein. Meanwhile, the foods most people automatically
think of when they hear the word protein - i.e. meat, fish, eggs and dairy - are
actually second-class, inferior sources. If all this turns everything you thought you
knew about protein on its head, bear with me! In this article I will explain the
science behind these statements.

Even in raw vegan circles the subject of protein can be a controversial one, albeit
for different reasons. Here the debate is not about whether we need animal
protein, because by definition we all agree we do not. The divide exists between
the Natural Hygiene stance that protein is a non-issue because our protein needs
are extremely low - and the opposing view that it pays to be aware of which foods
are the best sources of protein on our chosen diet and make sure we include
them regularly.

What it is?

Protein is the building block of life. It gives us our structure and is used by the
body to build and repair itself. However, the body is not interested in being fed
"protein" per se. The human body has no use for a piece of chicken protein or
cow protein. All it can do is break such foods down into the building blocks from
which protein is made: amino acids. As long as it gets these in the rights
quantities, all will be well on the protein front. Eight of the 22 amino acids are
deemed "essential". This means that we must consume them regularly as the
body cannot make them. The remaining amino acids can be manufactured by the
body, and therefore do not need to be taken in as part of the diet.

However, it is worth knowing that as we age, our ability to manufacture nonessential
amino acids declines, therefore it is beneficial to remove this burden
from the body by taking all amino acids in through the diet. All of the amino acids
- the eight essential ones and the 14 non-essential ones - can be obtained in
plentiful quantities on a raw vegan diet.

Animal proteins are "complete" in that they contain all of the amino acids in
substantial quantities. Plant foods, on the other hand, tend to contain only some
of the amino acids or if they contain all of them, usually one or more is in much
lower supply than found in animal foods. This alone is what led to the mistaken
theory that animal protein is therefore better. However, scientists now know that
the body makes no distinction between "complete" and "incomplete" proteins. It
has what can best be described as an amino acid pool, and it dips into this to get
the amino acids it requires at any given time. This pool is fed both by the foods
taken in each day and also protein the body has salvaged for recycling, which
supplies over 80% of our protein needs.

Advocates of the raw vegan diet have likened the body using raw protein sources
to a builder assembling brand new raw materials such as bricks, cement, tiles,
beams and so on in order to construct a house from scratch. Meanwhile, getting
our protein from cooked flesh can be likened to attempting to build a new house
by ripping down old houses and using damaged second-hand parts. No prizes for
guessing which residence will be the most stable, the most attractive and the
nicest to live in!

One of the best-kept secrets about protein is that heat damages amino acids
making them hard for the body to utilize. Lysine and tryptophan are two essential
amino acids that have been scientifically proven to be denatured by heat at 110
degrees Fahrenheit or above, which constitutes very gentle heating. The body
needs all the amino acids in correct quantities not only for its building and
maintenance work but also for the healthy functioning of the brain: without all of
the essential aminos it cannot produce the neurotransmitters necessary for
healthy mental and emotional functioning.

As Victoria Boutenko writes in her book Green For Life: "The ironic result of
consuming this imperfect source of protein [i.e. animal protein] is that many
people develop deficiencies in essential amino acids. Such deficiencies are not
only dangerous to health, but they dramatically change people's perceptions of
life and the way people feel and behave." Boutenko's investigations have led her
to believe that amino acid deficiencies caused by relying on cooked animal
protein are a leading cause of depression and a host of other disorders endemic
in western society.

How much protein is enough?

The World Health Organization's RDA (recommended daily amount) for protein is
0.45 grams of protein per kilogram of ideal body weight. This equates to 32
grams of protein per day for a 150 pound male. Thanks to the lobbying power of
the meat and dairy industries, individual country recommendations tend to be
higher than this, in many cases around double. Yet even by these calculations, a
150-pound male would not need more than 64 grams of protein a day. How easy
is it to get this, and how much of a risk is protein deficiency? Put it this way: even
the poor rural Chinese whose diets were analysed by T. Colin Campbell and his
team for The China Study (known as "the most comprehensive study of nutrition
ever conducted") were getting an average of 64g of protein a day, and their diets
were 99% plant-based. The average American today is estimated to be eating
between 100 and 150 grams of protein a day.

Although it is crucial to get enough protein, this is definitely not a case of 'more is
better'. Consuming excess protein - especially cooked animal protein - is
incredibly taxing for the body. One of the greatest untold truths about protein is
that by relying on cooked foods for protein and not getting enough raw plant
protein it is possible to be deficient in one or more essential amino acids even as
your digestive organs are strained on a daily basis by the task of processing an
excess of denatured cooked protein. In other words to be starving your body of
the protein it really needs while damaging it with too much of the kinds it doesn't.

Source: The New York City Raw Food Meetup Group