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If there is one question anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet is used to hearing it is: “But where do you get your protein?” 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?
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 right 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 analyzed by T. Colin Campbell and his team for The China Study 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.
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, coagulated 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.
What about soya foods – the protein source of choice for many vegetarians and vegans? First of all, these foods tend to be highly refined. Not just the burgers, cheeses and ice creams but even tofu, which may look pretty pure and unadulterated but is actually a highly processed, fractionated food. There are other problems: “The glutamates in soya are heavily concentrated in refined soya products,” says Dr. Doug Graham, author of The 80/10/10 Diet. “Glutamates are known as the most toxic of all the excitotoxins, which are essentially chemical substances that excite the brain while also destroying its ability to function properly.”
In fact many raw food practitioners, including Dr Gina Shaw, author of a number of books on the raw vegan diet and lifestyle, recommend against the use of all soya products, processed or not, as they “cannot be completely digested due to enzymes present in soya beans and they also inhibit iron absorption.” Because of this, and the question mark over the effect of soya foods on hormonal balance, it is advisable to consume soya foods in moderation, if at all.
The raw solution
The most important thing to remember is that we do not actually need concentrated sources of protein. When it comes to protein, think quality rather than quantity. As mentioned before, because at least two (and possibly more) essential amino acids are denatured by heat, the only way to ensure complete nutrition when it comes to protein is to include raw sources on a regular basis. Want to meet all your protein needs with raw plant foods? As long as you are eating adequate calories and a reasonably varied diet you will not have to worry about getting enough protein. Since all living things use protein in their structure, all plant foods contain protein.
In general, fruits contain smaller amounts while greens, sprouted foods, sea vegetables, nuts and seeds contain larger quantities (10% to 30%). As we need no more than 10% of our calories as protein, it follows that the only raw fooders really at risk of protein deficiency are those following extreme fruitarian diets, where fruitarian literally means ‘only fruit and nothing else’. Eating a mixture of different kinds of plant foods on a daily basis, and a wide variety throughout the year, will ensure your body is getting all the raw materials it needs for its protein synthesis activities.
However, there remains a debate about whether this is sufficient for optimal health or whether that goal requires a more complex approach to protein – and nutrition in general. Frederic Patenaude, author of the book The Raw Secrets, is an advocate of the simple approach, and argues: “If we eat a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, greens, herbs, nuts, seeds, non-sweet fruits, wild foods and all of the beautiful and nutritious foods of nature – and if we eat a sufficient quantity to meet our energy needs– protein is a nonissue.”
Others, however, take the view that we will only get the very best results if we learn which raw foods are the very best sources of protein and make sure we include them on a daily basis. Mike Nash, author of the book Aggressive Health, is one such person: “If I eat a regular supply of hemp seeds along with at least two servings of sprouted beans or legumes and a whole load of green juices, barley grass juice (which I prefer to wheatgrass juice) and other superfoods such as bee pollen and blue-green algae, I feel better than when I neglect them,” he says. “I find through experience that I’m sharper, more alert and more able to work hard, train hard and reach profound levels of deep relaxation.”
The animal kingdom is often cited by raw fooders eager to demonstrate how easy it is to get all the protein we need from plant foods. After all, so the refrain goes, the strongest creatures on earth get all their protein from fruit and leaves. However, Elaine Bruce, director of The UK Centre For Living Foods, believes there is a danger of over-simplifying the issue. “Yes, first class protein is plant protein and meat is second class protein,” she says. “But animals graze all day to get protein from plant foods and also don’t have stressful office jobs, divorces and so on. In other words, we are slightly different organisms.”
There is certainly ample evidence that the more stress we have in our lives, the greater our nutrient needs. The raw foods which are the best sources of protein are also extremely rich sources of minerals and essential fatty acids, so this debate is about a lot more than just protein.
Which foods does Bruce recommend? In short, greens, greens and more greens, but: “Not watercress from your local supermarket. You have to grow your own greens to get enough protein. Buckwheat lettuce, sunflower greens and so on.” These can be juiced, eaten in salads or blended into soups and based on both her reading of scientific literature, and her experience with clients over the years, Bruce has become a strong advocate of the importance of kicking off the day with a protein-rich breakfast. She remembers the days in the 1980s when she studied with the late Dr Ann Wigmore and the Hippocrates founder used to start her days with “green energy soup with a slosh of almond cream.”
However, not everyone agrees with the above views. When it comes to the question of how such fat we need there is a happy consensus among the raw nutrition experts: very little. However, there is no such consensus when it comes to the question of protein. It is for each of us to experiment and find what works best for us individually. Now let’s take a look at the raw foods which are the best sources of protein.
Green leafy vegetables
All the green leafy vegetables are extremely rich in amino acids. In her book Green For Life, author and teacher Victoria Boutenko argues – convincingly – that greens should not be called vegetables but should be a separate category in recognition of the fact that their nutritional properties are completely different from those of other vegetables. In general, vegetables are not a particularly good source of protein and because greens are lumped into this category most people who are worried about their protein levels would not think of reaching for a bag of kale or spinach.
However, these are both extremely rich sources of high-quality protein, as are all greens. Writes Boutenko: “I have looked at the nutritional content of dozens of green vegetables and I was pleased to see that the aminos that were low in one plant were high in another. In other words, if we maintain a variety of greens in our diet we will get all the essential amino acids in abundance.”
Greens can be taken in salads, they can be blended into soups or smoothies, or they can be juiced. Many people find it hard to think of juices as protein rich, but green juices are incredibly so. Remember– it is only the fibre that is removed when you juice, leaving all the nutrients in a very easy to digest form. Which brings us onto…
Wheatgrass and barley grass juice are a fantastic source of easy-to-digest protein. They contain all the essential amino acids and almost all the non-essential ones. Start with a daily 1 ounce shot and work up to 4 ounces for best results.
Legumes of all kinds as well as certain grains, nuts and seeds can be sprouted, massively increasing the quantities and bioavailability of all nutrients, including protein. So not only do these foods contain more protein than before they were sprouted; they also contain amino acids in the most easily useable form of all. Although the protein content of sprouts varies according to type, all varieties are good sources, containing at least 20% protein.
And, lastly, the food group most people think of first when they think of raw protein…
Nuts and seeds
These generally contain around 10% protein; for some varieties of nut, including walnut and macadamia, it is slightly lower and for some seed varieties it is substantially higher. Nonetheless, it is better to think of nuts and seeds as a fat source rather than a protein one, for alongside their relatively modest (yet quite adequate) protein content, most varieties of nuts and seeds contain at least 70% fat. Some nuts, including pine nuts and macadamias, contain over 85% fat. In general, seeds contain less fat and more protein than nuts, and there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Being almost 30% protein, the hemp seed has double the amount of protein of any other nut or seed. Without getting into the biochemistry, the protein in hemp comes in a form quite similar to that found in blood plasma, without the body having to carry out the work it usually does to get it to that state.
Finally, blue-green algaes and sea vegetables are also rich in essential amino acids in a form that is easily utilized by the body and many raw fooders swear by these foods as a valuable source of protein, fatty acids and minerals.
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