Many non-vegans who are looking to transition to a plant-based diet usually wonder how to get protein as a vegan and which foods have the optimal vegan protein sources, since they often hear about the false narratives surrounding vegan diet deficiencies. So, what is really behind these narratives, and do we really need more protein intake to be optimally healthy?
Indeed, as a fellow vegan, I often find myself hearing and reading about the myth that “vegans don’t get enough protein,” which is used ubiquitously in our mainstream health and nutrition circles to point to the false claim of the nutritional deficiencies present in the vegan diet.
Although it is true that many vegan individuals may not be healthy due to their “junk vegan” food choices, the most quality protein source (in the form of amino acids) is found in a number of food groups – the most beneficial being in plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.
In fact, animals eat these plant-based foods as building blocks of their tissues and muscle structure, and these are the same plant-based amino acids that are later consumed by a meat eater and the reason why meat still gets favorable “nutrition PR.”
One can argue that the only reason why meat has any nutritional value – since it becomes rotting flesh once the animal is killed – is that it incorporates the plant-based food nutrition that is the main food staple of many animals and provides a quick neurotransmitter boost to the body, which comes from the animal’s adrenaline hormones that are released into the tissues when the animal is killed.
The “energy” we associate with meat is actually the animal’s stress hormones that we feel as our own adrenaline; in fact, meat is very hard to digest (weakening the colon and the kidneys in the process), and as such, takes a lot of energy from the body to fully assimilate.
Undoubtedly, plant-based protein “is” nature’s true and primary source of protein – the most direct source of essential amino acids that are the building blocks of tissues, muscles, and our soft-tissue structure. A balanced diet made up of whole plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, will provide you with sufficient daily protein intake to ensure proper cholesterol levels and blood pressure, glowing skin and nails, oxygenation of the tissues, proper cellular and enzyme production, and overall good health!
So, how much protein should you consume on daily basis? The most common consensus for sufficient protein intake is greater than I believe is necessary (around 20% of calorie intake or more); in my opinion, given the perfect nutritional ratio of human mother’s milk is at 1.2% in its protein composition, it is ideal to consume less than 10% of our daily calories in the form of amino acids/protein.
However, my journey has taught me that if you stay close to nature and consume your meals as close to natural, organic, and unprocessed as possible with plenty of fruits and veggies, you should not fear missing out on protein and know that you are getting all the amino acids your body requires to function optimally.
What is Protein and How Does the Body Use it?
Proteins are made from amino acid molecules, which consist of hydrogen atoms, a carboxyl group, and amino group bonds; it is their unique sequences that give proteins their structure and function.
There are 20 amino acids that our body needs as building blocks that have various functions that facilitate the body’s structural, storage, chemical, transportation, and muscle contraction needs.
All animals require amino acids for structural function, and all get their protein sources directly or indirectly (omnivores and carnivores) through plant-based sources. Animal products are simply the indirect and the more unhealthy sources of protein that weaken the elimination organs over time, cause body weight to deviate from its natural form, and contribute to acidification and inflammation of tissues and organs.
Although our bodies can make many amino acids that assist with breaking down of food, tissue repair, and facilitation of other bodily functions, there are 9 essential amino acids that our body needs and which are only found in food. However, we are not required to get all of them in high quantities and at any one time; as long as we eat fresh, whole foods that include plenty of fruits and veggies, we will meet all of our body’s protein demands.
If anything, I hope that the following information puts you at ease about the small quantity of protein that is actually required for optimal health, and that it opens your eyes to the ongoing protein discourse and protein myths that have solidified their authority in current mainstream health circles.
Why the Body Needs Simple Protein in the Form of Amino Acids
There are many ways to get protein as a vegan, and the best part is that you don’t have to worry about getting enough protein if you eat a healthy, vegan diet. A diet rich in essential amino acids is a diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables. As a vegan, if you incorporate at least 50% raw, whole foods in your diet, you will not only consume all the protein you need, but you will also get all the nutrients necessary to alkalize your body from inflammation and stay healthy for life! It’s that simple.
As far as vegan protein sources go, it is now a global cultural myth that the best protein sources come from animal products and that we need protein supplements to ensure we get enough protein. This is far from the truth.
As previously discussed, the body requires essential amino acids for proper function and not complex proteins that are the 3-D structures comprised of amino acids. One big reason for this is that the body has to break down complex protein bonds to utilize the amino acids, which take resources and energy, and this can weaken the digestive and elimination organs over time.
Therefore, not only is complex protein an inferior source of protein, its consumption weakens the colon and kidneys, which, depending on one’s body constitution, can lead to kidney disease and colon complications over time.
Ideally, all nutrition should be internalized as the simplest chemistry necessary for the body to process and assimilate it without much strain and energy loss. For example, simple sugars that come from fruits (fructose) are the healthiest and most important sources of energy and act as a direct fuel for the cells.
On the other hand, processed, complex sugars like sucrose are broken down by the body differently, as they are heated and their chemistry is devoid of other nutrition and electrolytes that make the sugars the ideal fuel for cells and which accompany whole fruit intake.
This is another reason why it’s best to consume protein from vegan protein sources, as the amino acids derived from whole foods contain complete protein that is not isolated in a lab, but which instead works with other nutrient “helper” compounds that the body uses to digest and assimilate all the compounds properly.
In nature, the consumption of protein should accompany having a strong body and great health, as the body is looking to build and fortify. However, during cleansing, detoxification, and healing, protein should be avoided, as it inhibits the body’s ability to clean what is unnecessary and flush out/heal tissues before it desires to rebuild.
While detoxification is purgative and eliminative, protein is fortifying and building in nature; these are two very different processes that should be applied in different stages of body and health maintenance, as they will interfere with each other’s goals.
Likewise, during detoxification and healing, the body requires all the energy it can get to heal, and since protein digestion is highly energy-robbing, consuming protein-rich fruits when dealing with health issues is highly detrimental!
If you are suffering from any chronic illness, my advice is to keep your protein intake minimal and stick to simple proteins found in fruits and veggies.
On the other hand, if you have moderate to good health and are looking to keep healthy and get healthier, start out with fruits and veggies, and once you detoxify, you can add a small number of seeds and nuts to your diet, especially if you want to improve your bone and muscle mass, as well as the quality of your nails, hair, and skin.
However, if you do suffer from kidney and liver issues, cancer, bowel problems, and chronic inflammation, do stay away from protein-rich food altogether and stick to amino acids found in fruits and vegetables.
You will get all the protein you need from these sources, and they will be much easier for your body to process and utilize than complex protein chemistry that comes from seeds, nuts, whole grains, lentils/beans, and vegan protein powder.
Overall, by eating fruits, veggies and seeds, you can ensure you will provide your body with all the amino acids it needs with simple, unprocessed vegan foods. You don’t need protein powder – you simply need to eat more raw and organic whole foods!
Why Plant Based Protein is the Best Source of Protein
In nature, all nutrition required for human health and vitality is found in fruit, foods, nuts and seeds. Perhaps most would argue that humans are omnivores, but my own in-depth research and experience have shown me otherwise.
Anatomically, humans have the longest and most sophisticated colon structure for optimal nutrient absorption, given that we have the most developed nervous systems out of all animals and require the most nutrition to power our bodies and brains.
And, in nature, the one food group with the highest source of nutrition is fruit! Fruit is easy for us to locate due to our color-enhanced vision and to pick given our vertical stance and flexible hand grasp.
In addition, our teeth and nails look nothing like those of carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. Carnivores have fangs that can bite their prey and eat it raw, as well as the claws to hunt and disable.
Herbivores, like cows, usually have two sets of teeth that enable more efficient grinding of cellulose that aids in optimal digestion. In addition, herbivores usually have two stomachs that process digestion-heavy greens like grass and are known to graze for their food source.
As for omnivores, like dogs, they are known to be nature’s scavengers, and although they do not kill bigger animals for food since they don’t have the anatomical capacity or a natural urge to do so (they most likely feast on insects), they have the capacity to eat raw, decaying meat and assimilate it properly.
Humans seem to be the only animal kingdom that is confused about its biology and role in the natural world. Due to migration, weather changes, necessity, and ingenuity (which is a part of our highly developed nervous system), we had been able to adapt to eating diets that helped us survive but not thrive.
We are the only species that cooks its food and the only one that needs to add spices and sauces to cooking to make it palatable. We can’t catch prey and eat it raw and require plenty of condiments and preservatives to eat half of the food we consume.
Most notably, our stomachs don’t have the pH acidity levels or volume capacity of carnivores and omnivores (meant to kill parasites and worms in flesh as well as to digest it more readily for quick assimilation) and our small intestines are 10 to 11 times the size of the length of our bodies, whereas carnivore and omnivore small intestine to body height ratio is at the 3 to 6 proportion.
There are many more anatomical arguments that support the notion that humans are herbivores and frugivores, and the fact that fruit is composed of healthy simple sugars that fuel our cellular function and provide a high grade of energy input for its function – and most notably the brain and the nervous system – speaks volumes about our true biological dietary needs and why we are collectively suffering from bad health in the first place.
For intelligent species, adaptation is key to short-term survival, but long-term deviation from biology and true dietary sources meant for nourishment and evolution of one’s species is truly dangerous to our longevity and genetics.
The Protein Myth And Why Most of Us Are Eating Too Much Protein
Most assume that protein “fuels our cells and powers our bodies”, but actually, protein is mostly utilized by the body for structure, maintenance and repair. Instead, it is actually the simple sugars found in fruit and vegetables that provide us with the optimal energy that drives every cellular action and powers our nervous system to function at its best.
In naturopathic circles, protein as a nutritional substance is not given such precedence and nutritional importance as it is in conventional health and medical sectors. In fact, from the perspective of functional medicine, protein is needed in very small quantities, and diets that are high in protein are generally seen as harmful to health.
Unfortunately, most of the consensus we hear today from popular “health gurus” is that diets high in protein are not only beneficial for health, but also that any diet devoid of protein is surely a recipe for malnutrition and health problems. And worst of all, they claim, if you are active and an athlete, a diet which lacks in protein is the worst thing you can do for your body – even if you eat very healthy!
Here are just some of the dietary expert proponents of low-protein consumption and what they have to say about the nature of proteins. To further reinforce my own view of what it takes to have optimal health: the consumption of simple, alkaline chemistry, as well as moderation and balance of foods and nutrients (no extreme or artificial supplementation of any nutrient, vitamin, mineral or compound).
Dr. Robert Morse, one of the most preeminent naturopath healers of today, often talks about the importance of food simplicity and chemical composition (as well as combining foods in a way that does not cause fermentation and indigestion in the gut).
Here is a quote that truly resonates with the notion that digestion is a complex, multilayered process that demands plenty of energy, and the best we can do is to make it easy for our body in terms of simplicity and quantity:
The reason for digestion is simply to break down and separate food compounds (like proteins or complex sugars) into their simplest forms (amino acids, simple sugars, etc.) so the cells can use them (catabolic processes).
With this understanding, you can see that by “clustering” these simple elements or compounds, the cells can’t use them. They become “obstructions,” which are now called “free radicals.” These free radicals are like terrorists to the body and can damage your cells.
Robert Morse, M.D., The Detox Miracle Sourcebook, pg. 298
The following is another thorough passage about protein from Arnold Erhert, one of the most respected naturopaths of the 20th century, from his acclaimed Mucusless Diet Healing System protocol. He developed the diet in 1922 after treating his own chronic health issues through trial and error and becoming a well-respected nutrition expert:
High protein foods act as stimulation for a certain time, because they decompose at once in the human body into poison. It is a commonly known fact that any kind of animal substance becomes very poisonous as soon as it enters into oxidation with air, especially at a higher temperature as exists in the human body.
The learned have gone so far as to prove that humans belong biologically in the class of meat-eating animals, while the descendant theory proves that they belong to the ape family, who are exclusively fruit eaters. You can see how ridiculous—contradictory—so-called ‘science’ is.
The fundamental fact and truth of why the grown man or woman does not need so much protein as the old physiology claims is shown in the combination of mother’s milk, which does not contain over two and a half to three percent protein, and nature builds up with that the foundation of a new body.
But the error goes further than that in their endeavor to replace something that is not destroyed, not used up, not ‘consumed’ at all—as you learned in the previous lesson about the medical error of metabolism. The physiology has a principally wrong conception of change of matter, because these “experts,” the founders of such a kind of science, knowledge of chemistry at all and organic chemistry especially.
Life is based on change of matter in the meaning of physiological chemical transformation, but never on the absurd idea that you must eat protein to build, to grow, protein of muscles and tissue. Most certainly not; for instance, is it necessary that a cow must drink milk to produce milk?
A prominent expert of physiological chemistry, Dr. von Bunge, Professor of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Basel, Switzerland, whose books do not endorse the average standing of medical teaching, says that life, vitality, is based on transformation of substances (foods) through which power, heat, and electricity become free and act as efficiency in the animal body.
The error of high protein foods as a necessity of health, taught and suggested by medical doctrines to humankind, is in its consequences and in its effect just the opposite of what it should be; it is one of the main and general causes of all disease; it is the most tragic phenomena of western degeneration.
It produced at the same time the most dangerous, most destructive habit of glutton; it produced the greatest madness ever imposed on humankind; that is, to endeavor to heal a disease by eating more, and especially more high-protein foods. It is beyond possibility to express in words what the error of high-protein foods means.
Let me remind you that medicine claims as the father of medicine the great dietician Hippocrates, who said: “The more you feed a sick person, the more you harm him”; also: “Your food shall be your remedies, and your remedies your food.” (pg. 49)
Arnold Ehret is not the only protein skeptic out there. The likes of many naturopaths over the last century have been debunking the protein deficiency myth, including some of the most well-known natural healers of today, including Dr. Robert Morse, Anthony William (The Medical Medium), and the late Dr. Sebi.
Here are other sources that are very eye-opening in painting a clearer picture when it comes to protein consumption:
The Top 10 Fruits and Veggies with the Highest Protein Content (Essential Amino Acids)
Here is my list of my favorite veggies and fruits that contain high levels of simple proteins (essential amino acids):
1) Alfalfa Sprouts
2) Spinach (contains all essential amino acids)
3) Mustard Greens
4) Collard Greens
5) Broccoli and Cauliflower
8) Blackberries and Raspberries
Other vegan food groups such as grains, nuts and seeds, that contain the highest sources of essential amino acid content include hemp seeds; chia seeds; flax seeds; pumpkin seeds; almonds and almond butter; most nuts and nut butters; lentils, black beans and kidney beans; chickpeas; ancient grains and sprouted grains; green peas and other legumes; and whole foods.
My advice is to go easy on the grains, seeds and nuts, since they contain complex proteins (difficult to digest like meats) and the body will use plenty of its vital energy to break them down into amino acids compounds that it can use.
For more optimal plant-based protein sources that necessitate easier digestion, assimilation and utilization of amino acids, I recommend whole foods and raw foods in the form of organic fruits and vegetables; they are essentially the most simple and direct sources of amino acids that the body doesn’t need to break down and which can be immediately used for building and repair without robbing essential cellular energy.
Some easy and delicious ways you can consume them are by making a smoothie in the morning and having a salad for lunch (and by adding lemon to your dressing, you can ensure that the essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids are assimilated even more efficiently)!
Protein Intake Advice for Vegan Athletes
If you’re a vegan athlete, it is foremost essential to understand that vitality and energy from food come from simple sugars and not protein! It is simple sugars that feed the cells, and its assimilation in the body doesn’t require any pancreatic enzyme input. Simple sugars are digested and utilized approximately thirty minutes after consumption, and the body uses the cell fuel immediately as energy for function, activity, and healing.
Protein, on the other hand, slows down function, since it is very complex in chemistry and utilizes plenty of energy to digest and assimilate. And, as you had read in the prior section, it is not a nutrient that our body requires in high quantities – quite the contrary.
All you need as an athlete for better performance and more energy is not protein but raw foods that provide energy and don’t rob the body of its vitality.
Alkaline, raw foods not only include all the amino acids you need to be the top athlete in your niche, but the consumption of fruits (especially for breakfast) will provide you with a high amount of nutritious natural sugars that will build your stamina and endurance in no time. Likewise, your muscles will have the essential fuel they need to perform and function at their best.
Another essential tip for high-end athletic performance is to get enough Vitamin D from natural sunshine. I always advise my friends, family, and clients to get at least 20 minutes of direct sunshine a day (without sunscreen) and to take a vacation to a sunny place during the winter months. Vitamin D is a steroid that regulates the function of many genes and is essential for body growth and development.
Likewise, the sun vitamin is known to be an important steroid that facilitates muscle growth and performance. In fact, a study of Chinese adolescent girls found a strong correlation between deficiency in vitamin D and the impairment of muscle action that leads to sarcopenia as well as decreased muscle strength.
To summarize, here are my top tips on how to get protein as a vegan athlete:
- Eat raw, organic whole foods
- Eat all fruit for breakfast
- Skip the complex proteins such as grains, beans and nuts
- Keep your diet simple and have smaller meals (less food means less digestion and more energy)
- Intermittent fast as often as possible to heal injuries and heal tissues/strained muscles
- Stay away from protein supplements and added protein nutritional bars/foods
There are many protein myths lurking on every corner of the internet telling us that protein is the most important nutrient we should get and that the more we consume, the better. However, nothing can be further from the truth.
Essentially, the most important nutrients that our bodies require for energy production and function are simple sugars and electrolytes (minerals), and while protein does play an important role in many fortifying, messaging and building functions of the body, the best source of protein comes in the form of essential amino acids that are found in fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts (fruits and veggies are easier to assimilate, while seeds and nuts are more complex).
Since the body needs to break down complex proteins to assimilate its building blocks – the amino acids – consuming foods rich in simple proteins is easier on the body’s digestive and elimination organs and does not require much energy loss during digestion.
Since high protein diets have been linked to kidney disease and colon cancer, among other health issues, staying away from food products with added protein as well as high protein diets is essential to a healthy lifestyle!
Ready to take your vegan lifestyle to the next level of health? If you’d like to learn more about the power of fruit sugar over protein in providing you with quick and lasting energy, vitality, endurance and health, I’m certain you’ll find my recent The Healing Benefits of a Fruit Diet article very informative and transformational!