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There is no single food that every vegan or vegetarian has to eat to get needed protein. Instead, there are groups of foods that ensure that vegans and vegetarians get all the protein they need, as well as two plant foods that provide complete protein.

1. Spirulina, minimally processed (but not raw) soy foods (miso, tofu, edamame), sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds

These foods are rich in the amino acid tyrosine. Along with zinc, it helps keep appetite in check. If you are gobbling down otherwise-healthy whole grains and leafy greens, your body cannot absorb the zinc it needs for making the hormones to regulate appetite. The tyrosine in these foods helps vegans and vegetarians keep from overeating the foods that make them overeat.

2. Vegan babies must be breastfed.

Babies don't have the ability to make the amino acid carnitine, which is essential for the function of both the heart and the thyroid gland. (L-carnitine is the form of the amino acid the body uses.) There are tiny amounts of carnitine in asparagus and peanut butter, neither of which should be offered to a newborn. If the baby cannot be breastfed, then the formula must contain at least a small amount of carnitine. There are currently no vegan infant formulas (the Heinz/Farley's brand has been discontinued), but you can make your desires known to Nestlé, Abbott Labs, Enfamil, and Hain Celestial to ask them to make one.

Never, ever feed babies (or adults) raw soy or legumes. Raw legumes contain lectins that can break down red blood cells. After all, the beans are the plant's "babies" and it doesn't "want" them to be eaten!

3. Avocados, wheat germ, and oat meal are good sources of the amino acid proline

Proline is essential to liver health. It's abundant in animal gelatins, boiled out of bones, and probably the animal food most inimical to vegan principles. When the body does not get proline from food, it can make it from ornithine and glutamic acid, with the help of niacin, vitamin B6, and vitamin C.

4. Oatmeal, sesame seeds, minimally processed soy foods (see above), spirulina, and wheat germ are good sources of the amino acid cysteine

Nutritionists have not devised a way to measure the amino acid cysteine in food, but they estimate the amount of cysteine in food by measuring the amount of a related chemical, cystine. Most vegans don't get enough methionine from food for their bodies to have "leftovers" for making cysteine, a very unstable chemical that quickly becomes cystine if it is not used right away. The body also has to have folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 to use methionine in food to make cysteine.

5. Combining grains and legumes provides lysine and methionine

Just about every vegan has heard about combining grains and legumes. Avocados, corn, wheat, wheat germ, and rice are low in lysine but relatively high in methionine. Avocados, soybeans, other beans, edible yeast, and peas are low in methionine but relatively high in lysine. Eating from both groups of foods provides complete essential protein, but it is not necessary to eat both grains and beans at each and every meal. The body buffers lysine and methionine so eating several servings from both groups at some time during the day is enough.

If you get tired of rice and beans and more rice and beans, there is another way to get all your protein in the right ratios without eating meat. It is the South American seed quinoa. This plant food contains all the essential amino acids in the proportions in which the human body needs them.

Another plant food that provides complete protein is buckwheat, available as buckwheat groats or soba noodles. If you eat quinoa or buckwheat every day, you do not balance other plant foods to get protein. Soy alone, however, is not a complete protein.

Can You Get All the Protein You Need from Plant Foods?

Nutrition experts have been telling us for over 100 years that protein is more important than carbohydrates in a healthy diet. Every cell in the body needs the essential amino acids digested from protein every day.  

These are nutrients our bodies can't make and can't store, at least for much more than about 24 hours. When the body starts to reassemble its own proteins from amino acids, it has to have the right amino acids in the right order, or it will tear down non-essential tissues, like muscle and immune cells, to release them.

An entire diet industry has developed around the incorrect idea that we have to consume complete protein every three hours to stay alive, begging the question of why people don't die in their sleep unless the sleepwalk to the refrigerator to make salami sandwiches. The simple fact is, however, we don't need as much protein as the diet food vendors and protein powder makers would like us to believe, and we don't need to get protein from meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, with the right planning.

Meat and Protein

Any nutritional expert who claims that eating animal foods is essential for health makes an argument that animal foods are superior for protein because they contain "complete" protein. A complete protein contains all the amino acids needed to make human proteins, in the right proportions.

Amino acids are like Lego blocks

They snap together in the right order to make proteins. If a single amino acid is missing, or replaced with another amino acid, or put in the wrong order, the protein will not do its work or fit in a tissue. Proteins contain from 2 to 27,000 amino acids in a precise order coded by genes. The 24 amino acids the human body uses can be joined into chains to make over 50,000 different proteins.

A child or adult has to get histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, taurine, threonine, tryptophan, tyrosine, and valine each and every day (although not at each and every meal). Babies also have to get arginine and carnitine from food or breast milk. Humans at any stage of life can  make alanine, aspartic acid, cysteine, GABA, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, homocysteine (which is actually essential to regulating certain neurochemicals), hydroxyproline, and proline from other amino acids, if the other amino acids are available in sufficient amounts.

Our bodies are "meat," and other animal flesh is also "meat," containing the same amino acids. The idea that if we just meat all our protein needs are taken care of, however, is not necessarily so. Here is why:

  • Adults need a bare minimum of about 30 grams of complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids and enough total protein to make the non-essential amino acids) every day to keep tissues from breaking down.
  • Most vegetarian or vegan diets contain 80 to 100 grams of total protein daily.
  • We "recycle" another approximately 100 grams of complete protein every day in the form of saliva and digestive juices, in effect digesting non-essential parts of our own bodies to keep protein in balance.
  • The human body cannot store amino acids indefinitely, but various buffers keep them available for approximately 24 hours before breaking them down into sugar and ammonia.

Is Meat Essential?

It is hard to become protein-deficient even on a vegan diet, although some people manage to do this (and some meat eaters also develop protein deficiencies). When vegans become deficient in amino acids, there are usually certain predictable problems:

  • Eating extremely high-carbohydrate or high-sugar foods with low protein levels for several days deprives the lining of the intestine of the glutamic acid it needs to regenerate its lining. The lining of the intestine has to get this amino acid to be able to absorb the other amino acids.
  • Whole grains and leafy vegetables contain a compound called phytate, which binds calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and zinc. When zinc is deficient, appetite increases. If this results in eating even more whole grains and leafy vegetables, zinc can continue to be deficient and appetite increased even more.
  • Vegan diets are often deficient in the amino acid cysteine.
These predictable problems can be prevented with the help of five vegan and vegetarian high-protein food groups.
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